Founder Incubators

Startup Queenstown Lakes

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A beacon for tech talent

At a glance

  • Startup Queenstown Lakes is seeking to tap into the global tech talent flocking to the famous resort town.

  • The tech incubator’s Kickstart and Liftoff programmes support startup founders to launch, run and grow their businesses.

  • A thriving startup ecosystem will help Queenstown reduce its reliance on tourism.

  • Startup Queenstown Lakes has joined with other lower South Island incubators to facilitate angel investment in local startups.

The tourism-dependent Queenstown region has felt the full force of the economic chill associated with COVID-19. 

It’s arguably the jewel in the crown of the South Island, but with inbound international tourism unlikely to fully rebound for years to come, the Queenstown Lakes region is looking to shore up its economic future.

For Startup Queenstown Lakes CEO, Olivia Wensley, there’s gold to be found in the region’s hills in the form of the incredible business and innovation talent that resides and works there.

Workers come from all over New Zealand and the world, attracted by the stunning scenery,  adventure sports and pinot noir to rival Burgundy’s finest.

“The people that want to live here are world-class,” says Wensley, a former lawyer who worked in civil litigation and in-house banking in Singapore, before venturing into the tech world by joining legal tech startup Automio when it was founded.

“We’re seeking to unlock that capability and talent in the region, connecting experienced business leaders and investors with aspiring entrepreneurs,” she adds.

Startup Queenstown Lakes started in 2019 under the guidance of founding CEO James Burnes. But its roots go back to 2015, and the region’s participation in the Gigatown competition run by Chorus. Towns all over New Zealand competed to become the first in the country to receive gigabit-speed broadband for homes and businesses.

While Queenstown and Wanaka both competed, Wanaka made it to the finals, eventually losing out to ultimate winner Dunedin. But the competition rallied Wanaka locals who had worked on the Gigatown campaign to create the Centre for Unique Business Evolution (CUBE). That laid the groundwork for a district-wide startup community, which was completed earlier this year when CUBE merged with Startup Queenstown Lakes. 

Networking is key

Wensley says there’s a strong tech and engineering-related flavour to the innovation taking place in the local startup community.

“We’ve got people here working on robotics, electric vehicles and alternative energy projects. There are film industry people working on VR/AR. We also have a lot of secondary founders. they’ve done cool things and they are moving here to do more.”

The biggest success for Startup Queenstown Lakes so far, says Wensley, has been its networking events that bring people together across the region, from Clutha and Wakatipu to Wanaka and Arrowtown.

Those events have given critical mass to the incubator’s two flagship programmes including Kickstart, which helps founders turn an idea into a fully-formed business plan over six weeks, and Liftoff, which then helps them prepare to launch their business with the aid of online support sessions over seven weeks.

Startup Queenstown Lakes has enjoyed financial support from Queenstown Lakes District Council and Callaghan Innovation, which delivers funding via a partnership with Wellington-based incubator Creative HQ.

But Wensley says now is a critical time to ramp up investment in the region’s startup ecosystem. 

“The council has been busy dealing with the impacts of COVID-19. The region has been hit hard and resources are tight,” she says.

“But if you want to produce All Blacks, you have to be willing to invest in Rippa Rugby too,” she adds.

Construction is underway on the $43 million Queenstown research and innovation hub at Remarkables Park, with the Government providing a $22.5 million loan. That will bring much-needed critical mass to Queenstown innovation efforts.

Alongside that, says Wensley, is a need to link up early-stage startups with potential investors. Queenstown has the highest concentration in the country of Bloomberg terminals, the go-to financial information display for serious investors.

It suggests that Queenstown residents are cashed up and ready to invest.

“We want to draw on them for mentoring and hopefully attract investment from some of them for local startups,” says Wensley.

As part of that goal, Startup Queenstown Lakes has partnered with Startup Dunedin and Invercargill-based COIN South to create Mainland Angel Investors, to make it easier for investors to fund emerging high-growth businesses. 

Some Startup Queenstown Lakes participant businesses had already attracted investment.

“We're really starting to see people that have come through our pipeline with an idea, turning it into a reality, and attracting funds in a very short time,” says Wensley.

“At the same time, we have people working on startups here who are closing venture capital rounds with Silicon Valley investors. Now is the time to make the most of what we have on our doorstep by helping aspiring entrepreneurs across the district.”

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

Updated: 17 March 2022