Founder Incubators

Northland Inc.

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Growing export-orientated businesses

At a glance

  • Northland Inc. has built a thriving co-working space, tech incubator and accelerator programme that’s now central to the region’s economic development efforts.

  • A strong focus on the region’s Māori economy is reflected in incubator and accelerator participants.

  • Its business ideas competition, The Pick, has been refreshed and relaunched with a more inclusive focus on collaboration.

  • Northland Inc’s future plans include a sustained effort to attract tech businesses talent and investment capital to the region.

It started with The Orchard, a co-working space in Whangarei that’s the base for a collection of established businesses and local start-ups.

Northland Inc., the regional economic development agency, also calls it home, rubbing shoulders with the entrepreneurs it’s tasked with helping ‘seed, nurture and grow’. But The Orchard, which opened its doors in 2016, is also the base for a successful business accelerator programme and business ideas competition. 

It’s all part of a plan to make the most of Northland’s strengths in agriculture while helping more digital, hi-tech and high-value manufacturing ventures emerge.

“Northland has been underfunded for generations, so we’re trying to turn that around,” says Sophie Wiltshier, Business Innovation Growth Team Leader at Northland Inc.

“We’ve had really strong investment here in recent years through the Provincial Growth Fund (PGF). Now we want to make the most of that opportunity.”

The Pick is the business ideas competition which helps businesses validate and develop their business ideas, build their customer base, showcase their capital strategies and ultimately become crowned as winners for Northland. 

The Te Tai Tokerau Growth Accelerator is for those with high growth and export potential, to work through an intensive 12-week programme to get investment ready and go global, quickly. It’s run in conjunction with Callaghan Innovation, with ongoing support from Wellington incubator Creative HQ.

The Business Ideas competition called The Pick has also been running annually in recent years, though disruption following COVID-19 saw it deferred in 2020.

“We’re a very lean operation, and we were tasked with getting the COVID-19 response and tourism transition funds out the door,” explains Wiltshier.

“It meant that we temporarily put The Pick on ice.”

The pause served as a valuable opportunity to reposition the accelerator. The Pick was traditionally run as a competition with participants vying for prizes. 

“It’s a lot more inclusive and collaborative now,” says Wiltshier of the Te Tai Tokerau Growth Accelerator which is a pilot of the new format. With a cohort of 10 ventures, the new accelerator is off to a great start.

“We’ve got everything from a sustainable reusable nappy venture, to a design for a planting spade suitable for forestry, and a hi-tech system for harvesting macadamia nuts,” Wiltshier says.

The Pick will return in 2022, with applications opening later this year.

Pick of the crop

Former participants in The Pick will form a panel to give the entrepreneurs feedback and mentoring, alongside the team at Get Better Problems, Northland-based business mentors who are guiding this year’s cohort, which includes two Māori businesses.

“Across multiple iwi and hapu, we have a really strong connection to Māori businesses, which is a strength for us as an economic development agency,” says Wiltshier.

With Northland aiming to reduce Māori unemployment below its current rate of around 8%, a priority is skills development. Former “orchardists”, The Developers Institute, are addressing that need with NZQA-approved software and web development courses. 

The Developers Institute secured funding through the PGF to establish its campus on Banks Street in Whangarei’s central business district. The Pick has produced some promising ventures, too.

Vince is a dehydrated vegetarian mince product that was developed by husband and wife team Nigel and Debbie Stowe, the owners of Whangārei-based Olive & Ash.

“The real driving force behind the concept was to try to get people to eat more vegetables, and to create a quick healthy meal for the family,” Nigel Stowe told Entrepreneur magazine in 2019, the year olive & Ash was selected as one of the five winning ventures.

 “The Pick workshops were really helpful for us. Apart from anything else, those weekly deadlines held us to account and kept us right up to the mark,” he added.

Olive & Ash joined the Sprout agritech accelerator this year, where it’s further refining the business plan for Vince. Its products are now on sale in specialty food stores around Aotearoa, with plans for sales to extend to the US, Asia and the UK in the next five years.

The unprecedented impacts of the pandemic meant that Northland Inc. has heard from around 1,000 Northland businesses in the last year.

Attracting the big guns

“Of those, we engage further with 200-400 of them, which means we have this great cohort of high-growth-potential businesses we can invite to the growth accelerator,” says Wiltshier. 

Northland Inc. has joined other regional incubators and accelerators in partnering with Entrepreneur magazine to offer the Startup NZ Entrepreneurs Programme, a 12-part course of online lessons for entrepreneurs keen to explore getting a business off the ground.

The priorities now, says Wiltshier, are to grow the mentorship and access to capital available to businesses Northland Inc. supports. She also has a stretch goal of trading on Northland’s warm climate and beautiful coastline to attract top tech talent to the region. 

“There are people working for Mozilla and other tech businesses based up here. 

But it's not enough. We’re inviting the big guns to come and think seriously about being based here.”

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


Updated: 26 January 2022