Business is Boring is a weekly podcast series presented by The Spinoff in association with Callaghan Innovation. Host Simon Pound speaks with innovators and commentators focused on the future of New Zealand, with the interview available as both audio and a transcribed excerpt. This week he talks to Imche Fourie, General Manager of LevelTwo, and Dr Will Barker, CEO of Mint Innovation
Tucked away in Parnell is an innovation centre that’s helped propel some of the biggest names in local tech forward, although you might not have heard of the place or even some of the names. It’s a truism of the local scene that some companies are easy for the media to cover, and some – like many facets of science and technology – are a little more complicated and don’t get the airtime.
This hub used to be a Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) building which let space to projects with interesting science. Some companies, like Rocket Lab, you may have heard of. Others, like Lanzatech, are one of the great untold stories of the local scene. And there’ll be others you’ll be hearing of a lot more of in the future, like Mint Innovation who are turning e-waste into literal gold.
The importance of fostering this creativity has meant that what started as an accidental meeting of minds has become very purposeful. Today, the space operates as Level Two, an incubator specialising in deep technology. So, what is ‘deep technology’? Well, to find out and talk tech, incubation and the next crop of great ideas, Imche Fouri, general manager of innovation at Level Two and Dr Will Barker, CEO of Mint Innovation join me now.
In so many tech spaces, people invest ahead of revenue. But with science, you’re also often investing ahead of even knowing if the thing works or if there’s actually a market for it. It must be such an interesting process to get involved with those investment committees and those early stage companies.
Imche: Absolutely, and it starts with the idea first. It always does. The theory follows shortly after.
That’s when early stage investment tends to get involved, when there’s a great idea, great founder or scientist, and they just need a bit of scope to test it out. Yes, we don’t know if it’s going to work, but that’s part of the excitement. But it’s also why investing in deep tech early on is difficult for a lot of investors.
How does Mint work with Level Two? How do you work with this innovation precinct and what kind of benefits are involved?
Will: The benefits are endless for us. LanzaTech used to be housed in this building. When they moved out, we found a small space. LanzaTech used to take up that whole floor, and we just took a small office.
As other companies moved out they left lab infrstructure they couldn’t take with them. So [that’s a] benefit. Equally there’s clean space – space that’s had nothing in it – so it’s flexible for us to able to build a pilot barn, for example. The building’s well consented… so you can do chemical processes, you can do biological processes, so we can literally walk in and it’s a turnkey solution.
Then the community benefits are even greater. There are companies who have raised very, very large amounts of money. Rocket Lab is one, with Peter Beck still involved in some way with Level Two. He’s raised hundreds and millions of dollars. Sean Simpson has raised hundreds and millions of dollars and there are other companies that are growing today that have raised tens of millions of dollars. So having access to their networks, having access to their expertise is amazing and you can’t buy that sort of thing. You literally can’t buy that sort of advice in New Zealand.
Then there’s IP advice: who are the best lawyers? Who are the best advisers for this? How do you leverage this grant? How do you work with Callaghan and all of these things. They’re intangible and you literally can’t buy that sort of information in New Zealand.
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