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Source: Ara Institute of Canterbury

On the 21st of April, staff from Ara were invited to meet and mingle with some of the current crop of start-ups at Te Ōhaka – the Centre for Growth and Innovation.
The aim of the event was to help the Ara community gain a deeper understanding of just how the Centre – a partnership between Ara, The Ministry of Awesome and ChristchurchNZ – can attract and offer greater value to Ara learners.
Te Ōhaka is a partnership between Ara, the Ministry of Awesome and latterly, ChristchurchNZ, and has become a place where industry, startups and learners come together in a process where student degree projects are matched with the needs of start-up companies.
The showcase event, which was also attended by a number of industry partners, was opened by a welcoming speech from Dr. Thèrése Arseneau, Ara Board Chair. Dr. Arseneau was highly instrumental in the genesis of Te Ōhaka and remains passionate about its value to both the Institute and learners.
Among the start-ups that populate Te Ōhaka, six were present at the showcase; eClean Envirotech, Sustainability 360, Moover, YieldTech, FlowMonitor, Kelpn, PyperVision and Ara’s own Research Hub. Chris Wordsworth of Moover, Laurence Gresham, the CTO of Yieldtech and Zahra Hussaini are all Ara graduates who have become involved with Te Ōhaka start-ups or have started their own business; an outcome that has been facilitated by the proximity of a start-up incubator onsite, as well as Ara’s focus on real-world learning and maintaining extremely open channels with industry in general.
Dr. Grant Bennett, an Ara tutor who has been deeply involved with Te Ōhaka start-ups, says “The presence of Te Ōhaka here at Ara really plays to our strengths; growing our industry connections in ways that are authentic and relevant. And it also helps learners think strategically about what they want to do; what they want to achieve and the support that they need to build around themselves. It opens up lots of choices. Within my learners, typically we do have a subset who are really keen to start their own businesses.”
Fittingly, a number of Ara partners in attendence, including Dale Stephens and Lyle Johnson from NZTE, Michaela Blacklock from CECC, George Strachan and Philippa Howell from the Ministry for Primary Industries and Simon Anderson from ChristchurchNZ.
Dr. Amit Sarkar, another key connector between industry, Ara, its learners and Te Ōhaka, also recognises the ever-increasing relevance of the startup economy, saying “I try to create as much synergy as possible between our teaching and industry, and I passionately believe that if we want to continue as a vocational institution of excellence, we have to start working towards replacing our traditional academic-type assignments with ‘hackathon’ types of assignments and projects, which take learners directly into industry.”
Chris Wordsworth and Laurence Gresham are two such students. Speaking to the assembled group during the ‘Student Panel’ portion of the presentation, they agreed that coming into contact with Te Ōhaka during the course of their study opened up a range of new possibilities for them. Chris, who initially thought he wouldn’t make much of an impact as a software developer, is now working at Moover, an agri-tech startup focusing on dairy systems automation, while Laurence is now CTO at agricultural robotics firm YieldTech.
“In the last semester of my graduate diploma, we did a capstone project, which is an entire semester dedicated to working with an industry member and that’s when I was introduced to the Ministry of Awesome; and through them, to YieldTech, which at the time had only two members, and I got to join in and become a key member there” recalls Laurence.
Chris was “vaguely aware” of Te Ōhaka most of his way through his study at Ara, but claims that it wasn’t until a hackathon event held during COVID-19 lockdown which was integrated with a class project that he was “really introduced properly and got to learn a lot more about innovation and business processes, and so now I’ve gotten behind technology product development.”
Zahra, who now owns her own hospitality business, gained valuable insights from attending the ‘Business Accelerator’ course at Ara, which is run by Ministry of Awesome’s Jacob Varghese. “I thought that the Business Accelerator would be a course that I could enrol in and start using whatever I learned during the course to apply it to my business.”
The overall takeaway for many Ara attendees was that Te Ōhaka is an incredibly valuable component of the Ara offering and experience. In the words of Ara Innovation Manager Tracey McGill, “Te Ōhaka is where industry, startups and learners come together, not only serving the purpose of learners completing their degree projects and the needs of startup companies, but more importantly, it actually immerses learners in a unique environment where the freedom to fail fast and often often leads to success. It’s also a context in which learners are exposed to every part of a business, while gaining the skills of an innovator and entrepreneur. It is this environment at Te Ōhaka, where rapid growth and rapid learning occur simultaneously, that bring the Ara Advantage to life.”