Founder Incubators

Startup Dunedin

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Building a more inclusive startup ecosystem

At a glance

  • Startup Dunedin has a strong history of helping Otago-based students and entrepreneurs gain the skills and confidence to build their businesses.

  • The business incubator and accelerator programme is a key part of Otepoti’s tight-knit entrepreneur ecosystems.

  • Startup Dunedin is a founding member of Mainland Angel Investors, which aims to attract funding for the region’s startups.

  • Its ‘Coaching the Community’ initiative is supporting a diverse range of individuals to make startup resources more readily accessible.

Dunedin is one of the country’s oldest centres of industry, and that heritage helps support a new generation of startups looking to take their ventures global.

A partnership of the Dunedin City Council, University of Otago and Otago Polytechnic, Startup Dunedin is the place where many fledgling businesses take their first steps.

Its incubation programme, The Distiller Incubator, supports a collection of startups that typically spend 2-6 months in residence, benefitting from one-on-one coaching, workshops and peer-to-peer learning with other founders.

“Entrepreneurs wear a lot of hats these days. They’re often juggling their startup with raising a family, or studying, or working; so we’ve created a flexible programme to support this,” says Startup Dunedin’s General Manager, Rachel Butler.

Startup Dunedin takes applications for The Distiller throughout the year, the process kicking off with applicants submitting a short, one-page business plan briefly outlining their business idea, stage, model, and support needs.

Supporting the next generation of entrepreneurs, Startup Dunedin’s Audacious programme helps the city’s university and polytechnic students get a foothold on the business ladder.

The diverse research strengths of the two tertiary providers see Audacious attract an eclectic mix of ideas that spans fashion, music and design, as well as precision engineering, software and digital platforms. Video game entrepreneurs also regularly feature in Audacious, thanks to the presence in the city of the Centre of Digital Excellence, which has a strong games development focus.

“Our programmes are about showing them what they’re capable of and connecting them to the business community while they’re studying,” says Butler.

Anyone can be an entrepreneur

But Startup Dunedin is also increasingly seeking to make its programmes more inclusive and accessible, beyond the established links.

“The way we set up entrepreneur ecosystems can sometimes be quite exclusionary,” says Dr Marissa Kaloga, a lecturer and researcher at the University of Otago, who recently completed a socio-metric network analysis of the region’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.

“There are other segments of the population we aren’t working with, and we could be missing out on a lot of founders who can start businesses that help a lot of people,” adds Dr Kaloga.

The research forms the basis of a new Callaghan Innovation-funded Startup Dunedin initiative – Coaching the Community. The first round will see eight community leaders come together, to understand how to coach someone through a business plan, understanding Māori worldview, and what local support is available for a startup.

“Innovation comes from diversity,” says Butler. “Our aim is to open the door to a wider range of would-be entrepreneurs.”

A big part of Startup Dunedin’s role, says Butler, is nurturing the ‘circular expertise economy’; a process by which past participants and alumni pass down wisdom and insights to newer cohorts.

One of The Distiller incubator’s major success stories is Dunedin startup, Winely.

“[The Winely team] are the first to give back. They are judges for Audacious, they help out at startup weekends, and they still come to our events,” says Butler.

“The big wins are the startups that remain engaged with the ecosystem.”

Audacious ideas

Led by University of Otago graduates, Jacob Manning and Abbe Hyde, Winely uses sensor technology, artificial intelligence and cloud software to help winemakers monitor the all-important fermentation process in real-time, removing the need for manual sampling and improving quality control. Winely now has some of the country’s largest wine producers as customers, and last year raised $2 million in funding.

Audacious has had its share of success too. Recent participants in the accelerator programme include Cheeky Hard Iced Tea, which produced NZ’s first alcoholic iced teas. Founded by third-year University of Otago students Olivier Despatis and Brendan Yielder, Cheeky evolved during Audacious from an idea to tailor a hard iced tea (an alcoholic iced tea) to the tastes of Kiwis, into a viable beverages business. Cheeky is now sold at more than 150 liquor stores across New Zealand.

Butler says the progress of another startup, Scannable, shows the power of Startup Dunedin to support founders with a technical background to be able to hone their business case.

Otago Polytechnic design graduate, Robert Partridge, returned to Dunedin from the UK in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and joined The Distiller Incubator to develop his business Scannable – a cloud-based equipment traceability platform that recently raised $20,000 in funding.

Tapping into mainland angels

Preparing founders to search for funding and gain more visibility for capital-seeking Otago startups was the impetus for Startup Dunedin to join Mainland Angel Investors (MAI), which is chaired by former Startup Dunedin chairwoman Sarah Ramsay.

“The collaboration is designed to find and engage with investors who have the time and cash to invest in new and innovative ideas.”

The MAI collective sees Startup Dunedin working extensively with fellow incubators Invercargill’s COIN South and Startup Queenstown Lakes.

“Dunedin’s startup space is very much a ‘give-first’ ecosystem. We all have our different strengths, and we collaborate really effectively.”

Updated: 27 January 2022