By Steven Moe
Ōtautahi Christchurch has a unique start-up character driven by the rhythm of a beating heart made up of people who have gone through devastating earthquakes and shootings. Those experiences have created a unique culture that translates into a supportive start-up community which is far more than the sum of its parts. Our second largest city’s ranking in Startup Blink's most recent Global Startup Ecosystem Index jumping up 168 places to be in the top 250 in the world, with 126 start-ups per 1,000 businesses.
What’s causing this growth of startups in Christchurch? One critical factor is that there have been more players taking part who understand that everyone involved is pulling in the same direction, in slightly different ways. This has led to a more cohesive and connected ecosystem than in other comparable cities like Auckland and Wellington. So, who are the key players and what is their niche within this expanding ecosystem?
Let’s begin with the start-ups themselves. In a city where many start-ups have grown to become world leading tech companies (Tait, Seequent, Jade), there is a new generation raising capital to step up and create new businesses.
How do they feel about the ecosystem? Partly is an innovative tech company connecting people with auto parts across the world. It has successfully raised significant funding of NZ$40m and grown from just 5 to 50 staff in under three years, now with four offices globally.
Chief Operating Officer at Partly Nathan Taylor comments on why the company is based here:
“The reason Christchurch is a great place to found your company and grow it is it is a very inclusive and fast-growing ecosystem with a diverse portfolio of start-ups, investors and supporters. There is good support from local government and organisations and this is a place where people actually want to live and build their lives — which is great for existing talent and also helps when we are attracting new talent.”
Chief Operating Officer at Partly - Nathan Taylor
The reason Christchurch is a great place to found your company and grow it is it is a very inclusive and fast-growing ecosystem with a diverse portfolio of start-ups, investors and supporters. There is good support from local government and organisations and this is a place where people actually want to live and build their lives — which is great for existing talent and also helps when we are attracting new talent.”
Universities And Schools
Canterbury University is an active participant in the ecosystem, recently announcing an increase in its roll to more than 21,000 (compared to North Island Universities which have seen declines). In the start-up space, it is involved through UCE (University Centre of Entrepreneurship) running programs through the year including its highly regarded intensive summer program for around 20 student led start-ups each year.
Also active at Canterbury University is Entre, a student-led organisation that has run for 18 years and supported more than 1000 student ventures, providing $600k in start-up support. Their CEO Pete Howard is an activator and notes:
"Entre has been a starting point for some of Ōtautahi’s most impactful startups including Ethique, Komodo Wellbeing, VXT, and Kiwifibre. We foster the entrepreneurial mindset in the students of Ōtautahi, while supporting the development of impactful ventures. From the fast-moving, ideation of the Napkin Challenge to the out-of-the-box thinking of the Build-A-Burger competition and the flagship “Enterprise Challenge” that gives members the opportunity to make their idea a reality, we’re developing the thinkers, entrepreneurs, and leaders of the future.”
Also at the University of Canterbury sits the Founder Incubator, ThincLab which is part of the UC Business School and “provides capability building for founders and their teams, connection to industry experts and agencies and international pathways to growth and investment”.
With more of an agricultural focus, b.linc at Lincoln University exists to focus on what’s next for our agriculture, food and fibre sector. It aims to connect farmers, entrepreneurs and scientists to “encourage collaboration, share knowledge and experiences enabling innovative solutions for a better world for our future”.
Ara Institute of Canterbury (Te Pūkenga) is also involved through Te Ōhaka which is a physical place established in May 2019 for early-stage high-growth startups made possible by a partnership between them, the Ministry of Awesome and ChristchurchNZ.
For those still in high school, YES (Young Enterprise Scheme) run programs that encourage students to set up their own businesses and learn skills around marketing, business development and product fit. It now has more than 700 students involved across 24 schools, up from 200 students in 10 schools in 2015.
“Nowhere else in the country can you find a startup hub with founders, investors, government, academics, students, and ecosystem organisers working together to grow Kiwi startup innovation. This is the reality of our HQ Te Ōhaka with Ara Institute (Te Pūkenga) and ChristchurchNZ. So far, the results have been excellent. We've supported 125 start-ups who raised nearly $80 million in capital and have created 265 jobs and counting.”
ChristchurchNZ is Ōtautahi Christchurch’s sustainable economic development agency, which helps fund and facilitate the ecosystem. CEO Ali Adams notes:
“Our city’s innovation ecosystem is where our best ideas are nurtured from the spark of inspiration on the path to commercialisation. This is where the challenges of tomorrow are being worked on today, and this is where the high-wage, high-growth jobs of the future will emerge from. That is why ChristchurchNZ partners with key providers and supports entrepreneurs to make sure Ōtautahi’s innovation ecosystem continues to thrive.”
