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Five start-ups defining the next generation of tech in Christchurch

The start-up ecosystem in Christchurch is infused with the unique ingredient of collaboration that has emerged from the trauma of both earthquakes and shootings.  If you live through such events it impacts the approach you take to life itself and makes you more willing to see a bigger picture than primarily being profit driven.  Five young start-ups that didn’t exist even a few years ago are representative of that new Christchurch vibe, which has seen the transformation from an old boys style being out, and entrepreneurs and innovators being in.  Our second largest city is being recognised for this with an improved ranking in Startup Blink’s Global Startup Ecosystem Index, jumping up 168 places to be in the top 250 in the world.

Komodo Wellbeing is a prime example of the next generation stepping up.  The co-founders Chris Bacon and Jack Wood met during the University of Canterbury summer start-up programme, an intensive immersion in creating a start-up run by UCE.  They provide software for monitoring wellbeing for students which supports schools to be aware of bullying or who might be in need of extra support academically.  They have attracted venture capital interest led by Folklore Ventures from Australia but with others on board as well, like Icehouse Ventures.  With those investments they have grown to be active across schools in New Zealand but have also expanded globally with contracts in Europe and the Middle East, all operating from their office in Riccarton, Christchurch with a team of 14.

Jack Wood and Chris Bacon.

One of their early successes was through Entre, a student led club based at the University of Canterbury which runs unusual competitions like the ‘Napkin Challenge’ (best idea on back of a napkin wins).  They share that experience with others like KiwiFibre, another innovative start-up with an entirely different focus: creating natural fibre composites that they think will change our unsustainable reliance on synthetic materials like fibreglass.  Ben Scales and William Murrell met as engineering students at the University of Canterbury.  They make high strength materials using natural fibres sourced from ancient plants that are unique to our environment, like harakeke (flax).  This represents a return to the past – did you know that during the 19th century harakeke was a leading export due to its strength (only later on did wool and mutton overtake it).  KiwiFibre is at the edge of a new generation developing the emerging harakeke industry.  That’s a unique point of difference with an environmental impact as it embeds sustainability over reliance on plastic/carbon based products.  

William Murrell and Ben Scales.

Read more: How Lumin is bringing Silicon Valley to Christchurch

Luke Campbell and Lucy Turner started VXT, an app to help people manage their voicemail, as a part of the UCE program and were based at the University for several years and won the Entre Start-up Challenge.  A few years after founding the company they pivoted the business and today they lead a team that builds business software that law firms and recruitment agencies use to make phone calls, video calls and to chat internally with their teams.  VXT has around 100 customers globally who make more than 21,000 thousand calls per week.  Luke notes that the ecosystem in Christchurch has been a factor in their ability to focus on the venture as they transitioned straight from University students to start-up founders, doing both for a while as well.    

Over at MenuAid, Elise Hilliam and Toby Skilton aim to make planning, shopping and cooking home-cooked meals easy. Subscribing gives you access to seasonal recipes sent each week and as the recipes link to the ingredients you need from the supermarket, you can order them and get the right amounts delivered (saves having spare ingredients lurking at the back of the cupboard).  They had their start from a base at Te Ōhaka which is run by the Ministry of Awesome as well as Ara Institute (Te Pūkenga) and ChristchurchNZ.  Marian Johnson is the CEO at the Ministry of Awesome and she reflects on the impact to date noting, “We have supported 125 start-ups, who have raised nearly $80 million in capital and have created 265 jobs and counting”.

Toby Skilton and Elise Hilliam.

Te Ōhaka was also an early place for Partly to be based as well, a tech company connecting people with auto parts across the world, which has deep roots in the city.  It has successfully raised significant funding of NZ$40 million and grown from just 5 to 50 staff in under 3 years and now with 4 offices globally. Nathan Taylor, the other co-founder and Chief Operating Officer at Partly, comments on why they are 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 and this is a place where people actually want to live and build their lives.”

So are all these start-ups operating in isolation or are they connecting up?  Nathan from Partly and Chris from Komodo Wellbeing have been coordinating a regular meetup for founders.  This hasn’t originated from any supporting group, but instead from the founders themselves to discuss how things are really going, allowing them to have frank check ins. 

While we have focussed on just 5 start-ups they are representative examples of the diversity of focus and innovative approaches emerging from Christchurch.  It is a distinctive place with a unique character driven by what this city and its people have done through over the last decade.  This will make it an interesting place to watch and see if the number and quality of start-ups continue to emerge in coming years and if the supportive culture continues among the founders. 

Steven Moe is an author, podcaster and partner at Parry Field Lawyers, solving legal problems for companies and purpose driven organisations. He hosts Seeds Podcast with more than 340 interviews of inspiring people and wrote the book, ‘Laying Foundations for Reimagining Business’.

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