By Laura Hall
Cantabrians need no reminding that nothing can change the fortunes of a people or the place they live in like Mother Nature. And such is the case with Wil McLellan
Wil was a SME business owner abruptly turned project manager on one of the first large scale commercial builds in the city centre after the February 2011 earthquake, co-founding the Enterprise Precinct and Innovation Campus (EPIC).
Now he has been awarded the prestigious Eisenhower Fellowship in recognition of his innovative ideas and is preparing to fly to America for the seven week fellowship program, making him one of the few New Zealanders to ever do so.
The EPIC Innovation Centre is an unassuming tin shed, or at least that was my opinion of the building before visiting it to meet Wil. But in typical Kiwi fashion this tin shed is achieving great things without a lot of fuss.
As I stepped into the building Wil warmly greeted me and proudly gave me the grand tour through EPIC, home to more than 20 technology and innovation companies. He is very enthusiastic about the place and I quickly realise this is no ordinary office building.
I first notice how incredibly awesome the workplace environment is as I spot a flash coffee machine, gifted to them by Google, standing desks with treadmills positioned under them, a lounge with an Xbox set up, electric massage chairs and even a massage room.
But as Wil introduces me to some of the people who work in the building and explains the type of work they do, it registers that the EPIC centre is so much more than its flash material goods.
At the heart of this temporary building is a community of unbelievably smart entrepreneurs running global businesses and closing big business deals with high profile international corporations; an impressive feat for a few Kiwi start-ups.
What is EPIC?
The Epic Innovation Centre was
co-founded and led by Christchurch-based technology business owners Wil McLellan
and Colin Andersen.
The small to medium sized tech businesses that call this building home specialise in software development, website creation, SLI search engine, gaming development and marketing.
The building is called The Sanctuary, it is stage one of an ambitious two stage project to create a world class centre for innovation-based companies in Canterbury. It opened in September 2012 and houses various businesses employing around 250 staff throughout the impressive building, which features private offices as well as shared spaces including a lounge, meeting area and kitchen.
Wil is in discussions with the government about EPIC’s continued future in the city, saying “Everybody is very supportive about EPIC being apart of Canterbury’s future”.
Enterprise Precinct and Innovation Campus corner or Manchester and Tuam streets
Ideas of epic proportions
Wil moved from the UK to Christchurch about 11 years ago with a career background based in corporate technology. He helped form several computer game companies with a few like minded friends in Christchurch about five years ago.
But while Wil’s career history is firmly rooted in the tech sector, he makes it clear he is not tech savvy. “I work on the business side I’m not a techy; I couldn’t write a line of code if my life depended on it.”
One of the gaming companies took flight and rapidly grew to employ about 40 game developers. The business was successfully trading globally and closing business deals with big entertainment companies.
But then the February 2011 earthquake hit devastating the flourishing business. “Our offices were destroyed and we were forced to squeeze into a warehouse which we shared with a number of other tech companies.”
But out of adversity comes opportunity, and with a ‘half cup full’ mentality Wil was able to see the opportunities that the dire situation presented.
“We saw a number of benefits from sharing office space. There were economic benefits from sharing rental costs, we learnt you don’t need to own toilets; you don’t need to own the boardroom or kitchen and when you pull your resources together you can end up with a space much nicer than on your own.
“And we also discovered social benefits from sharing space with similar companies; we were able to collaborate on ideas and share advice. That was the inspiration for EPIC.”
Excited by the idea of creating a collaborative, shared office space for innovative technology businesses and spurred on by the desperate need to move out of the cramped warehouse before the temporary lease expired, Wil and Colin got to work. Little did they know they had embarked on the toughest business challenge of their lives.
“When we started it was me and Colin with a white board. We had no money, no land, no property development experience, no credibility in the property industry, no time because our companies needed this yesterday and a lot of stress, because we were very busy running our own businesses and our houses had been destroyed… but other than that everything was fine,” Wil jokes.
Wil says it was a very difficult journey and they both quit at least once. “There were times when the stress of the whole situation just crushed us, we were exhausted and very depressed.”
But with the help from the Christchurch City Council, who got in behind the initiative from the start and provided them with the land, 15 sponsorship companies including the Bank of New Zealand and the constant support from family and friends, Wil and Colin overcame the challenges.
Google is renowned for its state of the art office spaces with inspiring physical environments. EPIC was lucky enough to have first hand input from the leaders at the search engine giant.
