It’s a region known for its breathtaking natural beauty and vilified primary industries. So where does Buller’s acclaimed innovation hub fit into it all? Michael Andrew went to find out.
In May 2018, a Japanese businessman named Hiroki Koga stepped off a plane at Westport airport and blinked in the West Coast gloom. He’d left Tokyo three days earlier, but his plane had been delayed and diverted several times due to a typhoon over the North Pacific. Finally arriving in Westport after 60 hours of travel, he was collected by local man Ben Dellaca, who drove him across the Buller River Bridge and into Westport, population 4660. As they cruised along the deserted main street, past the twin rows of closed and quiet shops with the air smelling faintly of coal, Dellaca noticed Koga looking around in astonishment, before he quietly whispered under his breath: “Where the fuck are we?”
The story has become something of a legend at EPIC Kawatiri Westport, the business which hosted Koga and 20 other international guests that week along with MPs Damien O’Connor and Fletcher Tabuteau. It’s come to illustrate the anomaly of EPIC – a digital innovation centre that not only had the daring to set up in a town like Westport, but to also invite 20 corporate heavyweights from major international cities to attend the launch of its NEM blockchain hub. According to EPIC CEO Tash Barnes Dellaca – Ben’s wife, and the co-founder of the company – despite the isolated setting the launch was a hit, and continued to propel the hub along its curious and unusual journey.
“I suppose it’s a little bit stupid to rock up to Westport and set up a digital innovation centre. But it’s a labour of love,” she says.
Founded in 2016 and located in the middle of town, EPIC seems as out of place on the West Coast as might the Green Party headquarters. A “business incubator” and colab space is not something you’d expect to see in small town New Zealand, and yet there it sits in the old Postie warehouse, open-plan and motley, equipped with hot desks, conference rooms and bean bags – a gathering space for local entrepreneurs to learn, discuss and foster their nascent ideas. It’s also filled with tenants; 27 in total, including a whitebait farming business, a nutritional cookie company, and a software studio with former Silicon Valley employees that make games for Disney.
However, according to Tash, it was a different situation when she and Ben first launched. “We genuinely hoped there would be tenants but we were realistic that getting a couple over the line was a big deal.
“There’s an element of blind faith that it was going to work. We had a sense we were going to create something quite special.”
EPIC began in Christchurch, where it served as a refuge for businesses displaced by the 2011 earthquake. The Westport hub was started after former Buller mayor Garry Howard appealed to Ben Dellaca to bring the organisation, the technology and opportunities to the region, which had just lost over 1000 jobs after the closure of the Solid Energy coal mine and the Holcim Cement Works.
Although Ben was initially skeptical, being a fourth generation Westport native (and part of the same family that started the Postie empire) he eventually came around, bringing part of his game development studio Cerebral Fix over from Christchurch to work out of the EPIC space.
“So we started this software company, and we started running into all the challenges you would have when you start a software company in the middle of nowhere, such as, where’s your talent pool? Who do you collaborate with?” Ben says.
They began “seeding” their existing portfolio of clients and started making games for Disney and Dreamworks out of Westport, while exploiting their networks to attract employees. One of the first workers to be recruited from Silicon Valley was American Ray Long, who now works as a game and systems designer for Cerebral Fix.
“It’s been great,” says Long, who has lived in Westport for three years now. “When I got here there were four of us, now there’s three times as many companies [working at the EPIC Hub] as there used to be people.
“I walk out the door and turn left and there’s the ocean. It’s really beautiful. For me, living here is about connecting with everything natural. I lived in the Bay Area for 20 years, and everything is concrete.”
With Ben looking after Cerebral Fix and the studio production side of EPIC, Tash took the lead on developing the business and working with local government to expand, creating 22 jobs in the first year.
EPIC received a business loan through Development West Coast, a grant from the Buller District Council for Tash’s role and eventually $450,000 through the Provincial Growth Fund, which allowed her to run startup courses and workshops for local entrepreneurs and business owners.
While Tash says the value of their own personal investment and sweat equity would amount to seven figures, the government contribution has made a huge difference.
“It really just takes the pressure off and enables us to do more of the sort of community pro bono work that we were doing. But it also allows us to do it in more of a consistent way rather than just fitting it in when we can.”
Covid and the Coast
The economic effect of the Covid-19 pandemic has been particularly severe on the West Coast – a region that for the last few decades has been increasingly reliant on international tourism. Yet while both Westland and Grey District have seen their economies hampered by the absence of international visitors, Buller has proved exceptionally robust. In fact, its GDP growth throughout 2020 was 3.4% – the highest in New Zealand, while its GDP growth for the December quarter was 7.5% higher than the year prior.
The diversity of the regional economy lends itself to resilience – agriculture and mining remain the dominant sectors. However, Tash partly credits Buller’s recovery to its harsh history of “boom and bust”.
“When we came here, the region had lost 1100 jobs and it kind of felt that everyone who lived here had already taken a big hit. So when Covid came along, it’s like people had the ability to hunker down a bit more.”
In the seven months since the arrival of Covid-19 in New Zealand, EPIC Westport saw a massive increase in regional engagement, with 284 businesses supported up and down the coast. On average, the centre worked with five individual businesses through one-on-one training every week, and saw 60 attendees through weekly networking gatherings.
