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In the Taniwha’s den

At a glance

  • Kōkiri is Aotearoa’s first accelerator focused on building capability among Māori entrepreneurs.

  • It also has a free pre-accelerator programme focused on product-market validation.

  • Based in Hamilton at the Ahikomako centre of Maori innovation and entrepreneurship, Kōkiri works with startups across the country.

  • Kōkiri graduates typically raise pre-seed capital at the end of the program.

The Māori economy may be underpinned by a $68-billion asset base, but it also needs skilled entrepreneurs to make the most of it for future generations.

That’s why Hamilton-based Kōkiri exists – it’s the country’s only Kaupapa Māori values-based, business acceleration programme. 

“Kōkiri was born out of Callaghan Innovation’s desire to increase engagement from Māori and Pasifika people in accelerator programmes,” explains Kokiri’s programme leader Aubrey Te Kanawa.

Since 2018, Kōkiri has run a 12-week accelerator programme with a focus on early-stage, pre-seed startups with at least one Māori founder. Kōkiri casts the net wide, working with founders all over New Zealand, with its mix of boot camps, online workshops and resources.

Kōkiri operates from Ahikomako - The centre of Maori innovation and entrepreneurship located at Te Wānanga o Aotearoa in Hamilton. This includes a co-working space, dedicated ‘startup suites’, a ‘Taniwha’s Den’ for running workshops and presentations, a tech lab and even a podcasting studio.

“Our facility is unique. Being a former hotel, we are able to utilise the accommodation wing to run the accelerator as a series of three-day bootcamps. Everyone can stay on location and live, eat, and breathe their startup during those bootcamps,” says Te Kanawa.

“Ultimately, we’re trying to get ventures investment-ready by the end of a 12-week process.” 

That involves what Te Kanawa describes as a sort of, ‘Tinder matchmaking process’ pairing founders with advisors who can assist them in developing their business idea.

“It doesn’t always work out, but the matches this year have been great,” he says.

The most recent accelerator cohort had seven teams, each of which received four hours a week of dedicated coaching time, in addition to oversight from advisors and Kōkiri staff.

Filling the pipeline

Te Kanawa says finding Māori entrepreneurs to go on the startup journey has been challenging.

“The pipeline of Māori entrepreneurs is very small, so we’ve actually had to build it ourselves,” he explains.

Central to that has been the creation of a free pre-accelerator program, offered mainly online, with up to 50 participants at a time.

“The majority of this year’s teams have come to us through the pre-accelerator,” says Te Kanawa.

A startup weekend-style bootcamp event gathers entrepreneurs for an intense period of problem, product, and market validation, after which they can continue to engage through a free online pre-accelerator course. This pre-work allows founders to make better use of their time if they’re accepted into the accelerator.

“Last year, we had teams join who’d already built innovations and committed funding,” Te Kanawa says. 

“When they joined the accelerator, many teams had to pivot, meaning some of that investment was wasted. Our aim was to engage them before they make that expensive commitment of resources.”

The Māori worldview (te ao Māori), which acknowledges the interconnectedness and interrelationship of all living & non-living things, informs the work of the startups at Kōkiri. But the fundamentals of building a sustainable business remain paramount.

“The startups we attract are naturally committed to making a positive impact on the world, it’s getting them to think more about the bottom line that is often the challenge,” he says.

“We’ve had to adapt some of the standard accelerator tools to allow startups to reconcile the need to do good, with the need to be financially sustainable,” he adds.

While there’s growing interest in the ventures coming out of Kōkiri among potential investors, Te Kanawa says investment in Māori startups by Māori is in its early stages.

“There’s a misconception that iwi have a magical pot of money but most post-settlement Iwi also have a wide range of intergenerational priorities to address, and a fiduciary responsibility to maintain their settlements in perpetuity to support those priorities. 

“The appetite to invest in untested startups is not yet widely developed amongst iwi, but as their capital bases become more sophisticated, investment from the iwi sector will grow,” says Te Kanawa.

One of Kōkiri’s early startups, Hikurangi Enterprises, raised $2 million in a 2018 PledgeMe crowd-funding campaign for its Ruatoria-based medicinal cannabis growing venture. That was twice the amount the founders set out to secure.

Founder Development First

“Most startups fail because of human-centred issues. We know that managing relationships and maintaining personal wellbeing is vital to the survivability of a startup. Our goal is to develop good entrepreneurs first. If we get founder development right, we believe the business will do better and angel and venture capital investors will come,” says Te Kanawa.

“The other part of founder development we focus on is helping startups to make good connections in the ecosystem, and encouraging startups to support each other which makes the difference in where they land.”

Mutual support

Kōkiri has enjoyed great relationships with other accelerator and incubator programmes such as Soda Inc also based in Hamilton, and Te Kanawa attends Soda-organised investment hui. Kōkiri was set up with the assistance of Creative HQ. 

“Creative HQ has been like a big brother to us, helping us to get on our feet,” says Te Kanawa. Teams from Creative HQ have gone on to join Kōkiri for further development and when the Wellington startup hub chose to launch an accelerator programme focused on responses to climate change, Kōkiri helped CHQ incorporate te ao Māori elements into it.

“That’s part of the mutual ‘give back’ that we feel should be the norm between accelerator and incubator programmes in Aotearoa,” Te Kanawa says.

Callaghan Innovation provides funding to a national network of founder incubators and accelerators that help early-stage, high-growth startups build sustainable businesses. 

Updated: 27 January 2022