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Proudly backing the underdog

At a glance

  • Hamilton-based Soda is Waikato's go-to startup hub, with extensive activities helping founders based also in Taranaki, Hawkes Bay, Bay of Plenty and beyond.

  • Soda runs entrepreneurship programmes and helps startup founders prepare to seek seed funding.

  • A strength of Soda’s LIFT programme is its experienced mentors, who spend at least four hours each week working with startup teams.

  • Soda has forged strong partnerships with other tech incubators and accelerator programmes around the country.

It’s a tough job being a startup founder. You need a great idea, an appetite for hard work and a willingness to make big sacrifices to get your venture off the ground.

Even with all of that, you may still fail. But at least you don’t have to attempt it on your own, with the likes of Hamilton-based Soda Inc. helping founders through the crucial early stages of getting a business off the ground.

“I love the underdog and I love it when they win,” says Erin Wansbrough, Soda’s chief executive.

Of the many businesses Wansbrough has worked with at Soda, the ones she loves the most are the unlikely characters trying their hand as entrepreneurs. 

“It’s the 12-year-old girl making edible Glad Wrap or the 65-year-old South African engineer who’s figured out how to erect residential chimneys really quickly,” Wansbrough says.

“For every business coming through our programmes that’s likely to be scalable, there are five we’re helping at the very early stages,” she says.

Soda has programmes ranging from Rise Up, a seed grant scheme for female entrepreneurs, to its 11-week CO.STARTERS accelerator and three-month LIFT business incubator schemes.

Soda is willing to tailor the programme to the needs of the founder, which extends to meeting them on their home turf. Only 40% of Soda participants are based in the Waikato region. 

Soda works with founders in places like Tairawhiti, Tauranga, Hawkes Bay and Taranaki, often in conjunction with economic development agencies such as Venture Taranaki, which runs the PowerUp programme in the region.

“We trained the team there to run CO.STARTERS, our startup programme which helps entrepreneurs with market validation and business fundamentals,” says Wansbrough.

“We ended up with 47 businesses joining the programme, so we ran three programmes in parallel. Five founders were then selected to take part in a LIFT-style programme, with Soda providing the framework and selecting globally recognised experts to accelerate the roadmap for the five finalists. “

Active in the regions

Collaboration across regions extends to the South Island where Soda has forged a partnership with the likes of StartUp Dunedin, COIN South and Startup Queenstown Lakes.

“In Dunedin, it started with the Petri Dish co-working space, which was trying to build a community. We started an initiative to support businesses into Soda programmes,” says Wansbrough.

Some of those programmes see Soda’s staff and mentors take a “deep dive” into each venture over a three-month period. Wansbrough says it can be a confronting experience for founders as some of the country’s leading business people tear apart product designs and business plans.

“We tell them the hard facts. But we also give them a growth advisor who has walked the same path, and we’re willing to build a bespoke team for each founder’s needs.”

A strong focus for Soda recently has been developing earlier stage courses and programmes so that entrepreneurs can make the most of the accelerator and incubator.

“We needed to do more to develop the rigour, the process and get the thinking right before we went deep,” Wansbrough explains.

Some of Soda’s big success stories feature strong female founders. Along with her husband Kerry Skilton, punk-rocker-turned-plant-scientist, Dr Susan Wheeler, developed HOP Revolution while at Soda.

They have since built the country’s largest hop garden at Tapawera in the Tasman District, and are supplying beer makers here and abroad. But it took a legal battle for HOP Revolution to win the rights to grow key hops New Zealand is known for.

“We paired them with a former Zespri executive who knew the intellectual property landscape, and we also connected them to legal assistance,” says Wansbrough. 

“They fought the fight and won which is great because the international beer market is crying out for New Zealand hops.”

Goosebump moments

Another Soda star is Donnamaree Ryder, a Māori founder who has developed Tania.ai, which uses the Alexa voice-activated assistant and accounting software platform Xero to allow business owners to quickly hear updates about their financial position. 

“Donnamaree had a tough upbringing but a mother who believed in education and giving back to the community, and instilled these values in her children,” says Wansbrough.

With the appetite for investment in startups stronger than ever, Wansbrough says Soda’s potential to help attract funding to its startups is growing. But Soda isn’t planning to leave behind grassroots entrepreneurs.

“They are a harder proposition because funders are less interested in them,” she says.

“But they’re an essential part of what we do. It's the goosebumps you get from the people you are working with that makes it so worthwhile.”

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

Updated: 10 February 2022