Coup for Epic co-founder

TESS MCCLURE
Last updated 05:00 12/07/2014

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The director of Christchurch's Epic innovation hub is looking to take the concept global, after receiving a prestigious United States government fellowship.

Wil McLellan is the co-founder of Epic, a community of about 20 entrepreneurial companies and 300 staff who are accommodated in a modern temporary building in an area of post-earthquake Christchurch that has been designated an innovation and enterprise precinct.

The aim is to create a world-class campus for innovation-based Canterbury companies in the heart of Christchurch's rebuilt CBD.

McLellan is the 17th New Zealander to receive the highly competitive Eisenhower Fellowship - a US government and private-sector grant which selects 24 of the world's top academics, entrepreneurs and innovators to travel the US for research and networking.

McLellan  was awarded the fellowship for his "100 Heroes Innovation Bridge" proposal, which involves linking innovation hubs on a global scale.

McLellan said he was "stunned - pleasantly stunned" - to be the next Eisenhower Fellow.

His proposal will create a pool of 100 expert business mentors to help companies in the US and New Zealand develop joint ventures and provide access to funding.

"Hubs like Epic are appearing all over the world," McLellan said, "so the simplest premise of the project is to connect those outposts of innovation with each other and with a network of services around them which can help new ventures start.

"It's about building on what we've created - Epic showed us the value of bringing people with common interests and values together. We've seen the benefit of connecting Cantabrians with [other] New Zealanders, and this opportunity is to connect that with the world."

US embassy charge d'affaires Marie Damour announced the fellowship at the US embassy's Independence Day reception this week.

Damour said the exchange had mutual benefits for New Zealand and the US.

"We want to have a relationship with people whom we think are going to be leaders in their countries, that's in our interests."

Following natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina in the US, there was shared interest in issues surrounding community resilience, innovation and how to connect networks and allow entrepreneurs to plug into them.

"Having someone with Wil's experience come and discuss that is extraordinarily useful."

The fellowship covers seven weeks in the US, including five weeks of travel and networking.

McLellan believed having Epic as a real-world example to put forward had boosted his chances at the highly competitive fellowship.

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"The fact we had already achieved something gave people a lot of confidence in our track record," he said

Damour said each fellowship was specifically catered to the proposal, and McLellan would be "exposed to senior leadership in the US, not just in politics but in business and academia".

Former Eisenhower scholar Bernedine Vester said the fellowship "will open up doors".

"We have great thinkers in New Zealand but it's about leveraging our talent," she said.

McLellan said while the desire for the project had been established, implementation was still a work in progress.

"We know the why - the how is what we're working on now. Like we did with Epic, the first thing is to go and talk to people, find out if it's worthwhile."

Like Epic, the scheme would have an emphasis on information technology and tech businesses, but McLellan said there would be "no exclusions".

Previous fellows from New Zealand include Minister for Social Development Paula Bennett; Otago University Dean of Maori, Pacific and Indigenous Studies Paul Tapsell; and Outward Bound chief executive Trevor Taylor.

- The Press

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