ChristchurchNZ CEO - Ali Adams
Our city’s innovation ecosystem is where our best ideas are nurtured from the spark of inspiration on the path to commercialisation. This is where the challenges of tomorrow are being worked on today, and this is where the high-wage, high-growth jobs of the future will emerge from. That is why ChristchurchNZ partners with key providers and supports entrepreneurs to make sure Ōtautahi’s innovation ecosystem continues to thrive.”
Canterbury Tech aims to connect people within the tech sector. Louisa Taylor is the energetic general manager coordinating a volunteer committee of well-connected tech sector members. She says: “I love being involved with Canterbury Tech, because of the work we do connecting the community together.”
Connecting is the right word to use; they hold three or four events a month and this year will be the 19th annual conference. Last year 700 attended with 150 on the wait list. Taylor reflects on the integration of the ecosystem here:
“Once you come out of one of our world-class accelerators such as Ministry of Awesome or the Centre for Entrepreneurship, Canterbury Tech helps businesses in that next phase looking for customers, staff, partnerships and a platform to tell their story and widen their networks. It's powered by a passionate committee who volunteer their time and what sets us apart is the deep drive of our members to give back and support people starting on their journey.”
Rosalie Nelson is the CEO of the Hillary Institute & Edmund Hillary Fellowship which consists of more than 500 innovators, technologists, creatives, investors, entrepreneurs, educators and systems designers who are committed to New Zealand as a base camp for global impact. Nelson says:
"Christchurch epitomises the innovative energy that is becoming pervasive in the NZ startup ecosystem, which is attracting a number of Fellows to the region. The value that EHF Fellows bring to Christchurch's startup community is the international perspective, ambition, connections and understanding of what it takes to scale up businesses and take these offshore."
Kaila Colbin is the founder and CEO of Boma who provides support to companies across the country with different innovative programmes that provide learning experiences for current and emerging leaders, executives and directors. Colbin says:
"Our purpose is to build a world of intentional, intelligent, courageous leaders. One of the things I love about the startup ecosystem in Ōtautahi is that it feels like our startups are solving real problems, making people's lives materially better. People here aren't creating just another rideshare or gig economy app — they're working on our intentional, intelligent, courageous future. I love it."
Gabby Addington is from Canterbury Angels,a local angel investment group that connects early-stage businesses with the funding and support they need to succeed. She says their mission is:
“To drive economic growth and create opportunities for innovation by investing in promising start-ups and entrepreneurs. We do this through our network of investors and industry experts and help start-ups scale their operations and bring their game-changing ideas to market".
Canterbury Angels - Gabby Addington
To drive economic growth and create opportunities for innovation by investing in promising start-ups and entrepreneurs. We do this through our network of investors and industry experts and help start-ups scale their operations and bring their game-changing ideas to market".
With an impressive 2,700 businesses who are members, the Canterbury Employers' Chamber of Commerce provides support for many start-ups. This includes being a host for the government funded innovation agency, Callaghan Innovation. Chief Executive Leeann Watson notes:
“In Canterbury, our business community is largely made up of small businesses, so we understand just how critical it is that start-ups receive the right advice and the right connections. The Chamber’s purpose is to make it easier to do business. We do this by connecting, informing, inspiring and empowering people in business. At The Chamber, we have dedicated business growth advisors who are able to provide tailored advice and support for start-ups, including access to funding. We also run events to help start-ups get the support they need, including our B.linc Activator Sessions, and our Learn, Earn, Grow Series, where entrepreneurs with businesses at all stages and sizes talk through their business and get focused feedback.”
Coming up in October 2023, the Seeds Impact Conference will be providing an online experience that is coordinated from Christchurch but accessible nationwide, with most of those mentioned in this article supporting in some way. It will draw on the 350+ guests from seeds podcast as speakers, most of whom are based in Christchurch, and is a practical example of an underlying attitude of collaboration.
What all these players show is that there are many cross-connections between groups who are supporting the start-up ecosystem in Christchurch. It is a distinctive place with a unique character driven by what this city and its people have gone through. Perhaps most importantly this could be a model for other places to look to and consider how it operates, while the evidence of the supportive place it is will be seen in the number and quality of start-ups that continue to emerge in coming years.
Steven Moe is a Christchurch-based lawyer who assists start-ups at all stages of the city’s innovation ecosystem. He is also the host of the seeds podcast and organiser of the upcoming Seeds Impact Conference.