How blockbuster films turned New Zealand capital into a thriving startup mecca

WREDA CEO Chris Whelan believes the rise of creativity, technology, and government support have helped transform Wellington from a government town into an exciting startup ecosystem.


Image: Tourism New Zealand

New Zealand's capital city, Wellington, rose to fame when films such as Lord of the Rings, Avatar, and King Kong turned the city into their film set, and their production and post-production hub, according to Chris Whelan.

Whelan is the CEO of Wellington Regional Economic Development Agency (WREDA), the agency responsible for fostering collaboration between business and government in Wellington. He believes these movies and Wellington's supposedly "phenomenal" creative industry spawned the city's thriving startup scene, which has since spilled into the tech industry.

"If you ask me what the secret sauce is, it's the fact that all of those people in any given day of the week could run into each other, share ideas, and work together," he said.

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But Wellington has not always been like this. In fact, 15-20 years ago, Wellington was considered a government town. Whelan said part of the change has come about through forces such as globalisation and urbanisation, and the city recognised it needed to move with the times to remain economically competitive.

"We recognise as a city, and as a group of entrepreneurs and innovators, we are a country of 4.5 million people and city of 300,000 and we can't afford to focus only on ourselves," he said.

"So, from the very outset we've got a culture that says: 'We want to be globally orientated, we want to be driving innovation, driving digital technology.' I think that's where that realisation came from," he said

Whelan acknowledged that support from the New Zealand government, through the introduction of additional frameworks and funding, has helped to drive the entrepreneurial culture in the city.

For example, back in 2014, the New Zealand government and Workhere, a company that connects talent from around the globe to New Zealand-based companies, joined forces to launch a campaign branded "The Innovation Islands" to attract IT talent from Australia and other countries in the region, as well as Kiwi ex-pats to join the New Zealand sector. This saw companies including Xero, Orion Health, and Datacom take advantage of the campaign.

The New Zealand government at the time also announced it was investing NZ$28.6 million over four years to support ICT graduate schools, in hopes of attracting top students and academics, and connect them with local high-tech firms.

More recently, the New Zealand government introduced the Global Impact Visas initiative [PDF], aimed to attract more entrepreneurs to establish their ventures in New Zealand. The visas will initially run as part of a four-year pilot where 400 visas are expected to be offered.

Whelan added another key aspect to creating a thriving entrepreneurial culture is making it an attractive city to live in.

He touted, for instance, Wellington has more cafes and restaurants per capita than New York; it is the highest paid population per capita in New Zealand; the cost of living is lower than Auckland and major east coast cities of Australia; and people have the opportunity to cycle to work or go mountain biking, running, and paddle boarding on their lunch breaks.

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He also added there's an attractive opportunity for New Zealand and Australia to work together to take advantage of the Trans-Tasman business opportunities, highlighting that Australia can learn from New Zealand, in particular Wellington, in becoming a so-called weightless economy.

"I would go far as saying rather than making it Australia or New Zealand, we should be looking at this as an ANZAC opportunity for us to take on in the southeast corner of the world... in the innovation space, digital space, and creative space; and for Australia and New Zealand to collaborate around that and take Trans-Tasman capabilities to the world."

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