EPIC Encounter

Henry Lane, EPIC Innovations director of global networks

By Jo Bailey

As you might imagine in a high-tech campus, EPIC’s bright, airy environs include colourful communal spaces, cool artwork, a huge coffee machine and a stack of toy Nerf guns.

Okay, the Nerf guns came as a bit of a surprise, and yes, says Henry Lane, EPIC Innovations Director of Global Networks, there have been full-on campus Nerf games in the Silicon Valley-inspired building.

Fun and games are part of the culture at EPIC, but more important is the active collaboration of the 20-plus businesses who work every day in its striking, two-story building on Manchester Street.

“The cross-pollinating eco-system at the campus has fostered mutually beneficial relationships that may never have formed before the earthquakes. I’ve lost count of the number of projects our tenants have collaborated on.”

EPIC (Enterprise Precinct and Innovation Campus) was one of the first disaster recovery projects in Christchurch, opening in October 2012 to house displaced Canterbury technology businesses.

It quickly filled to capacity with 20 permanent tenant companies and around eight other technology firms paying a monthly subscription to utilise the ‘Epic Lounge’ and share the creative energy.

“It’s a great environment. However the magic doesn’t come from the building. It comes from having a diverse group of tenants working to establish these collaborative relationships,” says Lane.

All of the tenants fall into the high tech category but cover a range of skill sets including web, game and software development; business consultancies, financial services, training and research development.

With the collaborative approach now well proven at EPIC, Lane says the directors are turning their attention to its global potential, as they start to link with similar technology parks and business hubs around the world and strengthen its networks with other initiatives such as the Kiwi Landing Pad in Silicon Valley.

“The more we connect with like-minded counterparts, and share information and innovation, the more powerful we become as an industry.”

This global outlook received a boost when last year, one of the EPIC founders, Wil McLellan (Lane’s former mentor turned business partner) was named the 17th New Zealander to receive the highly competitive Eisenhower Fellowship, a lifetime membership into a global network of leaders working towards Eisenhower’s values of creating a more prosperous, peaceful and just world.

“We’ve seen the value of the connections that have already been made at EPIC. It’s about extending this out to the rest of the world.”

EPIC has had no shortage of international attention already, with visits from global heavyweights such as Google, The World Bank and Silicon Valley investors, as well as a range of international delegations from various governments.

“For example venture capital firms find it much easier to come to EPIC and reach up to 28 companies in one go, instead of having to visit each one individually,” says Lane

The idea behind EPIC came to McLellan (founder of several game development companies and national client engagement director of Assurity) and fellow tech entrepreneur Colin Andersen (managing director of IT consultancy Effectus) while McLellan and Andersen’s businesses were displaced in the earthquake and ended up sharing space with other “refugee” companies.

“We were squeezed in together, working shoulder to shoulder. It was a crazy time but there was also a real buzz happening as people from different companies started to connect. We were not property experts and had no land or money to put into the initiative but luckily the idea soon attracted high level support,” says Lane.

Christchurch City Council granted rent-free use of the old Para Rubber site for five years (a low-cost lease was recently extended for a further seven years).

Funding for the building came from government grants and a $3.5m loan from Bank of New Zealand, which has naming rights and a small branch located onsite.

A host of other sponsors also got on board.

Among them was Weta Workshops which supplied large-scale colourful artworks for the interior walls, and former University of Canterbury graduate Craig Nevill-Manning (now a director of engineering at Google New York) who provided valuable support and insight into developing the culture at EPIC, and provided it with the mandatory coffee machine.

It is not just the tenants at EPIC who benefit from the development.

Hundreds of public events, speakers and meetings, including the Ministry of Awesome’s regular Coffee and Jam sessions have been held in the BNZ Lounge at EPIC since it was established.

McLellan and Andersen enlisted Lane and later Sam Ragnarsson to help develop EPIC into a world-class campus for technology businesses in the central city, where the collaborative momentum could continue to flourish.

The building now acts as a hub for a range of other initiatives such as the Code Club; digital accelerator Lightning Lab; and Start-Up Weekend Christchurch.

The future of EPIC’s current site in the Christchurch Innovation Precinct is still undecided as the building was originally developed as a temporary solution until more permanent premises could be found.

Lane says a second phase of Epic called Sigma with potential space for up to 1000 people has remained a project of interest to the group.

However to date, the directors have been unable to find the right piece of land and navigate the various obstacles to achieve it.

“We had a long list of interested companies in the second campus, including some international goliaths. However the central city is becoming very expensive which could make future rental unaffordable for small to medium sized businesses and start-ups.”

There is also the potential to “copy and paste” the EPIC template throughout New Zealand.

Lane says with the rapid evolution of the technology sector, there are exciting times ahead for Christchurch firms and tertiary graduates entering the industry.

“Innovation based firms will continue to play a crucial role in the region’s recovery as they help to drive economic growth and create high-value, exciting job opportunities. There is no reason why Christchurch couldn’t become the Silicon Valley of the Southern Hemisphere with the right support and business environment.”