Manchester St mingle marvel

GERARD CAMPBELL
Last updated 16:46 24/02/2013
Wil McLellan the founder of EPIC Hub on the cnr of St Asaph and manchester.

Wil McLellan the founder of EPIC Hub on the cnr of St Asaph and manchester.

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Technology entrepreneur Wil McLellan gives everything he does his all - a titanium plate underneath his right eye proves it.

The plate is there after McLellan suffered a fractured eye socket during training for last November's Fight for Christchurch charity boxing match.

McLellan does nothing half- hearted and with that same drive he co-founded the Epic IT hub in Manchester St with Colin Andersen (Effectus) last year.

British immigrant McLellan has lived in Christchurch for 10 years and helped found game- development studio Stickmen Studios. He and Anderson dreamt up the Enterprise Precinct and Innovation Campus (Epic) in the wake of the devastating February 22 earthquake, and it may well be the spark of something very important to Christchurch's future.

What McLellan and Anderson came up with was a plan to house technology companies - all leaders in their fields - together in a building in a communal-type arrangement that let employees and their ideas mingle.

It's an open-work approach made famous by internet giant Google.

McLellan says Epic was a huge undertaking for him - he's a man who admits he has never even put up a shelf - and the impetus for the complex came as a result of the Christchurch earthquakes. "This is entirely demand driven. This would not have happened without the earthquake. It's one of the few silver linings, if you know what I mean. It's a good thing that has come out of the rubble.

"We dusted ourselves off and some of us said we've got some really positive ideas here and normally it would have been too difficult to rally together all the different companies, it would have been too difficult to get the land off the Government, but the Government acknowledged now was the time to do some serious stuff and keep these companies going."

McLellan says taking the idea from concept to final building "nearly killed us both". The mental toll was "tremendous".

"We couldn't have done it without the support of our families, 24/7. We both contemplated quitting several times - we're not superheroes. It was only the people there to pick us up that kept us going."

"There were days when I rang Colin almost in tears, saying, 'Man, I can't do this any more', and he would say, 'Mate, don't worry. Chuck me the ball. Take a few days . . .' Two days later I rang Colin and I went, 'Mate, I'm back.' He said, 'Great. I quit.' I was like, 'Don't worry, man. Chuck me the ball.'

"I'd come home sometimes and sit with my head in my hands and my wife would put her arms around me and say, 'We can get there.' And we did."

McLellan rang Craig Nevill- Manning, engineering director at Google in New York and also a New Zealander, for advice. As well as advice on how to structure the building's layout, Google also funded a barista coffee setup. Weta Workshop donated original artwork to hang on the walls of the shared spaces.

"We sat back and said, 'We've never done this before', and what do you normally do when you've not done something before? You look at inspirational environments for ideas, but instead of just looking, I rang Craig and told him what we were planning and he asked what he could do to help. The earthquake was this catalyst because normally if I'd rung him he probably would have said, 'Sorry, I'm a bit busy at the moment', but everyone had seen the earthquake and everyone wanted to help.

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"The thing I liked about Google was that they didn't develop tech parts: they developed environments that let people mingle. So the vision we had for this place [Epic] was to encourage people to mingle. It was about breaking down the barriers among companies."

The main anchor tenant is Sli- Systems, and other tenants include Effectus, Stickmen Studios and Meta Solutions.

McLellan says the Christchurch City Council provided the land rent-free for five years, and $900,000 in grants came from the Ministry for Science and Innovation and New Zealand Trade and Enterprise.

The city council and City Care donated time and materials towards landscaping the grounds. The BNZ was the main financier of the project, says McLellan, and an important tenant, sponsoring the BNZ lounge in the complex.

McLellan hopes Epic will attract talented people back into Christchurch and he says the hub needs to be in the central city, not in a suburb.

"One of the papers in my [university] degree was the death of the inner-city, so I realised that out-of-town malls and companies moving [away from the city] doesn't do anything to help have a vibrant city life.

"In cities, you've got your businesspeople walking around, you've got your high-tech people with disposable income. And with the vision we had, we hoped Christchurch could be an inspirational place for the future. All of us wanted to be here and it comes down to attracting staff."

He says trying to attract the best staff in the world to work in an industrial estate isn't easy.

"Whereas if you say 'We're smack bang in [the middle of] one of the most innovative, new, exciting cities in the world' that helps us. It was also our own staff: none of us wanted to be in a warehouse in the middle of nowhere, none of us wanted to struggle to attract people and thinking we're going to be trying to sell a vision that isn't exciting.

"And then there is the bigger picture: We want to live in a city that has a heart. We all live here, we've all made a huge commitment to stay here, so we were thinking it just makes sense to have high-tech, entrepreneurial companies right back in the middle [of the city]. For us it was always passionate about the middle."

The Epic project has shown McLellan the things that he can do well and the things he doesn't do so well. It put him out of his comfort zone.

"I've had some terrible moments during this project where I've been completely outside my comfort zone and I never want to go there again. I've learned that my skill set is in pulling the right people together. I'm an instigator . . . it's reinforced my faith in people."

Epic is merely the first stage of McLellan and Anderson's plan.

"The vision is to seize the opportunity with the blueprint that has been provided. They've drawn a big square around this area and called it the innovation precinct. Provided we can work with the landowners and provided we can get the funding, it's a case of Epic being innovative and in some respects inspirational," he says.

"We want people to walk in and say, 'Wow, all these companies are working together and it works.' But we've done it [Epic] on a very low budget so for stage two we want to take all the magic from stage one - the inspiration, the collaboration, the economies from sharing space - and put it into an iconic environment that is world class."

Stage one was codenamed Sanctuary. Stage two is called Sigma. This involves creating a world-class multibuilding campus for innovation-based Canterbury companies, all working from the heart of Christchurch's rebuilt CBD.

McLellan wants something that Christchurch people could be proud of and walk past and say, "So this is why companies come here."

"That's the vision. That's where the magic happens. The magic happens with people talking and sharing ideas. Proximity helps innovation. It really does. There's no substitute for sitting down and having a coffee with someone when you're doing business."

McLellan is passionate about Christchurch and never thought about leaving the city after the earthquakes.

"I love this place. I remember my wife saying the day after the earthquake . . . we were in our tent in the backyard and I woke up and said, 'What the f... am I going to do? I've got staff with no equipment. The house is gone. The city is gone. And she said, 'Wil, the house is destroyed, the office is destroyed, but our home in Christchurch is still here. We can get through this.' "

Three months since it opened, McLellan is happy with where things are at. "Epic is performing even better than expected. Tenants love it - it's a welcoming and inspiring environment, where they are surrounded by like- minded people. Many have made new friends and business partnerships and we are very happy that lots of external groups like the software cluster and Ministry of Awesome regularly use the shared spaces for their meetings. In short, Epic is connecting people."

- The Press

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