Diversity of innovation drives Taranaki economy

Taranaki's 110,000 residents represent only 2.6 per cent of the New Zealand population.

But in the year ending March 2013, the region contributed more than $8 billion to the national economy, leading the country in GDP per capita. There is no place in New Zealand that generates more income per person than Taranaki.

When Statistics NZ put out these figures recently, it highlighted that the Taranaki economy is driven by oil and gas, and to a lesser extent dairy. What is often understated about both industries is that they thrive on innovation. And when a culture of innovation takes hold in big sectors, it filters through into others as people become accustomed to new ways of thinking and doing and share their approaches. The population develops a solutions-based mind- set.

Over the past three years some 94 research and development (R&D) grants worth $8.1 million have been awarded to 52 Taranaki businesses. These grants are administered through Callaghan Innovation, New Zealand's high tech HQ for business. This is a direct result of the Government's ambition to double R&D expenditure by firms and boost exports from 30 per cent to 40 per cent of GDP by 2025.

Callaghan Innovation's mandate is to accelerate the commercialisation of innovation. We're targeting businesses with a track record of R&D investment and new ventures that have a real shot at commercial success, which in turn creates job opportunities and export returns.

It was incredibly encouraging to see the Taranaki Daily News run a series on local innovators this year.

Firms like Zelam, TDTech, Bremner Music and MetOcean have flown under the radar in Taranaki until recently, despite the impressive strides each has made in product development and delivery. Their common link is that each has utilised assistance from Callaghan Innovation to grow - whether that is through funding, advice or technical support.

It's the diversity of innovation in Taranaki that is surprising to many. The innovation scene is rife with entrepreneurs making a success out of new ideas and technologies. Businesses born small are now staking a claim in the global market place. They are investing in staff, training and R&D - adding to our knowledge bank and global competitiveness.

Van Dyck Fine Foods is a good example. New Plymouth's leading pancake makers are well established in New Zealand and recognised that real growth could only come through exporting. To achieve that, they had to find a way to get their products to international markets without compromising on the quality for overseas consumers.

That meant designing and installing tailor-made machinery to produce, snap freeze and package their range of pancakes. In 2011 Van Dyck's completed a major extension to their factory, adding a second production line solely for hotcakes, tripling output capacity. With an importer already secured in Singapore, they then broke into the Malaysian market. Last year they set-up their own import and sales division in Australia and sent their first shipment of crepes to the Philippines.

There is no slowing down.

Callaghan Innovation is providing ongoing assistance with product development and a second major factory extension is underway now, with the markets of Taiwan, Hong Kong and Thailand in Van Dyck's sights. Exports account for 30 per cent of total sales right now. The goal is to grow that to 50 per cent. Not many people would have predicted a small New Plymouth company could soon become a leading pancake supplier in Asia-Pacific.

Then there is Taranakipine. With a 30-year pedigree delivering builder-ready engineered wood products in New Plymouth, Taranakipine is a leading illustration of how Government assistance can be strategically utilised to gain a market advantage.

Having worked with New Zealand Trade and Enterprise (NZTE) through its Better By Design programme, Taranakipine undertook market research to find out what consumers really wanted. It has gone on to work with Callaghan Innovation and Auckland University on research of advanced materials and is about to take a new product to market next month - utilising a student grant to fund an intern who works on the product development and commercialisation fulltime.

With established markets in Australia and America, Taranakipine isn't just focused on new products but on coming up with innovative ways to improve its current offerings and make them easier for builders to install. Its engagement with NZTE and Callaghan Innovation is now part of its business routine, turning innovation into a core capability of its business. Maintaining and expanding this capability will ensure its success into the future.

New Zealand is not just a commodity exporter and tourism destination. We have the knowledge base that is delivering high-tech, high wage jobs. We have the talent, we have the resources and an increasing belief in our innovation-driven future.

Taranaki's future economy will be driven by innovators. The solutions-based mind-set that is so prevalent here is laying out the roadmap to sustained growth and - to use the words of Sir Paul Callaghan - to ensuring this region remains a place where talent wants to live.

Mary Quin is the CEO of Callaghan Innovation.

Taranaki Daily News