Source: MIL-OSI Submissions
Source: Ara Institute of Canterbury
The news that the Americans were coming was received with pleasure at Te Ōhaka – the Centre for Growth and Innovation at Ara.
On Wednesday June 9th, staff from the US Embassy made time to visit the Centre as part of their study tour which took in key aspects of the regional innovation ecosystem. The two-day event was hosted by ChristchurchNZ, and included stops at the UC Centre for Entrepreneurship, Jade Software and Boma Global.
After a warm welcome from Marian Johnson, Chief Awesome Officer at the Ministry of Awesome, Ara’s delivery partner within Te Ōhaka, three founders from successful start-up companies shared their stories with the assembled guests, who included Nigel Young, Ara’s Business and Digital Technologies Department HOD and Tracey McGill, Manager of Innovation at Ara as well as the American guests and other observers.
Nathan Taylor from Partly – a company that aims to bring the automotive parts industry into the digital age – told the group about the founders’ insights into just how desperately the car parts business needed a platform to reliably manage part and vehicle data, thereby connecting customers, car owners and parts dealers in a highly-efficient, scaleable way. Next was Dr. Dianne Jones and Myovolt. Already a thriving ‘garment-integrated electronics’ designer, the MyoVolt brand has sold products to NASA, the military and some of the world’s biggest global brands including Apple and Nike. The company is now finding significant value in being located at Te Ōhaka, and Dr. Jones outlined how the proximity to Ara students will supply her with design, marketing and content production energy and expertise for the next stage of Myovolt’s growth as a stand-alone brand. The company has already enjoyed some unique success in Canterbury, having sold product to Christchurch Mayor Lianne Dalziel, who made a visit to the Centre in May. “I had to try it out and yes, I had to buy one! Good luck to Dr Dianne Jones and Steve Leftly as they take on the world!,” she was quoted as saying.
Chris Bacon then described how Komodo, a wellbeing application for school students, evolved from Komodo Monitr’s original software product, which was designed for strength and conditioning coaches to use when tracking athletes’ workloads. The new version of the company’s software provides young people with low-pressure ways by which to regularly share how they are feeling, while also monitoring other variables such as sleep, stress, workload and relationship statuses to give school clients a wide and deep understanding of how their students are feeling and coping. Chris also commented on how many collaborative opportunities are made available to his company by virtue of its grounding in Te Ōhaka.
Marian Johnson of Ministry of Awesome concluded the presentations by also commenting on the high value that she placed upon her company’s partnership with Ara, stating “One of the most important partnerships that we made originally was that first partnership with Ara Institute of Canterbury – because of the 14,000-strong talent pipeline that’s here.”
Jacob Varghese, Ministry of Awesome’s Start-up mentor, also underlined the synergies that exist between industry, students, start-ups and academic staff through Te Ōhaka’s integration with Ara, saying “Essentially the unique value proposition of Te Ōhaka is that while it’s possible to go to other incubators or accelerators that may support investment readiness, one thing would be missing, and that’s the ‘Ara advantage’. If you have an idea, you then have to figure out how to build it, how to support that, and how to afford the cost of R & D – getting people to code your product and to fabricate your hardware product.”
Jacob went on to point out that for many start-ups, the lack of proven results can form a barrier to traditional investment, so being able to have students incorporate start-up development into their learning is an unparalleled mutual opportunity.
By way of example, Jacob produced a key component of other start-up’s product; the fruit collection basket from YieldTec’s harvest automation system. “The biggest problem right now in the primary industry sector is not having enough people to pick fruit and wake up at two-thirty to milk the cows. Right now New Zealand has a shortage of 20,000 people in horticulture and 8000 in dairy. The YieldTec system reduces the need for labor by 33% on a harvest day and that’s huge.”
However, YieldTec’s approach requires smart fruit bags that send an automated message to mobile robots when they are full, as well as an app to monitor fruit levels, and some elements of the system needed refinement. So the company’s founders came to Te Ōhaka for assistance. Says Jacob “That’s when we turned around to the Business Technology department and said ‘we’d love to get your support’, so the Department placed several students with us as part of their applied learning program, and they spent close to 1200 hours helping us code the digital platform. We have a beautiful digital platform now, and all the core code has been written by Ara students.”
Aid from Ara didn’t end there however. The YieldTec hardware, which will hopefully revolutionise fruit picking, needed some re-design. “The current bags are not fit for purpose, so we’re actively redesigning this bag, and that’s being done by Ara engineering students working on CAD.”
US Embassy visitor Michael Cousins is also no stranger to the Ara advantage, as he is a graduate, studying at Ara from 2001-2000 and gaining a Diploma in Information Technology.
Te Ōhaka forms part of the strategy embodied by the Christchurch Economic Recovery Plan, which sets out plans to grow the region’s economic base while also positioning Christchurch as a high-tech city with a sustainable growth model.