Moananui, a pioneering cluster in the blue economy sector, has officially launched in Nelson, with a vision to maximise New Zealand’s marine industry through innovative collaboration.

Chief Executive Jodie Kuntzsch says Moananui’s aim is to harness the collective strength of its partners to fast-track economic growth in marine activities, foster connections among stakeholders, positively contribute to cultural and social well-being, and enhance ocean health for future generations.

New Zealand boasts a vast marine expanse, covering 96% of its territory (fifteen times the size of our landmass) and holding one of the world’s largest marine estates, but ocean-based activities represent only three percent of the GDP. Therefore the potential for sustainable economic growth, job creation, and innovation within the blue economy sector is substantial, says Kuntzsch.

Economic clusters generally spin out of a geographical concentration of businesses within a particular sector, in this instance, the maritime sector in the Nelson-Tasman region.

“There’s a naturally occurring nucleus of economic activity [already]. We’re simply trying to harness that in a deliberate way,” says Kuntzsch.

Moananui collaborates with key businesses willing to lead innovation and provides support in spurring development, facilitating collaboration, attracting investors, and launching new ventures.

Kuntzsch says Moananui is a catalyst, helping partners step out of their comfort zones and take calculated risks, managing financial vulnerabilities, and building the skills and confidence needed for economic development.

Jodie Kuntzsch, Moananui Chief Executive.

“One thing I’ve heard a lot from international investors and funders was ‘we would love to do work in New Zealand but we have no idea where the gateway is, because in New Zealand we don’t have a Government ministry for oceans and we don’t have a region that laid claims to say ‘we’re the Silicon Valley of blue economy.

“We’re going to come forward and say we are a place. We are a group of people. We have resources and a hub where we can start from,” says Kuntzsch.

Moananui also offers to fast track collaborative projects, facilitate activities that drive innovation, accelerate and incubate new ventures, catalyse action for system-level solutions, and leverage funding and investment pathways.

Their aim is to place New Zealand’s blue economy on the world stage.

The growth of this startup relies on trust and relationship-building between its partners. In July 2023, Moananui was established with its nine founding partners: Doug Paulin, CEO, Sealord; Hugh Morrison, CEO, Port Nelson; Scott Gillanders, COO, Maclab; Grant Wilson GM, Pharmalink Extracts; Helen Mussely, GM Science, Seafood Technologies, Plant & Food Research; Volker Kuntzsch, CEO, Cawthron Institute; Paul Miller, CEO, Kernohan Engineering; Meg Matthews, Wakatū Incorporation and Fiona Wilson, CE, Nelson Regional Development Agency.

There are also eleven new partners representing a cross section of industries from electronics, engineering, biotechnology, health and safety, and IT companies working in the ocean space. They span the country from Auckland to Queenstown.

The new partners are Aquawatch, BECA, Code and Caviar, Guard Safety, Lincoln Agritech Ltd, Marine AI (NZ) Ltd, NewFish, Pinpoint Earth, Smith Engineering PS Ltd, Snap Information Technologies Ltd, and Trinder Engineers.

Partners are given the opportunity to connect in person in a dedicated hub located at 329 Trafalgar Square East in Nelson. The hub provides partners with a space for meetings, presentations, and connections with fellow innovators.

The Nelson region is home to the highest concentration of blue economy activities in Aotearoa, making up 13% of the national blue economy while representing one point seven percent of national GDP. Port Nelson is the largest fishing port in Australasia.

“We had quite a lot of activity going on already, projects and cluster activities before we became a cluster organisation,” Kuntzsch explains.

The momentum built prior to securing funding led Kuntzsch to work full-time on the project, echoing the typical startup experience.

“Just putting in a lot before you even know whether you’re going to get funding.”

The brand new Moananui headquarters in Nelson.

The idea for Moananui came about following a casual conversation between Wakatū Incorporation, Nelson Regional Development Agency and Cawthron Institute. The aim was clear: to do something about the state of the maritime economy in the Nelson-Tasman region.

Kuntzsch noted two kinds of people started approaching her: either asking what’s in it for them [like a transactional benefit] or inquiring about how to connect, find information, and build relationships.

“[What we do] is not transactional. We do partnerships and they are hard to quantify and a lot of it is about what you bring to the table. So I can only take the horse to the water and then what they do from there is up to them. It’s very hard to create a business model off of that.”

The Ministry for Primary Industries contributed seed funding of $500,000 earlier this year to kick things into gear, matched with $400,000 of co-funding from the foundation partners. There’s also membership fees that new partners pay to be part of the cluster.

Kuntzsch connects partners through workshops, events and 1-1 engagements. Moananui recently worked with Creative HQ to create a Certificate in Applied Innovation for Blue Economy – an initiative that brings together individuals from different partner organisations, fostering cross-pollination and business advancement.

“They’re not designing their businesses together, they’re learning how to advance their businesses and sharing ideas with those they wouldn’t likely run into otherwise.”

Kuntzsch hopes to see other cluster activity in different parts of New Zealand around regional specialisations, such as Taranaki, focusing on energy, and in the Bay of Plenty focusing on Māori-led aquaculture.

If she had to do things differently though, what would she do?

“Our partners have incredible networks, each in themselves, and I think would have thought more about how we bring those in earlier. It’s something we’re working on now.”

She says a lot of time was spent on startup logistics and admin, taking away energy needed to invest into the cluster activities and relationships.

She worked with a mentor, which was and still is super helpful, in fact they keep reminding her that she can’t do this project by “whispering”, but to literally and metaphorically “blow your own trumpet”.

Kuntzsch says she could’ve also been a bit more bold about taking risks.

“My fear was to protect the relationship that we’re growing amongst the partners and I didn’t want to create vulnerability as they started to build trust. They’re co investing putting their reputation behind something that hasn’t been done here before. I’ve been very cautious in pushing too big, too fast.”

All in all, it has been a great start for Moananui, says Kuntzsch. She says New Zealand could be on its way to becoming a world-leading blue economy.

Story by Mina Amso in partnership with Nelson Regional Development Agency (NRDA).

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