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Sky's no limit

S116-E-05983 (12 Dec. 2006) --- Backdropped by a colorful Earth, including land mass that covers parts of New Zealand, astronaut Robert L. Curbeam, Jr. (left) and European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Christer Fuglesang, both STS-116 mission specialists, participate in the mission's first of three planned sessions of extravehicular activity (EVA) as construction resumes on the International Space Station. Photo credit: NASA

Gaynor Stanley spoke with some thought-leaders around town as to why Christchurch is soaring towards the stratosphere when it comes to tech industries and entrepreneurs.

In case you haven’t been paying attention, a new business scene has been quietly emerging in the resurgent Christchurch and making noise loud enough for the world to hear. Gone are the days when the old boys’ network, or your school or suburb were paramount influences to succeed in business; today, it is more about what you can contribute to a new breed of industries and social enterprises putting Christchurch, representing New Zealand, in the global spotlight.

The city is now New Zealand’s second largest tech centre, after Auckland. “Canterbury tech industries contribute $2.4 billion to the GDP and employ over 15,000 people,” says Canterbury Tech chair David Carter. A hallmark, he says, is that this region has relatively few companies generating massive revenues, like the Xeros of the world. Instead the local tech sector is made up of a large number of small- to mid-size companies across a wide variety of business domains. “This gives us resilience; we don’t have all our eggs in one basket.”

As well, a large number of foreign companies have development centres in Christchurch, partly a legacy of local companies exiting and selling to foreign entities. “Reassuringly, they haven’t subsequently moved the development back to the US or offshore to China or India. They’ve seen significant value in the extremely talented development resource that we have available locally,” says David Carter, referring to companies like Verizon, which bought fleet tracking software firm Telogis, and Insight Venture Partners, which purchased another software firm Diligent.

Michael Read, CEO of Skybase, addressing the latest packed Christchurch Aerospace Centre meetup.

He attributes Canterbury’s tech success to “amazing tertiary institutions producing world-class engineers”, Christchurch’s relatively cheap cost of living compared to other major centres and fantastic lifestyle opportunities to attract talent. “We also don’t suffer from the tyranny of distance that Auckland does, which means we have a very connected technology community. We have an active angel investment community and the support for start-ups is world-class.”

While he believes Canterbury is not likely to overtake Auckland anytime soon, due to the large disparity in population size, David does believe “a doubling of our tech sector within the next five to 10 years is not unrealistic”.

Health tech and aerospace flying high

Christchurch has particular strength in health IT and medical device companies and the city played host last year to the national Emerging Tech in Health event. “Our local District Health Board is known globally as being extremely innovative and forward-thinking and this has played no small part in the development of some world-class companies such as Orion Health and ARANZ Medical,” says David.

We also have a nascent aerospace industry with the NZ Space Challenge being launched and run from Christchurch and the Christchurch Aerospace Centre initiated last year by one of New Zealand’s space pioneers Mark Rocket. Yes, really. Mark changed his surname by deed poll in 2000 and says it has become an affirmation of an area he’s always been interested in. Mark was seed investor and co-Director, with Peter Beck, of Rocket Lab from 2007 to 2011, and is on first name terms with Sir Richard Branson as he was the first New Zealander to sign up for a Virgin Galactic flight, back in 2006. Virgin Galactic has commenced its test flights and Mark hopes commercial flights will start within a year or so. Meanwhile, he’s moved south to begin his second aerospace venture in Christchurch, Kea Aerospace, which is a research partner with the University of Canterbury developing projects from prototype through to commercialisation. Mark has also instigated regular Aerospace Centre meetups that have quickly grown to standing room only. Six founding aerospace businesses, supported by ChristchurchNZ, NZ Trade and Enterprise and the New Zealand Space Agency, are leading the way to grow the economic wealth and aerospace capability of Christchurch.

“In the same way that Christchurch is a main gateway to the Antarctic, in the future Christchurch could be a significant southern hemisphere gateway to space,” says Mark. “There are already dozens of companies in Canterbury working in the aerospace industry - from a manufacturer of high-performance cryocoolers for NASA [Fabrum as part of the Mars Lander project], to a developer of ‘beyond line of sight’ unmanned vehicles [Skybase] through to component contractors to Rocket Lab.

“If Christchurch develops a cohesive city aerospace strategy, before 2030 we could easily see hundreds of aerospace companies emerge providing thousands of jobs. A facet of that strategy could be developing launch and test facilities in Canterbury.”

What's fuelling Canterbury tech start-ups? Exciting partnerships between tertiary institutions like Ara (in partnership with the Ministry of Awesome here in the Kahukura Building) and the community are fast-tracking high potential local start-ups. The University of Canterbury has established the XStart Accelerator programme and in the AgTech space, Lincoln University has the Blinc Innovation Centre.

Rising Stars

Orbica was founded in 2017 to explore technology frontiers in the geospatial industry, using powerful location data to evolve the mapping of the world around us in projects like hyper-realisation imaging of Antarctica from satelittes. Within a year its big thinkers’ pioneering work saw Orbica beat 220 other start-ups from around the world with its pitch to automate build progress reporting through geospatial artificial intelligence (GeoAI). In September 2018 it was named as One to Watch in the Deloitte Fast 50 and in October by Technology Investment Network (TIN) for its enviable client base, technology exports and office in Germany.

Skybase is taking the dreaded drone in far more positive directions with former jetpack pilot Michael Read’s vision of Beyond Light of Sight flights. These take pilots out of the cockpits to fly unmanned drones autonomously from Christchurch anywhere in the world – with the intention of advancing drone technology to improve our lives by assisting in areas like search and rescue and farming.

Electric Air is taking the idea of electric cars to the sky with ambitious plans to bring the first electric light aircraft to New Zealand. Gary Freedman is a renewable energy specialist and private pilot and says New Zealand is ideal because of our high rate of renewable energy (85%), one of the highest proportions of short haul flights in the world, large number of recreational and light aircraft and innovative and flexible Civil Aviation Authority. In particular, he sees Christchurch as the future hub because of the vision of bodies like ChristchurchNZ to focus on an innovation sector.

Local Heroes

Seequent, named Supreme Winner in the 2018 New Zealand International Business Awards, is a global leader in the development of visual data science software and collaborative technologies. Formed in 2004, the Christchurch firm’s 3D modelling products like Leapfrog enable clients to uncover valuable insights from complex geotechnical data to ultimately make better decisions about their earth, environment and energy challenges. Formerly ARANZ Geo, Seequent has evolved to acquire three other companies and offer technology solutions for many industries, including road and rail tunnel construction, groundwater detection and management, geothermal exploration, resource evaluation and estimation, subterranean storage of spent nuclear fuel, mining and more.

ARANZ Medical, arose out of the Applied Research Associates NZ Ltd, a private R&D organisation that developed an innovative handheld 3-D laser scanner and ground-breaking software to model very large 3-D datasets for the worldwide market.

Datacom, the firm handling many of our salaries and wages, began in Christchurch 50 years ago, is still New Zealand’s largest tech company and now one of Asia Pacific’s leading locally-owned IT-based service

Tait Communications, a forerunner on the Christchurch tech scene starting in 1969 as Tait Electronics with its groundbreaking radio communications, today Tait employs more than 650 people around the world and exports around 95% of products from Christchurch.

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