June 27 2017, updated 4:05am

Innovation series: Parnell hub houses next gen of billion-dollar innovators

Last updated 05:00 09/04/2017

Co-founder of LanzaTech Sean Simpson said it is a dream come true to return to the site where he started his global company and see his former employees building their own inventions.

The dubbed innovation corridor at Level Two has had science and engineering legends lease its laboratory work space.
Founder of Rocket Lab Peter Beck started testing rockets in the Level Two basement.
Avertana co-founder and chief executive Sean Molloy said a key part of being innovative is ensuring staff are engaged with what you are aiming to achieve.
Molloy and an Avertana employee laughed at their 'mad scientist' look during lab testing at their space in Level Two.
This bare and large space at Level Two has been empty for two months whilst the property manager negotiates which technology company can move into it next.

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On level two of a 1950s building nestled in an Auckland central suburb lies a gray corridor leading to laboratories and workshops where some of New Zealand's greatest innovation success stories were born.

The Parnell site named Level Two is now home to the next cluster of ground-breaking innovators who are set to 'change the world' with their technological inventions. 

The dubbed 'innovation corridor' was created by the co-founder of BioConsortia​ Peter Wigley, whose research and development lab remains at the site today.

When Sean Simpson, co-founder of the now Chicago based biotechnology company LanzaTech​, was looking for a place to set up, Wigley let him in.

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Since then, space at Level Two has been leased by more than 20 companies. 

For six years it housed Rocket Lab, a then far-fetched start-up and now global aerospace company, that last week announced its worth to be more than $1 billion after a $100 million international funding round. 

Its founder Peter Beck said Level Two enabled a pace of innovation like no other technology hub did. 

"We were not the first and most probably, not the last to fill the basement full of smoke," Beck said.

Property manager and tenant on the site Mat Rowe said many successful businesses outgrew the space. He called them 'graduates'. 

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Landlord Terry Gould did not mind rockets being tested in his basement or a concoction of chemicals being mixed inside his walls, Rowe said.

Rowe said Gould had been fantastic at understanding the nature of start-ups since he bought the building from Callaghan Innovation.

Kruse, Cord Bank, Moxion and Ti Tonics are among the alumni companies. 

The next generation, 12 early to mid-growth phase science, technology and engineering companies, who have set up shop in Level Two are just as impressive. 

Former LanzaTech employee Sean Molloy co-founded Avertana, a company that is extracting valuable minerals and chemicals from industrial waste to be used in paint, fertiliser and cement.

He has spent the past seven years working at Level Two. He was sick of the local lunch spots but said the site was unlike anything else in New Zealand. 

"It is an environment where people do not question what you are doing," Molloy said.

Co-founder and boss of Hydroxsys​ Mark Hartstone said since he moved into a 250-square-metre lab at Level Two in August 2016, his clean-tech start-up that extracts water from waste had accelerated hugely.

"There is just a bunch of doers in here and not many talkers," Hartstone said.

"We will change the world."

Other current tenants are Pastoral Robotics, Pictor, Mint Innovation, Breathe Easy, Drikolor, Dotterel, NZ Bio, New Zealand Cosmeceuticals and NZeno. 

Starting out at Level Two was exciting for Simpson because he was surrounded by great examples driving towards success, he said.

"It was very supportive but we also knew it was a case of sink or swim on our own," Simpson said.

Simpson said it was a dream come true to return to the building and see his former employees building their own companies in the same place he started.

His advice to them was to "go for it". 

"I do not think any official incubator across the country would rival the success that has come out of this corridor."

Level Two's website described the site as bare, with no frills. 

Space on-site costs a minimum of $950 each month but you did not pay for what you did not not use, Rowe said. 

Tenants share equipment under private agreements. 

Scientific equipment and devices left at the site by alumni serves the new-comers well, Rowe said. ​

Rowe is calling on investors and financed start-ups to visit the site when they open their doors during Tech Week

The property's light-touch model needed a consistent churn of new companies, Rowe said. 

They had a waiting list for companies wanting to occupy available space but current tenants got first dibs when bigger space opened up, he said. 

Only science and engineering companies were considered for the site and competitors of current companies were not welcome. 

"I could easily lease this space, it is an attractive location. But if you get too much of the not science, technology and engineering, it changes the culture," Rowe said. 

The Fairfax Media business innovation series runs in partnership with Callaghan Innovation.

- Sunday Star Times


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