As we approach the end of 2015, it’s time to reflect on a fascinating and energising 12 months. In some ways though, it is what I cannot say, that makes 2016 potentially the much more exciting of the two years. More of that to come in the ‘Our Preview of 2016’ post.

Today, the focus is on the year just past.

Twelve months ago, WNT Ventures had just recruited Carl Jones as its CEO. We had been in business for 6 months, and the co-founders had spent that time building the legal and operational structures, the WNT fund and some of the partnerships that were to help fashion the future. Since then, Carl has recruited Business Development Manager, Amanda Gilbertson and Executive Assistant, Lisa MacKinnon to the team. A Financial Analyst will be joining WNT, early in the New Year.

The Bay of Plenty, New Zealand: Home to WNT Ventures

The Bay of Plenty, New Zealand: Home to WNT Ventures

Today, WNT Ventures has its first three new tech businesses in full incubation with many more exciting opportunities in the pipeline. One of the key outcomes of Callaghan Innovation’s decision to award WNT Ventures the contract to become one of its three new tech-focused incubators back in 2014 is the profound effect it has had on the innovation ecosystem in the Bay of Plenty. The level of collaboration between the region’s innovation hubs, investor networks and economic development stakeholders has increased exponentially. It’s been wonderful to have been part of that journey.

Back in January, Wharf42 launched the Meteoroid Program at an event in Tauranga. The Program was established to support early stage Kiwi tech companies connect and engage with Silicon Valley. Working with our long-established partner, the Plug and Play Tech Center in Sunnyvale, it remains a key mission of Wharf42 to leverage our Valley networks to support early stage Kiwi tech businesses lock into the Valley ecosystem. Without access to those networks, it is a very difficult place to do business.

Plug and Play Live at the Meteoroid Launch

Plug and Play Live at the Meteoroid Launch

One of the most positive, developing dynamics in the US over the past year has been the increasing focus by New Zealand Trade & Enterprise (NZTE) on the sector. Driven in part by the recruitment of Claudia Batten as Regional Director, NZTE has now established a more formal relationship with Plug & Play and the WeWork co-working space in San Francisco and has created its own support program for early stage tech companies, NZ8. I expect to see a greater focus from NZTE on developing relationships with the wider Valley ecosystem going forward. ‘Keep on squiggling’, I say.

In New Zealand, we often talk about the strength of our ICT sector and our emerging innovation ecosystem. During a visit to the Valley in March, I discussed this with Adiba Barney, CEO of SVForum, the region’s oldest and largest entrepreneur and investor network. Wharf42 is a SVForum Global Outreach Partner. What better way to introduce that emerging sector to Silicon Valley directly than by hosting Adiba with a visit to New Zealand? And if we could add Bill Reichert, Managing Director of Garage Technology Ventures to the in-bound team, just how much better could it get? And so lo and behold, (trying to sound a little Christmassy), Adiba and Bill landed in Auckland in early May.

Catching up with Bill & Adiba in Palo Alto

Catching up with Bill & Adiba in Palo Alto

We attended 14 meetings in 4 cities over 5 days. We met entrepreneurs; we met investors; we met peeps just making it happen. Both were impressed by the range of innovation and energy that they witnessed. One comment however kept coming up. Why wasn’t New Zealand taking more of a thought leadership in AgTech? The comment reflected a little known fact in New Zealand. Over the past two to three years, AgTech has become more mainstream in Silicon Valley. As focus shifts from gum boots to robotics, drones, sensors and big data, the level of interest and investment into disrupting the agriculture sector has increased significantly.

The timing of these comments might have been prophetic. WNT Ventures was just about to make its first investment into the AgTech space. You can read about that here. Mastitis by name, Mastitis by nature. I expect more such investments to come. So my interest in all things Ag had already spiked.

So when I revisited the Valley, this time for 11 weeks from the beginning of July, I reconnected with Adiba to discuss the possibility of organising an AgTech Conference in the Valley in 2016. That meant connecting and engaging with a number of the leading AgTech players in the region; innovators, incubators, accelerators and funds. After a few weeks of scoping out the landscape, it was clear that that there was significant local interest in learning more about just what New Zealand was doing in the space. The positive outcome from many discussions is that on Thursday 21 April 2016, SVForum will be hosting their first ever major AgTech Conference. Fortunately, it is to be co-organised by Wharf42, so expect considerable Kiwi input. Today, I am working with NZTE, Callaghan Innovation and a number of others to make this happen.

Since Jacqui and I returned to New Zealand at the end of September, we have begun to identify synergistic opportunities. It is these that I suspect will begin to drive some of our focus in 2016.

Whilst Wharf42 was established in 2012 to support early stage Kiwi tech companies connect and engage with the Valley innovation ecosystem, others in New Zealand have taken note. I have spoken before about the need for New Zealand to develop a corporate venture culture. Building on our experience and networks in Silicon Valley, I believe there is a real opportunity to turn that hope into reality. It would be interesting if Wharf42’s long term legacy is not our work with startups but with our record of building up that corporate venture culture which sees our largest businesses embracing disruption and working more closely with New Zealand’s startup sector.

It will be a significant step. Some might even call it a pivot. The drive comes from my first hand experience of how US and other global corporates leverage relationships with Silicon Valley incubators, accelerators and the wider startup community. It’s a win – win for all concerned. New Zealand needs to play catch-up.

Overall, 2015 has been an incredible fulfilling year – both onshore and in-market. The year has set up some really exciting opportunities for 2016 which I suspect will lead to a greater focus on that New Zealand corporate market.

I simply end this review of 2015 by thanking all out friends and partners who have made the achievements of 2015 possible. It’s been a privilege to work with you all. We look forward to continuing the journey into 2016.