Wellington is emerging as a rival to Sydney and Melbourne as the start-up hub of the Asia-Pacific region, with the New Zealand city positioning itself as a powerhouse for high-tech start-ups in fields such as virtual reality and artificial intelligence.
The city, which is home to fewer than 500,000 people – compared with more than 5 million in Sydney – is succeeding in attracting technology talent from all over the world, thanks to its strong skills in niche technology fields and a focus from its local economic development agency on positioning the city as the “prosperous, liveable and vibrant ” city in Australasia by 2025.
In May, a program the Wellington Economic and Regional Development Agency ran called LookSee, designed to attract international technology workers to fill skill gaps, offered 100 people the chance to come to Wellington for free to interview for jobs. It received 48,500 applicants, predominantly from the United States, Canada, Britain, Argentina and India.
WREDA business growth and innovation general manager David Jones told The Australian Financial Review he believed Wellington could bat above its average and emerge as a research and development centre in the Asia-Pacific region for major global technology companies.
“Wellington’s position at the moment is one of deep quality. We’re not looking to have low-quality tech jobs or call centres necessarily … Our focus is on attracting the R&D community in augmented reality, virtual reality and artificial intelligence, and really moving the dial in that space,” he said.
“We might never get the huge numbers that Sydney attracts of multinational headquarters … but our angle is to attract the R&D function of these companies to come and trial technologies that push the boundaries.”
Despite having a relatively small population, the city is already producing start-ups that are recognised globally.
Wellington-based holographic technology start-up 8i raised $US27 million in February from Time Warner Investments, and existing investors such as actor Ashton Kutcher and Madonna’s manager Guy Oseary.
It is also the birthplace of Rod Drury’s accounting software company Xero and is one of the few places where eBay never took off, with the number one classifieds and auction site going to local player TradeMe, which was founded in 1999 before being sold to Fairfax.
The city is also home to an outpost of secretive, next generation mixed-reality computing start-up Magic Leap, which has been valued at $US4.5 billion and is backed by investors such as Google, Andreessen Horowitz and Kleiner Perkins.
Virtual reality start-up
One of Wellington’s natural advantages in creating high-tech start-ups is its strong film industry, thanks to Richard Taylor and Peter Jackson’s Weta Workshop and Weta Digital, which have seen many artists and tech experts move to Wellington and eventually start their own businesses.
Like many others, former NASA rocket scientist Lance Jones moved to Wellington to work on The Lord of the Rings films in the late 1990s and has never left.
“I had worked on a few movies and then got the random phone call asking me to come to New Zealand for six months. That really was the plan – to come here for six months and then go back and do some science,” he said.
“But it totally sucked me in. The feeling, the people, the friendliness, the pace of life – everything is just me.”
Three years ago Mr Jones left Weta Digital (where he had worked on other films such as Avatar and King Kong) and decided to start his own business – a company called LV2R that makes gigapixel-per-second virtual reality cameras. Mr Jones aims for the cameras to be available to the public within 18 months, but they will cost from $10,000 to $15,000.
Like Mr Jones, LV2R’s chief designer Warren Beaton also migrated to New Zealand. Originally from Sydney, Mr Beaton also worked on The Lord of the Rings movies, before again being lured back to work on The Hobbit and deciding to stay.
“Something stayed here that Sydney lost. Sydney grew up,sprouted pubic hairs and got a briefcase and a job and everything else and left the kids at home. Wellington kept that stuff that you grew up with. You’re allowed to be 12 again and forever,” he said.
Mr Beaton’s wife Kim also moved from Seattle to Wellington to work on The Hobbit and has never looked back.
Mr Jones and Mr Beaton have built two prototype virtual reality cameras and the pair are about to begin “hunting for investors” to enable them to mass produce the devices.
“We want to provide a cinematic VR camera system that allows every day filmmakers to go out and produce high-quality VR film content,” Mr Jones said.
“It can be a medium that is so impactful through that sense of presence you get by feeling like you’re there. That’s what a lot of people haven’t quite grasped yet.”
The chief executive of New Zealand’s Edmund Hillary Fellowship (an entrepreneurship program that offers international visas to up to 50 applicants every six months), Yoseph Ayele, is also from overseas, having been born in Ethiopia, but moving to the country from Silicon Valley.
“I moved to New Zealand inspired to build innovative ventures in a small and agile country, and experiment in a way that may be challenging to do so in larger countries that move slowly,” he said.
“I found New Zealand’s size, combined with sophisticated economy and institutions, ideal for taking advantage of network effects, and bringing different sectors together to build transformative solutions in a way you can’t in larger countries.”
WREDA’s Mr Jones said not all 48,000 applicants to the LookSee program would relocate to Wellington, but he was hopeful the campaign would lead to at least a few thousand making the move.
“If we can get a good number of those applicants we’ll be very happy with the outcome and it will help us reinforce Wellington’s role as a real tech leader in APAC,” he said.