“We were just amazed at how many people want to start a business – just startups that were itching for a bit of help and a little bit of a kick,” says Ben.
According to Buller mayor Jamie Cleine, Westport retailers have been incredibly robust throughout the pandemic, having benefited from a big push to shop and support locals.
“There’s a really positive vibe in town and the retailers on the main street were up something 20% at the end of the year. Everyone you talk to is on board.”
Provincial Growth Fund projects
Along with the relatively diverse economy, Buller has profited from the continued progress of a number of flagship projects, developed through the PGF and engagement with EPIC. The Kawatiri Coastal Trail – a bike and walking trail from Westport to Charleston with its offices in the EPIC Hub – has this year been extended through to Carters Beach.
Then there’s the region-wide Pounamu Pathway, which will see state-of-the-art visitor centres with visual storytelling experiences established in Haast, Hokitika, Greymouth and Westport. While Weta workshop has been appointed to lead the design concept phase, CerebralFix will be supporting the project.
“The Pounamu Pathway is a great example of a PGF initiative with so many different forces involved,” says Ben. “It’s being supported by Iwi across the coast, and we’re acting as a go-between with the different agencies. On the flip side of that, we’re one of the creative agencies. So Cerebral Fix will be helping to make that magic come alive.”
As far as EPIC’s blockchain hub goes, while NEM decided not to continue funding physical locations, one of the hub’s initial concept businesses has received investment from Binance, the largest cryptocurrency exchange in the world in terms of trading volume.
“This is a massive vote of confidence for the work we are doing as those guys are globally recognised big dogs,” says Tash.
“We have a few more ideas brewing about how to use blockchain and crypto to empower the coast as we think this tech has huge potential to deliver a sustainable and competitive technology industry to the Coast.”
West Coast vs Wellington
Sustainability, of course, is a contentious word on the coast. For many, it’s the language of dogmatic Wellington policy and virtue signalling; the kind which sought to undermine the coast’s still significant mining interests and replace it with other industries, which, like tourism, turned out to be far more vulnerable. The sentiment was best captured by Greymouth mayor Tania Gibson, when she lambasted Kiwibank’s decision to exclude fossil fuel companies from its portfolio as “glossy bullshit.”
Although she used to be heavily involved in Green Party and conservation politics, Tash says that since she’s moved to the Coast she’s become more accepting of finding sustainable ways to manage extraction industries, rather than shutting them down immediately.
“I’m a greenie at the end of the day, and I have massive concerns about climate change and the vulnerability of these coastal communities to climate change. But I’ve actually really struggled with Green Party politics since I’ve been here and the very two-dimensional message.”
It’s clear there isn’t some ambitious goal at EPIC Westport to expand the region’s tech industry to such a degree as to replace coal or dairy. Rather, its aim is to provide a space for a local farmer with an idea to come in and collaborate, and maybe develop an app to help manage his farm in a cleaner way.
As a fourth generation coaster, Ben says there’s a lot that new tech startups like EPIC can learn from the centuries-old extraction industries – it pays not to show up and purport to be the future.
“These guys are very smart operators from the old [mining] world who worked really hard to build these businesses and should genuinely be admired for everything they achieved,” Ben says. “These businesses still have practical bearings on our community, they are employing people, and they still have scope for doing a little bit better.”
“It’s all very well and good to say, ‘hey, look, we’re going to digital, we’re going to turn this into the top digital spot in the world’. But it takes so long to get a footing and pioneer these things out. And again, this is why I really appreciate those old world industries so much more.”
One of EPIC’s tenants, Sunkita Howard, epitomises this idea of working with controversial industries and providing solutions without judgement or condemnation.
A marine biologist and founder of Bye Bycatch, Howard works with local fisheries and fishermen to develop technology that reduces fish bycatch. Having been raised on the coast and the daughter of staunch conservationists, she has witnessed first-hand the rancour and violence that can erupt between conservation and primary industry interests.
However, she says this experience of confrontation, along with the conservation values she learned from her parents, has motivated her to avoid conflict and find constructive solutions in her work.
“It really set me up for working with the fishing industry. I’m well placed to listen to the voices of skippers and value their experience and the knowledge of fish.
“I don’t prize a university education as the only way to become a master of a subject,” she says. “Many of the fishermen that I work with have sometimes 35 years experience catching fish and developing theories about how those fish behave and what’s different between them, where they live, what their sensory capacities are; they’ve been really generous with sharing that information with me. So that’s how I start my projects.”
Due to the still affordable house prices and stunning landscape, Howard has noticed plenty of other people who have moved to Westport in the past year. While she could have settled anywhere along the Coast in order to do her work, she says EPIC was the main reason she decided to buy a home in Westport.
“I looked at buying in Greymouth. And I looked in Hokitika and I couldn’t find anything comparable to this place. In terms of where I would go and work.
“There’s a whole bunch of cool people that come down and work in this co-working space on a regular basis. They give me the feeling of having colleagues and being part of a community of like minds, which when you’re self employed, I think is especially valuable.”