The Kiwi Connect Story
It was stuck in traffic in an Uber ride, amongst the concrete jungle of the 101 in Silicon Valley, that Matthew and Brian Monahan first discovered the abundance of green on Google Maps’ satellite view of rural Upper Hutt near Wellington, as they started searching for a new home base.
Initially, this appears to be the sort of tourist brochure story that we’re familiar with - New Zealand as a lush, green environment with rolling hills and towering native forests, nestled against the backdrop of majestic mountains. But while it was the green that first planted the seed, after several visits to New Zealand, it was clear that there was something deeper going on here.
The brothers fell in love with the Kiwi can-do attitude, the spirit of resourcefulness, and freedom and space to be creative. With a passion for education, sustainability, agritech, and new digital tools, they recognised that New Zealand presents an incredible opportunity to entrepreneurs, innovators and investors who are looking to significantly shift the dial. Not just to tinker around the edges, but to be at the new frontiers of transformative and integrated solutions to the world’s biggest challenges.
Meanwhile their friend and collaborator, Yoseph Ayele, was searching for a home base to incubate new projects with global applicability.
A global citizen, Yoseph grew up in Ethiopia, studying at Harvard and Cambridge, worked in Silicon Valley where he helped grow Inflection with Matthew and Brian, and has lived in six countries over four continents. Similarly motivated to create positive global impact through entrepreneurship, Yoseph had been looking for an agile environment with the freedom to imagine, and execute on outside-the-box ideas.
It was soon after landing in Wellington and enjoying several coffee chats with friendly Kiwi entrepreneurs that he felt at home, part of a community of humble yet visionary changemakers, experimenting with audacious ideas to shift entire industries and change they ways in which we work. Yoseph found in New Zealand a platform for creative and daring entrepreneurs to incubate bold new ideas.
New Zealand has long been on the verge of becoming world-leading hub for innovation.
Its unique traits make New Zealand an ideal Incubation Nation - a place you can resourcefully develop and test transformational ventures and technologies in an agile way, align with key partners and leverage vast infrastructures to get off the ground. Fast, useful feedback is accessible from a first-adopter market without cut-throat competition, to further refine your solution to scale it to other parts of the world. High integrity economic and political institutions, access to western and eastern economies, and an unmatchable quality of life gives New Zealand an advantage over many other nations.
With no lack of innovative thinking and a national psyche of inventiveness, New Zealanders have always been resourceful. We’ve had some great early successes which have fed into nurturing the ecosystem. Kiwi companies have had big wins in the global arena in the fields of agritech, med-tech, film & digital media, renewable energy, aerospace, virtual reality and online banking.
Over the past few years, we’ve seen compounding network effects in the growth of the startup ecosystem. Top students are coming out of universities and taking interest in innovation-based ventures, investment capital and experienced entrepreneurial talent are putting energy into supporting new generations of startups, and international entrepreneurs are taking notice and participating in the local startup community.
In late 2013, Yoseph and the two brothers noticed the trajectory the NZ startup ecosystem was headed, and the acceleration of its development. While parallels with younger versions of startup hubs like Silicon Valley offered useful insights, New Zealand was taking an approach that played to its strengths.
Yet they saw a missing ingredient, where New Zealand wasn’t yet taking full advantage of entrepreneurs, investors, and creative talent from other parts of the world, to grow and reach a critical tipping point in its startup ecosystem.
In a time when talented people are more mobile than ever, when leading entrepreneurs consider themselves global citizens living between many borders, and when several leading startup hubs have become great by leveraging migrant talent, it was evident that the New Zealand startup ecosystem needs to be more globally connected.
To be clear, the need for global connectivity isn’t because New Zealand lacks innovation. But most Kiwi startups need to go offshore to achieve significant scale, and to innovate at the scale required to make a significant dent in the New Zealand economy, the New Zealand startup ecosystem needs a two-way bridge with other innovation hubs, to gain access to world-class talent, impact capital, and new ideas. New Zealand’s opportunity to be on the leading edge, is to insert new energy into the entrepreneurship ecosystem, complement local expertise with international talent, and build New Zealand’s reputation as a hub that continues to produce high-impact ventures.
While there are many opportunities for foreign-born entrepreneurs and creatives to put their talents to use in New Zealand solving big problems, the perception of distance and hurdles of the immigration process have historically been a deterrent to talented individuals who might otherwise make positive impact on the NZ economy, society, and environment.
And so at the beginning of 2014, Kiwi Connect was born with the vision of being of service to the NZ innovation ecosystem: To build bridges between New Zealand and other innovation hubs, to develop New Zealand as a destination for the world’s top entrepreneurs, investors and creatives to build solutions to global problems, and to help New Zealand realise its potential as an Incubation Nation.
The Kiwi Connect team set a plan in motion to contribute to Sir Paul Callaghan’s vision to make New Zealand into “a place where talent wants to live.”
A relationship platform at heart, the two-year foundation-building phase of Kiwi Connect has been spent building and nurturing close relationships with all the stakeholders in the New Zealand ecosystem, while building direct links between New Zealand and key international networks. Validation of the need for a bridge between the New Zealand startup ecosystem and international networks first came through collaborating with the New Zealand Government to promote New Zealand at the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival in Texas. Kiwi Connect has since hosted over 120 high-calibre individuals who have shown interest in New Zealand, including a visit from Sam Altman, President of the world’s most prestigious accelerator programme Y Combinator, and Scott Nolan, Partner at Founders Fund.
Kiwi Connect soon attracted a team of global citizens deeply committed to Aotearoa, with home bases across New Zealand, California and Thailand.
Alina Siegfried came onboard to lead the content and communications strategy, bringing with her a passion for storytelling and creative communication.
Charlotte Hayes joined the team, bringing her big-picture-small-detail genius in operations and organising immersive experiences for creative minds.
Tai Kenning brought an eye for all things beautiful, developing and maintaining brand and design.
In mid-2015, Alex Novak rounded out the current team with enthusiasm and energy, to lead accounting and finance.
Kiwi Connect has also benefitted hugely from the wisdom and energy of Shannon Royster, Rebecca Mills, Sam Johnson, Gemma McIver, and Kimberley Gilmour who have worked with the team in various capacities over the past two years.
In February 2015, and again in 2016, the Kiwi Connect team delivered the hugely successful New Frontiers festival, each year bringing together over 200 passionate leaders from around New Zealand and the world, to provide a forum for connection, co-creation, collaboration and cross-pollination, to share experiences and ideate on solutions to global problems.
In the spirit of openness and maximised learning, we have shared the presentations from New Frontiers on our YouTube channel. New relationships forged at New Frontiers continue to have a ripple impact in New Zealand and around the world, from multi-million dollar investment deals for Kiwi-built companies, to the strengthening of collective networks with creative people who wouldn’t normally find themselves in the same room, now collaborating on projects together.
Most recently, Kiwi Connect has partnered with the Hillary Institute for International Leadership, to develop the Edmund Hillary Fellowship (EHF), an immersive 3-year programme for visionary entrepreneurs, investors and startup teams to build and incubate solutions in New Zealand, to the world’s most pressing problems.
Applications for EHF open in early 2017, see the website for details.
With current global connectivity and democratised access to information, New Zealand offers a unique and open platform for entrepreneurs to incubate and prototype globally scalable innovations.
New Zealand in a great position to lead in the global race for talent. We have the right ingredients. Together with our international partners and ongoing relationships with Government and local startup ecosystems, Kiwi Connect is dedicated to helping the NZ startup ecosystem pass the tipping point and reach its full potential in producing solutions to the world’s most pressing problems.