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Ready for take-off

At a glance

  • ThincLab Canterbury is a founder incubator, hosted within the University of Canterbury and sits alongside the Centre for Entrepreneurship within the Business School. ThincLab helps build and scale businesses, both from the university and from across the wider Canterbury business community.

  • ThincLab Canterbury is leveraging the university’s business school alongside science and engineering strengths to help foster startups in areas including aerospace, hi-tech engineering and agritech.

  • The incubator also has a foundational relationship with ThincLab Adelaide, based at the University of Adelaide, with other ThincLabs also in Singapore and France.

While Canterbury has always had a strong engineering and electronics industry, the post-quake period saw a new generation of entrepreneurs keen to feed into ‘the new Christchurch’ with diverse new business ventures.

With the support of economic development agency ChristchurchNZ, Callaghan Innovation and the University of Canterbury, ThincLab was launched in August 2018 to help fledgling businesses especially those operating in the four ‘supernode’ sectors the region has prioritised – aerospace and the future of transport, food, fibre and agritech, health technology and hi-tech services.

The University of Canterbury was a logical home for ThincLab, particularly given its highly regarded pedigree in engineering, says Gerard Quinn, Operations Director of UCE Centre for Entrepreneurship, which houses the ThincLab Canterbury.

“That’s an area where the university really has a critical mass of expertise that has already led to extensive commercial activity,” he says.

NZ’s only university-based incubator

Based at the Centre for Entrepreneurship in the university’s flagship new Rehua Building, ThincLab Canterbury is modelled on a successful business incubator operated by the University of Adelaide, with other offshoots dotted around the world.

“Where Thinclab focuses is the businesses that are in-market and keen to grow - particularly internationally, that scalability is a prerequisite of ThincLab support” he adds.

ThincLab Canterbury provides a natural pathway for hi-tech and high growth businesses with their genesis in the university’s own labs. One fledgling company, Kea Aerospace, which is developing solar-powered, remotely piloted aircraft that can fly high in the stratosphere for months at a time taking high-resolution aerial images, has its R&D roots at the university and received intensive coaching from ThincLab advisors during preparation for its capital-raising process.

Kea Aerospace is now growing its staff numbers and has attracted substantial investment, with aerospace ventures a burgeoning area of activity in the Canterbury region. Self-flying air taxis from Californian start-up Wisk Aero are also currently being trialled in the region.

“We’ve benefited from some forward-thinking on the part of the Civil Aviation Authority, which has allowed Canterbury to become a testbed for this sort of technology,” says Quinn.

A major new development, announced in June, will bolster aerospace innovation even further. Project Tāwhaki will see the government and two local rūnanga, Te Taumutu Rūnangaand Warewa Rūnanga, partner to develop a 1,000-hectare block of land on the Kaitōrete Spit near Christchurch as an aerospace research facility.

Other businesses that have been supported by ThincLab Canterbury include Medsalv, a company founded by former UC Engineering student Oliver Hunt that recycles what would otherwise be single-use medical devices with the aim of reducing waste to landfill.

Growth and Pace

ThincLab’s Growth programme sees founders and businesses work alongside advisors for a 6-to-12-month period, as they seek to scale-up their fledgling businesses. Some are bootstrapping their way up, others have already attracted seed funding. 

“The Growth Programme involves mentor support, where the founders are having fortnightly meetings with an advisory board,” says Quinn. 

“The advice and expertise is very much tailored to the individual business. To ensure we get the best outcomes for the businesses going through our programmes, mentors with relevant industry experience are matched to founders so they receive real insights from someone who has ‘been there and done that’. We also pay a lot of attention to founder wellbeing, since burnout can be a risk for founders.”

The Pace programme is aimed at building business and founder capability. A recent and very popular month-long short course helped 15 founders plan how to prepare their ventures to attract investment.

“We’re always on the look-out for talented founders with promising ideas to work with,” says Quinn. 

“One way we achieve this is through our weekly pitch clinics, which are also an opportunity for businesses to learn more about ThincLab and how we can help.”

ThincLab’s programmes are free for successful applicants to participate in, with no equity taken by the incubator.

Regular accelerator programmes seek to nurture ideas in those supernode categories. A recent programme focused on food, fibre and agritech saw ThincLab engage with 25 businesses, working on everything from smart irrigation to a company applying the power of machine learning to the livestock industry.

“ThincLab’s priority in the immediate future is to ramp up collaboration with ThincLab Adelaide and to embed itself deeper into the research and innovation commercialisation activities of the university,” says Quinn.

“There’s actually a lot of capital flowing into the region at the moment,” he adds.

“Investors are interested in what we have to offer in these key tech-related areas, so it's a great opportunity for startups who are keen to take themselves to the next level.”

Find out more about Thinclab people and programmes on the new website

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