Developed by Ngā Kaitiaki, the mobile Ahi Kā Rangers game enables users to move through their natural environments and earn rewards for the actions they take in improving their ecosystems (image: supplied).

How lockdown took a group of young entrepreneurs on a crash course in startup life

The support and guidance for this year’s Callaghan Innovation C-Prize finalists proved invaluable as Covid-19 turned the challenge on its head.

Starting a business in the midst of a global pandemic could seem like a really bad idea. But as businesses across the country battled the effects of Covid-19, the Callaghan Innovation C-Prize organisers were helping its nine finalist teams build the framework for their own businesses. Now working under conditions that were unfathomable when entries were called for, the finalists have adapted, innovated and examined the way Covid-19 has changed the way their business ideas fit into the world.

With a focus on finding solutions to environmental challenges, the 2019 C-Prize challenge attracted a diverse range of entries, from waste management gadgets to game development. The nine final teams symbolise the breadth of the eco-tech market. 

While the challenge would usually involve several face-to-face meetings, talks, and workshops from industry experts, this year’s lockdown restrictions meant the work was almost entirely online. Using digital formats, video conferencing and other online tools, the programme adapted to a new environment, and both Callaghan Innovation and the finalists say they’ve learnt a lot from the process.

Before and after: Callaghan Innovation’s energy and environment group manager Richard Quin speaks to the programme in two different worlds (image: supplied).

Natasha Evans, one of the mentors appointed to help teams through the C-Prize process, says the teams’ commitment to their projects was evident as they pushed forward when forced to make changes to their business models due to the pandemic. 

“That ability to say ‘here’s what we would usually be doing this month, but we can’t, so what else can we do to help our business that will develop it further?’ impressed me the most,” Evans says.

Amber Taylor, founder of C-Prize finalist Ngā Kaitiaki, is developing an augmented reality game to teach people about their local ecosystems and reward actions they take to improve them. Her team had to change its plan to host an educational camp at the Institute of Awesome in Raglan to focusing on smaller events for kids in parks and local areas where social distancing measures could be more effectively monitored.

“We knew that if we got the game side right and built the right game community, we would be able to get people to these events and teach them about the environmental sciences at those pop-up camps,” says Taylor.

The Ngā Kaitiaki team also changed its testing model when schools began to close and community events were banned. At first, the sudden turnaround was difficult, but Taylor says her team adapted the product to provide a more educational focus and get children and parents involved while they were spending more time at home.

“We redesigned our testing format so we could roll it out on digital channels. Then we placed more emphasis on the education part of the game because there were full days off school and kids and parents wanted educational content,” she says.  

Another C-Prize finalist Zincovery is dedicated to reducing the cost of recycling zinc waste created by the galvanising industry and is hoping to find opportunity out of the rubble of Covid-19. For co-founder Jonathan Ring and the rest of the Zincovery team, the disruption didn’t detract from its goal to get the product out to as many New Zealand businesses as possible. He thinks the cost-saving and environmental impacts of his product will potentially be even more important now as the country begins to recover from the effects of the pandemic.

“We’re looking to provide a service to the galvanising industry, where we take their waste away for less than they pay for disposal, and we make money by recycling those products,” says Ring.  

“People always ask me, ‘Why don’t you just sell equipment to waste producers?’ And now it’s a case of that being completely off the table because none of these people are out there wanting to buy multi-million-dollar pieces of equipment after Covid-19.”

Zincovery’s Thomas Hughes melting and molding some recovered zinc (image: supplied).

For all the teams involved, the support from the now digital C-Prize programme had become more valuable than ever. Both Taylor and Ring agree the guidance from their mentors made the situation a lot easier to respond to. Taylor hopes to retain the relationship with her mentor even after the challenge ends, saying the help over the last few turbulent months has been essential.

“Our mentors have been so influential in helping us better shape and refine our idea,” she says. “The fortnightly meetings have really provided us with new perspectives and they’ve connected us with other people in the industry who can help us progress our project, whether that’s within Callaghan Innovation or external networks. They’ve done all of the dot-connecting for us.”

Evans has been impressed not only with the teams’ response to the huge challenges Covid-19 presented but the quick pivot the C-Prize organisers made to continue delivering the content that makes it so valuable for teams. She says there’s definitely room for some of the digital changes to be kept in the future. 

“For the teams, it’s nice to have the online content that they can access at a time that works for them, and the activities might just be an hour or two out of their day rather than having to travel and spend a day or three days in Auckland. I think in the future it will make sense to have a mix of digital formats and in-person meetings.”

Evans says that the biggest thing each of the C-Prize finalists did to help themselves succeed was to build a business based on purpose and mission, as well as learn from their mentors’ experiences.

“The teams I’ve seen in the C-Prize are really inspiring and I love the amount of passion they have for solving the problems we have at the moment. I think that passion and drive will help them, even though they’re launching businesses at a really challenging time.”

As a result of the move to COVID-19 Alert Level 3 in Auckland and Alert Level 2 in the rest of NZ, the final C-Prize award evening scheduled for Friday 14 August has been postponed. We will update as soon as more information is available.

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