The power of an innovation ecosystem

I’m still feeling inspired from my recent Startup Weekend experience as a mentor in Hāwera, South Taranaki. This is the smallest community (of 10,300) the programme has run in, but it could be said with the biggest heart. Throw in some caffeine and sleep deprivation, and hang on in for the ride – it is always extraordinary to see what can be accomplished in a pressure cooker of a weekend.

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The final pitches on Sunday night were a testament to the Lean Canvas process of creating a one-page business plan. The ‘problem discovery’ work is essential, and it is not uncommon for founders to jump straight to building a solution without a clearly defined problem, or an understanding of their customers. I really enjoy mentoring those new to this process, and seeing the progress teams can make by simply reaching out to potential customers for validation. Plus, we had a duckling.

We Kiwis are a creative, innovative bunch, and SMEs are the backbone of the economy here in Aotearoa. According to Stats NZ, this equates to 97 percent of businesses, which contributed 26 percent of GDP pre-COVID. The full economic impact of the crisis is yet to be known, but it will be our SMEs that will help local communities and indeed the country bounce back. Post-COVID, business has been tough for many, and an innovation ecosystem has flourished to provide support to get businesses online, to pivot, and to create new offerings. There are a range of tools and resources available, and access to expertise to develop business and digital capabilities. Which is important, because as Microsoft’s Satya Nadella puts it the crisis has accelerated many trends, and “we’ve seen two years’ worth of digital transformation in two months”.  

My first Startup Weekend event was in 2014 in Ōtautahi, Christchurch, and unfortunately the 2020 event was a COVID casualty. While a subsequent online Hack the Crisis innovation event proved hugely successful, there’s something rather special about coming together and hanging out in-person. These types of events are particularly important in our smaller, regional communities, and I was involved earlier in the year with the crowd-sourced development of the Taranaki 2050 Roadmap. Regions like Taranaki face many challenges as our economy and businesses shift towards a low-emissions future beyond the dairy and gas industries. Innovation ecosystems are essential for diversity of thought, for creating the future of work, and for retaining and attracting young people with a range of capabilities to our smaller centres. 

What is an innovation ecosystem? 

Innovation systems bring together a diverse range of individuals, entities and agencies to create an active knowledge economy. A great starting point is the Startup NZ Ecosystem Guide put out by NZEntrepreneur. Here in Aotearoa this includes:

  • Central Government support, agencies and programmes (MBIE,, Callaghan Innovation, NZTE, and Regional Economic Development Agencies).  
  • Universities, polytechnics, companies and research organisations.
  • Entrepreneurship groups, business networking groups and Meetups (such as regional Startup Weekends)
  • Innovation hubs and co-working spaces. 
  • Investment funds, VC and Angel Association groups.
  • Conferences, Events and Awards

Successful innovation ecosystems stimulate interaction between entrepreneurs to maximise the economic impact and potential of their research and innovation. An ecosystem is dynamic and flexible, open with minimal entry barriers, and focused on the range and quality of interactions. Funding and investment also support the commercialisation journey, and the Angel Association provide a (pre-COVID) assessment of the ecosystem here. 

So, if you’re interested in joining an innovation ecosystem, get involved! Keep an eye out for local Meetup groups, and upcoming Startup Weekends, and drop in to your local business hub to find out more about what’s happening within your community.