Wil McLellan, director of EPIC Innovation Centre in Christchurch, was recently selected from a pool of international applicants to be an Eisenhower Fellow, and will travel to the US in September to participate in the 2014 Eisenhower Innovation Program.
He says the idea that won him the prize – 100 Heroes Innovation Bridge – started at EPIC. Having seen the social and economic benefits that companies enjoyed being in a single hub got McLellan, and fellow EPIC founder Colin Andersen, thinking about the benefits of a network of hubs.
“We thought innovation hubs are popping up all over the world. We thought the benefits of connecting them and people in NZ made logical sense. If there were benefits to be seen from connecting within a single hub, there must be even more powerful benefits of connecting people across countries and regions, with likeminded people who share similar values,” says McLellan.
The first stage of the idea was creating an innovation bridge that connects entrepreneurs involved in physical and virtual hubs across national borders.
“Having created the hub at EPIC we have been engaged with a lot of other hubs around the world. They have been contacting us. We are probably already speaking to, at different levels, between 20 to 50 hubs around the world.
“What I will be doing in the Fellowship trip coming up in September, is meeting another dozen or so hubs and some virtual networks in the States, who we have had only a brief conversation with or we have never spoken to. I want to really understand what is happening in their world, what lessons they have learned and how we can work together for mutual benefit,” says McLellan.
The second stage of the idea would involve getting in place 100 heroes, who can share their experience and guide the entrepreneurs who are connected via the bridge.
“Even if we are successful in connecting hubs, entrepreneurs and innovation networks together, people are still going to be constrained by a couple of key things. One of that is a lack of experience, which for us is more important than money. You can burn through money very easily, especially by investing in the wrong places. We want to create heroes and hero networks that could advice entrepreneurs with their new initiatives,” says McLellan.
The heroes will come from industry, government and finance. Initially a lot of the key contacts and potential heroes will be across the US and NZ, but there is ongoing engagement with Asia and Europe that will continue, says McLellan.
Winning the Eisenhower Fellowship will allow him to meet experts and influencers who can help him take the idea forward and potentially become heroes themselves.
McLellan also believes it is a great time to be an entrepreneur in New Zealand.
“I think it is a wonderful time to be an entrepreneur in NZ because the government through Callaghan and NZTE have been really proactive getting behind growing businesses and growing sectors particularly, and that includes the tech sector,” he says.
McLellan says that even though there are some basic challenges facing start-ups in the country – including the tyranny of distance, access to capital and a population base that limits the amount of available experience in certain areas – many of these are changing for the better, and there are other pros to offset them as well.
“We have some incredible strengths. Proximity wise we are well located next to Asia. We are incredibly adaptive as a nation. Island mentality can be challenging in some respects but we do have a can-do attitude, the country is a great place to do business and I think Kiwis are really starting to embrace true collaboration and it is actually a very pleasant place to do business,” he says.
Meanwhile, on the home front, McLellan continues to work on EPIC’s initiatives. “We are in ongoing discussions with the Council and the government with regards to EPIC’s development in Christchurch,” he says.