Business collaboration spins around innovation hub

Innovative: Peter Maxwell, the man behind Waikato Innovation Park, spent 30 years as a banker before getting into the business development game.
Innovative: Peter Maxwell, the man behind Waikato Innovation Park, spent 30 years as a banker before getting into the business development game.

Kashka Tunstall meets Waikato Innovation Park's Peter Maxwell, who has spent more than a decade in the business of innovation. 

Stepping into Waikato Innovation Park, you can both feel and hear the hum of successful business collaboration.

There's busy chatter reverberating around the walls, the drum of feet pounding rapidly across the vinyl and the vibrant atmosphere of Kiwi businesses busy at what they do best - innovation.

After six years at New Zealand's only science park, the park's deputy chief executive, Peter Maxwell, is still feeling the energy.

The park is New Zealand's hub for ag-biotech business growth and sits on nearly 17 hectares of land beside the Ruakura Research Centre.

Officially opened in 2004, the park has grown to be home to 52 businesses and more than 350 staff.

Maxwell, 61, holds dual roles. As well as being park deputy chief executive he works around the Waikato and the Bay of Plenty delivering support as part of the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment's "regional business partner" scheme.

What he's discovered on his travels is a lack of synergy between two regions. He thinks they could benefit from each other if they collaborated more.

"The Kaimais are a lovely range of mountains but they act as more than just a physical barrier," he says. "They're a cultural barrier, a financial barrier. It's almost like a different country."

He also reckons the Waikato is "sadly lacking" in investment nous.

Maxwell was chief executive of the short-lived Greenfields Network, a Waikato investment angel group that was set up just as the global financial crisis hit.

"The timing was awful," he says.

"I'd like to think that we could get that going again because while there are business angel networks in Tauranga and up in Auckland, I think it would be good for Waikato to get its own."

He is looking into how he could start the network up again and says it would take 18 months before it could stand on its own two feet.

Maxwell spent 30 years as a banker before getting into the business development game.

He had worked in branch, regional and divisional banking with British bank Barclays but moved into the incubation business after being posted at the University of Bristol in the late 90s on secondment.

"Until then, universities had research and they had teaching but they were trying to start the commercialisation side of things," Maxwell says.

He worked with the university for two and a half years setting up the equivalent of WaikatoLink, Waikato University's commercialisation company. And the job was a catalyst for a career change.

"Basically, when I got there I thought ‘Where has this been all my life?' I really enjoyed it," Maxwell says.

He says he ended up learning his own fair share at the university and when he was asked to run the intellectual property department, a daunting challenge, he had to think seriously about whether he was right for the role.

"I had 12 PhDs reporting to me so they did the science-y bit and I handled the dumb questions," he said.

But it was a good move. He found it an enjoyable job, and he was asked to set up two business incubators and raise £30 million for a science park.

It put him in good stead to vie for a similar position here when he and his Kiwi wife decided to move closer to their New Zealand family.

Maxwell arrived in the Waikato in 2006, joining the park as business incubation manager.

A science park, also known as a research or technology park, is a precinct with buildings dedicated to business-oriented scientific research.

Waikato's park was funded by the Government, the Hamilton City Council and WEL Energy Trust - each pledging $2 million.

The park is a type of business incubator - but not to the extent of Hamilton's Soda Inc.

"With an incubator, it's very prescriptive help," Maxwell says.

"It helps concentrate the mind when you know you have to stand in front of people and be held accountable.

"With incubators, one, it's getting advice and, two, it's helping you keep focused."

Traditional business incubators such as Soda Inc have a purging process that expels entrepreneurial business that aren't hitting targets, but Innovation Park has no such policy.

There is no maximum staying period - incubators will usually only keep you for a total of three years - no external board or panel to be held accountable to and, while Maxwell and his team are always on hand to give support, the level of involvement with park staff is completely up to the individual businesses.

One other important strength of the park Maxwell champions is the strong inter-business support network in place.

"Where else do you have a pool or a network of managing directors who are going through the same challenges and issues as you?"

Quite often, business leaders will talk to one another and bounce ideas around together, often linking up where they can to deliver on a project.

Meanwhile, that hum at Waikato Innovation Park is set to get louder, with plans for expansion next year.

Maxwell is keen to have at least one new building under construction this time next year.