INTERVIEW: SARAH FITCHETT
ROLE: INNOVATION PROGRAMMES LEAD
ORGANISATION: NELSON REGIONAL DEVELOPMENT AGENCY
WEB: WWW.NELSONTASMAN.NZ


Who is Your Organisation?

Nelson Regional Development Agency and Mahitahi Colab. 

What are the high level goals of your organisation in relation to supporting entrepreneurship and innovation?

Intergenerational strategy; Tupuna Pono – to be good ancestors.

In 2019, the Wakatu Incorporation led the design of the Te Tauihu Intergenerational Strategy, which was a major project involving a wide range of stakeholders and organisations which sought a much longer term view for the top of the South – 500 years rather than the usual 3, 5, 10 year strategies we are used to.  The challenge laid down by the Intergenerational Strategy was “Tupuna Pono:  to be good ancestors”.  We want this vision to underpin our work at NRDA. 

This challenge or vision firstly tells us ‘why’ we want to promote and support entrepreneurship and innovation – we know these things lead to increased productivity, higher paying and more satisfying jobs, more resilient and competitive industries and businesses – these economic factors will improve the wellbeing of our people. 

But this challenge also speaks to the ‘how’ we go about entrepreneurship and innovation – we’re really seeking to ‘hero’ those businesses and sectors that which are innovating to become more sustainable – by becoming more circular, carbon neutral or positive, adopting technology to tackle labour shortages and a changing workforce, supporting biodiversity etc.  This might be their core business or the way they go about their business, but either way these companies are our future – so our high level goal is to support and promote those businesses already on the journey and also try and leverage their stories and experiences for other businesses who are looking to get on board.

What were some of the key programmes or initiatives run in 2021 in relation to supporting entrepreneurship and innovation?

A major new initiative this year was the launch of our Intelligent Guardians event – this was part of Techweek and showcased how Nelson Tasman businesses are using science and technology to protect and prosper.  We had keynote addresses from four local business leaders on the topic.  People were really excited and inspired to attend an event which highlighted some of the amazing work that’s going on under our noses – we didn’t bring in speakers from out of town or across the globe to tell us how to do things – these are Nelson businesses doing it right here, right now and leading the conversation on sustainable business.  

In 2020 the Mahitahi Colab relaunched a startup programme that runs around NZ called Co.Starters, and this year we trialled a food and beverage specific cohort in partnership with The Food Factory.  The Food Factory is the brainchild of Pic Picot (behind Pic’s Peanut Butter) and is a test kitchen facility available for local makers to develop and test new products.  The cohort involved 15 food and beverage entrepreneurs at various stages of their business journey coming together to develop their business canvas, work together to solve problems they were facing and hear from guest speakers from within the industry.  

Another initiative we are currently piloting is Creative HQ’s Certificate of Applied Innovation which is aimed at existing businesses who are innovating or looking to build innovation capability in their business.  One of the challenges we and many EDAs have is how do we support those established businesses who are already doing it – already employing people, already exporting, already addressing the big challenges in their business or sector – this programme aims to support the work they’re already doing through education – providing participants with a real discipline or process around innovation.  

And finally of course we have a range of Callaghan Innovation products and services available through the Regional Business Partner programme which has seen $5 million of government investment in R&D over the last 5 years.

What have been some of the highlight achievements or moments that stand out for you and your team this year?

The innovation initiatives outlined above have, of course, been highlights in themselves. 

But what has enabled that work and all of our other work, has been collaboration.  The most notable formal collaboration that NRDA is leading is Project Kōkiri which started life as a regional response to Covid-19 and brought together a number of different regional stakeholders – NRDA, the Chamber of Commerce, both mayors, iwi, government agencies, business representatives, to come up with a coordinated economic development plan.  That collaboration has continued and is in the final stage of developing a Regeneration Plan which will inform not only NRDA’s work going forward but the work of others in our region.  NRDA won Economic Development New Zealand’s Collaboration Award this year – it was great for the hard work of the Project Kōkiri team to be recognised.  

There are many other examples of collaboration in our region, including:

Mahitahi Colab, a coworking and events space and an innovation hub jointly governed by NRDA, Nelson Tasman Chamber of Commerce and NMIT.

Te Kotahi o Te Tauihu Charitable Trust, a collaboration of our 8 iwi working together to improve outcomes for whanau by connecting people with jobs, accelerating the vaccination rollout, supporting Maori business, feeding and housing whanau in need and other initiatives.

Nelson Tasman Innovation Neighbourhood, a collaboration of Nelson Tasman business leaders focussed on driving innovation in our region.

Businesses for Climate Action, a collaboration of businesses committed to measuring and reducing their carbon footprint through not only changed business practices but also innovation and investment.  

Science and Technology Precinct, a project spearheaded by Port Nelson and Cawthron Institute to develop a science and tech precinct which will house 1000 knowledge workers once complete. 

Given the renewed challenges and disruptions posed by COVID this year, what effect (if any) has this had on the entrepreneurial spirit and/or output of your local entrepreneurs in relation to innovation?

We are constantly amazed that notwithstanding the enormous challenges posed by Covid-19 – supply chain disruption, massive labour shortages (particularly in the primary sector), huge operational complexity of covid restrictions, lockdowns and just the sheer Covid-19 fatigue that we all feel – so many of our businesses are still innovating and investing.  It is incredible to be able to maintain that long term focus when it would be so easy to get really stuck in the here and now.  In addition Covid-19 has brought some longer term problems or risks into sharper focus, e.g. supply chain risk and labour shortages, so work on these issues has been brought forward. So if anything, we are seeing more and more focus on innovation as a result of Covid-19. 

Are there any local businesses or entrepreneurs that stand out for you in terms of addressing innovation challenges or showing exceptional entrepreneurial spirit in 2021?

This is a really tricky question – there are so many!  Just recently, Frank Witowski, of Hybrid Bikes was the Supreme Winner of the David Awards, we’ve had E’Stel Water, Yum Granola and Kombucha Bros recognised in the New Zealand Artisan awards, Golden Bay Fruit is a finalist in the NZ International Business Awards,  Owen River Lodge has won two international travel awards in 2021  (with no international travellers!), and we have 5 finalists from Nelson Tasman in the Sustainable Business Awards – these are only a few!

One initiative which really showcases innovation in the face of adversity is Nelson Tasman’s Zero Carbon Itinerary which was launched this year.  All of the businesses who feature in this itinerary are Zero Carbon or Climate Positive certified. This means that they are regularly audited to measure, reduce and offset their emissions. NRDA has offset travel to, from and around the region as part of this initiative.  The 14 tourism operators involved chose to use the difficult circumstances thrusted upon them by Covid-19 to look at sustainability in their business and turn this into an opportunity. 

This is the first Zero Carbon Itinerary in New Zealand (and possibly the world!)  The visitor sector is not traditionally counted among those sectors driving innovation but initiatives like this prove that innovation is everywhere and everyone can help drive change when it comes to climate action and sustainability.  


Innovation Nation is a series celebrating stories of innovation and entrepreneurship from around New Zealand.

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