Just before we kicked off play for the Team of 5 Million vs COVID-19, the Business, Innovation, and Growth (BIG) team here at Northland Inc was in the throes of planning our startup support programme for 2020. 

Developed in tune with the Northland community’s needs as a region on the rise, The Pick has been our mechanism to capture, build, and support local innovation and entrepreneurship. Through 3 iterations, winners have gone on to secure spots in highly competitive, globally endorsed national accelerator programmes, win awards from Good magazine and the Sustainable Business Network, get on shelves at 2 major supermarkets across the North Island, and, with our ongoing support, receive over $1million (combined) in public and private investment.

With a new decade to launch and a hot theme heading the whiteboard, we were off to a running start.

But then COVID-19 went seriously global, and our regional, national, and global circumstances changed.

Indeed, with the onslaught of doomsday predictions and morbid parallels to the Great Depression reverberating around our respective four walls, it seemed morally irresponsible to be encouraging businesses to start.

However, as time went on and the dust settled a little (or rather, was sloughed off in cabin-fevered cleaning sprees), negativity lost the spotlight. What prevailed was empathy, resourcefulness, and a collective desire to build back something better – nothing less than the chemistry of a successful startup. 

From Levels 4 to 2, novel and creative ideas have sprung forth, targeting problems both new and enduring. As part of Northland Inc’s support response for the businesses of Te Tai Tokerau (over 600 of them since end of March), I have been treated to more than my fair share of the innovation and resilience thrumming through our rohe. Here’s a few of the highlights:

  • One of Whangarei’s own rangatahi co-organised ‘Hack the Crisis’, a 48-hour challenge designed to build and tautoko ideas for life in New Zealand beyond COVID-19. Alongside logistics, 19-year-old Jayden Szekely headed the community team and creative direction of the weekend, which, with almost 1000 kiwis participating, represented collaboration in the startup community to a level beyond more mature entrepreneurial ecosystems around the world.

Concepts were made a market reality by teams of total strangers across NZ: a platform to connect Kiwis across generations through story-telling and art, a 15-minutes-to-live website builder, an app that converts steps walked to discounts at the shop, a peer-to-peer delivery service, a virtual supermarket made up of local stores…the list goes on.

  • Facing down the loss of a high-value retail deal and a host of complications with an established market opportunity in the USA, I was scrambling for some kind of consoling statement as Jules Bright of Earth’s Kitchen (a 2018 grad of The Pick), with barely a breath, began outlining in detail the analysis of a switch in focus to Europe.

Rather than cutting operations and retreating, Jules took stock of her value proposition and the problem she was solving – that we can’t protect ourselves from the sun without exposing our skin and our environment to toxic chemicals and beach-loads of single-use plastic – and shifted focus. She knew exactly what she needed to do this, and through the Regional Business Partner Network, we could help her take the leap.

  • Debbie and Nigel Stowe (Olive & Ash / MEET VINCE - 2019 Pick grads), local culinary champs on a mission to de-mystify plant-based eating, had just gotten stocked by Farro, and beaten out the top half of the North Island to win the ‘Good Food Boost’. But lockdown brought forward delivery issues with their supplier, and, finding they couldn’t source their recyclable packaging within NZ at the smaller quantities they needed, it looked like things could get shaky down the track. 

Not content to wait and see, the pair sought out a local supplier and started tinkering with new products from the waste stream. Monitoring consumer habits and the delineation of ‘essential business’, they redeveloped their strategy to put employment for Northlanders at the centre and are working on scaling production. 

  • Numbers of enquires coming Growth channel were triple the year to March, and funding to support Te Kōrau, a Māori-contextualised entrepreneurship programme developed by two Northland wāhine, in partnership with AUT and Northland Inc, was announced by Minister Jones last week. 

I could keep going. The point is, COVID-19 has shown that we can each take a leaf out of the entrepreneur’s books and take bold action that, ahead of time, would have denounced unthinkable.As Level 2 sees us lift – if not yet throw off - our battened hatches, it’s going to take a conscious effort to ensure we don’t substitute our closed-door defence with one of closed minds. Now is the time for us to think about how we mobilise what Northlanders have in spades: creativity, community-mindedness, and resourcefulness. 

Why not start with sending your startup idea to [email protected]?

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