Waikato Innovation Park has become a "community of innovators" says park chief executive Stuart Gordon as people come together to share ideas.

Three men wearing near-matching grey suits sit perched around a cafe-style table.

They appear engrossed in discussion, talking shop, and hardly look up as three frothy coffees are sat at their table.

"Next week" looms large in their talk.

Stuart Gordon, chief executive of Waikato Innovation Park said the park's recent success is due, in part, to the fact it has reached critical mass.

"So by Thursday I'll have those figures," the younger man tells his older associates.

The other two men nod in approval.

"Next week, excellent," one replies.

Inside Waikato Innovation Park's core facilities building, the air is thick with the chatter of business.

It's an atmosphere that's unique, says Stuart Gordon, chief executive of Waikato Innovation Park.

"There's definitely a buzz here which I don't think you'd find anywhere else in Hamilton," he says.

"That excitement and energy is here every day."

Innovation Waikato Ltd was established in 2001 with the aim of facilitating the creation and export of new technology and food.

Two years later, the park's core facilities building at Ruakura was largely complete, thanks to funding from central Government, Wel Energy Trust, Hamilton City Council and the business community.

Innovation Waikato Ltd became a city council-controlled organisation in October 2013.

Since its inception, the park has continued to grow, most notably with the completion of the Tetra Pak building in 2009 and a spray dryer facility in 2012.

The spray dryer is located inside the FoodWaikato Plant at the park.

In July, Steven Joyce, Minister of Business, Innovation and Employment, officially opened the $5.7 million expansion of the plant.

Gordon said the expansion allows speciality ingredients such as vitamins, minerals and oils to be wet blended with milk or juices prior to being spray dried in the facility.

The development was largely funded by a $3m injection from Callaghan Innovation - an investment Gordon described as a "milestone" for the park.

"What this means is the plant can make infant formula or age care formula with sheep milk or goat milk. It opens up a whole lot of potential for value-added exports," he said.

The expansion is expected to inject an extra $38.5m a year in export revenue back into the New Zealand economy.

Gordon, who was raised in the Waikato and schooled at Ngaruawahia High School, said the plant's expansion was about helping companies take their innovations to new export markets.

The beauty of the open access facility is that companies can manufacture smaller runs of their first commercial batch of a new product.

"If you want to start up a new business, such as sheep milk, where do you go and get your product spray dried? There isn't anywhere else because the dryers are owned by commercial enterprises. So by using our plant, we help build these companies and build their products."

The park's spinoffs for the city and the region are obvious as companies and entrepreneurs base themselves in the Waikato to use the plant's facilities and tap into the park's knowledge base and expertise.

The emerging sheep milk industry is such an example, Gordon said.

"At first the sheep milk industry was going to be located in Southland but because of the facilities we have here, they decided to base their farms in the Waikato, between Tokoroa and Taupo. It creates jobs and who knows where this industry will go. Obviously Hamilton benefits the most by having the park here but our focus is very much Waikato wide."

Currently the park has 42 tenants, ranging from start-up companies to established players such as Tetra Pak.

There are about 500 employees on site but that number will increase to about 700 when Tetra Pak's new building is completed.

In July, Hamilton city councillors approved funding of a new purpose-built 3487sqm building for Tetra Pak.

Waikato Innovation Park is financing construction through a $9.43m Bank of New Zealand loan.

Gordon said companies such as Tetra Pak preferred not to put their money into "bricks and mortar" and instead were focused on research and development.

However, there were tangible benefits of having a tenant with a global brand at the park.

Tetra Pak make hundreds of different types of food carton packaging.

"Having big companies at the park makes the whole model more sustainable because we can charge commercial rents over longer terms. Tetra Pak has been so successful they approached us for options to grow and they're exactly the tenant we want: high employment, high technology."

Another benefit of having a global player such as Tetra Pak at the park is perhaps less obvious but just as important.

And it relates to one of Gordon's most used words: connections.

"Having these companies here creates connections. You might have a guy from a start-up company who might be trying to get into X market and he might start talking to someone from one of the bigger companies who could offer advice. The park creates an environment where the small ones can connect with the big ones and that has a rub off effect."

The connections range from the serendipitous to the formal, with several companies starting up joint ventures together.

Innovation Waikato Ltd and Group are forecasting a $1000 surplus in 2016, followed by a targeted surplus of $916,000 in 2017.

Gordon said the park had now reached "critical mass", with people wanting to come to the park and be part of its success.

It currently has a 100 per cent occupancy rate.

Over the next 12 to 18 months, Gordon hopes to complete a master plan and go to the market with the aim of raising capital to grow the park.

"When we started we had 3000sqm of rental property and now we've got 10,000sqm and we're exceeding our 98 per cent occupancy target.

"My heart is in the Waikato and it's fantastic to be helping grow Waikato and its economic base. We're not a V8 or something that's a drag on money. We actually positively contribute to the value inside the greater Waikato as well as being financially successful ourselves."

Aaron Leaman - Stuff

Images by Mark Taylor


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