Making the move from advertising to software, to economic development consultancy and eventually clean tech might not seem like the most logical of career transitions, but for Rob McEwen, it all makes perfect sense.
McEwen is the man behind the Taupo Clean Energy Centre, New Zealand’s newest clean tech venture. The Christchurch-born businessman’s initial interest in the sector started more than a decade ago when he was living in the US and running his own marketing firm.
Operating in Texas, many of his colleagues who had started software companies or were venture capitalists started getting into the clean energy field, seeing the ICT sector as mature and no longer presenting ‘hockeystick growth’ opportunities.
When he moved back to New Zealand in 2002 he took up a role as an economic development consultant, but he could smell a different opportunity right under his nose: our abundant geothermal and biomass resources, something he says is a “major area of untapped potential” going unnoticed.
“Nobody was paying any attention at all to the waste from forests,” McEwen says.
“As one of my colleagues likes to point out, there’s the equivalent of 1.7 million barrels of oil going to waste in the form of forest waste.
“If we spent only a fraction of this country’s speculative offshore drilling budget on collecting and using the biomass resource right under our noses, we would have a blossoming new clean renewable biomass industry that would be the envy of the world.”
McEwen put together a steering group of people who had energy interests in the Taupo region, and after obtaining a regional initiative grant from New Zealand Trade and Enterprise (NZTE) for $2 million, together with support from the Taupo District Council and private investment, the project began to take shape.
The vision was to establish a ‘centre of excellence’ in clean energy that would diversify the economy and grow high-paying employment opportunities in the region. Soon Taupo would become the focal point for clean energy in New Zealand.
Easier said than done; McEwen had to jump through hoops for years before the grant money from NZTE was finally approved in 2007, flying in the face of “naysayers” and “non-believers”.
Clean energy had already taken off in the US, but government apathy – local and central – stood in his way. Never mind that clean energy is the fastest growing industry of the 21st century, or that Aotearoa has a clean, green image it needs to maintain.
Pure New Zealand – should we be cashing in on it? McEwan says it’s a misrepresentation and we’re being caught out on it. Thankfully, people here are beginning to realise. The recently launched green growth campaign Pure Advantage is a step in the right direction.
“We do have an opportunity with our clean and green branding to go down the clean tech and clean energy pathway.”
And if we don’t?
“There are risks for all involved. More and more New Zealand businesses are starting to wake up to that and see that, but our government seems a bit slow at cottoning on.”
Government support doesn’t have to be financial. It’s as simple as sending signals of support and recognising that major opportunities exist for us to leverage our clean green image in niche categories.
Current messages, for example encouraging more Southland lignite production, aren’t sending the right signals.
“It’s de-motivating for innovators and entrepreneurs in this field.”
McEwen’s other big challenge in getting the centre off the ground lay in what he describes as the ‘keep out of my sandbox’ mentality of Kiwis.
“Kiwi businesspeople are all about turf protection and not at all about collaboration. A Kiwi would rather own 100 percent of a $1 million company than 10 percent of a $1 billion company – I guess because there are too few examples of the latter.”
But the Clean Energy Centre, McEwen hopes, is sending out the right signals. There are currently six full-time tenants in the centre, dabbling in everything from algae to biodiesel conversion and a patented geothermal downhole heat exchanger.
Factor in the companies that aren’t permanent tenants but have technology being demonstrated or represented at the centre and the number jumps closer to 30.
This week, the centre will play host to its own clean energy expo, where an additional 25 exhibitors will join the clean tech ranks. It’s coinciding with the Rugby World Cup because with all eyes cast on New Zealand, it’s a prime opportunity to showcase Kiwi clean tech innovation to the world.
“There’s tremendous value in clustering companies that are in the same space together, in terms of the collaboration opportunities.”
McEwen describes himself as a start-up guy and admits he probably won’t still be holding the reins of the Clean Energy Centre in 10 years’ time.
But his ideal scenario a decade down the line would be for New Zealand to have some fabulous success stories when it comes to exporting clean energy IP.