“Google has been enormously supportive of both stage one and two. They’ve given us access to their property development teams, which helped us effectively design the environment to encourage collaboration.”
Wil says Google’s valuable words of wisdom to achieve a top performing office weren’t as complicated as you might have thought. “They told us to have great coffee; coffee brings people together and encourages them to congregate in shared spaces and have unplanned meetings.” And thanks to a very generous donation from Google EPIC has a top of the line coffee machine.
Wil and Colin originally set out to create a home for SME businesses, many of whom were severely affected by the quakes and encourage growth and life back into the city centre. But unintentionally the centre has created so much more resulting in wide spread growth and success.
Many, if not all of the businesses based in the centre have experienced “real, tangible” improvements to their business. A lot of them have reported growth in their turnover with some even experiencing expediential growth of 100 percent since they moved in.
Some businesses have also formed partnerships collaborating with each other, complimenting each other’s strengths and weaknesses. “All of the businesses are learning from each other, we hold show and tell sessions to share project ideas and whenever there is an event on they are always networking.”
“Plus two companies have expanded into America, moving people there while still retaining their base in Christchurch.”
But it’s not just the tenants who are benefiting from EPIC, the public is too. The centre has held more than 200 public events and thousands of people have used the facility.
“We’ve had embassies through here, trade delegations, venture capitalists, banks and educational establishments we’ve created a genuine hub of activity.”
EPIC, BNZ Lounge
The Eisenhower Fellowship was created in 1953 in honour of President Dwight Eisenhower’s first birthday as the White House incumbent.
Led by Thomas McCabe, a group of businessmen founded the private non-profit international leader exchange program, recognising President Eisenhower’s devotion to world peace. Its vision is to create a
more peaceful, prosperous world by connecting people who work on issues
of global interest.
Sixty years on and the Eisenhower Fellowship has produced a high calibre of alumni, the list includes general Colin Powell, President George Bush Senior and Henry Kissinger.
Now Wil is becoming one of the fellows of this prestigious award, steeped in a long rich history.
The fellowships typically focus on education and world peace, but this year’s focus is innovation. Each Eisenhower applicant is required to devise an innovative project to develop while in America and pursue on return to their home country.
Wil’s involvement with the Eisenhower Fellowship began completely unintentionally during a conversation with United States ambassador David Huebner over a glass of wine.
He spoke to David about his experience with EPIC and his pipe dream to take the Epic model global. “From observing what was cool here and its successes I was beginning to see real value in this place. . . so we sat back and said why limit this to just Cantabrians, why not connect people across the world?”
He says he thought nothing more about the conversation until he got an email from the embassy saying they really liked his idea and suggested he apply for the Eisenhower Fellowship. “I thought they had sent it to the wrong person,’ Wil says.
“I already had a lot on my plate, but decided I might as well have a go.”
Wil worked with the team at EPIC to refine his idea and created the 100 Heroes Innovation Bridge program. The program aims to link New Zealand world class innovators with US business networks and capital.
The programme would create a pool of 100 expert business mentors to help companies in both countries develop joint ventures and provide access to funding.
“EPIC shows that connecting entrepreneurs across New Zealand creates powerful business communities. The Innovation Bridge project is our chance to connect innovation hubs around the world and establish international communities which create opportunities for everyone,” Wil says.
The odds of Wil winning were very slight. In the 60 years the program has been running over 2,000 fellows have been created and only 19 of them had been from New Zealand. Wil was shocked when he found out he had been selected from the international pool of applicants.
“Happy doesn’t even come close to how I felt, I was pretty stunned when they picked me. Now I’m excited about the upcoming trip and the chance to meet the other fellows and take this project to the next level.”
The seven week Eisenhower Innovation Program, which begins late September, kicks off with activities and workshops facilitated by experts. The majority of the trip will be spent travelling around America meeting influential people.
“The fellowship has asked me to create a list of people I want to meet to help my project come to fruition.”
He says he looks forward to learning a lot while away; in particular he wants to “really understand the entrepreneur networks across America and start to solidify a way to create a sustainable network that can provide the resources that entrepreneurs need.
“Then I’ve got to come back here and make it happen,” Wil says casually. But if it’s anything like his past project you can be guaranteed to see exciting things come out of the 100 Heroes Innovation Bridge.