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The Grow North Smart Innovation District is a partnership of visionary people and organisations on Auckland’s North Shore designed to bring export-focused businesses together to develop and launch valuable and new-to-world innovation. Kel Marsh is the initiative’s chief facilitator.

Kel Marsh has one heck of a job on his hands, and he knows it.
In early 2016 the Auckland-based business consultant was appointed by Massey University, Auckland Tourism, Events & Economic Development (ATEED) and BNZ to direct an action plan as part of the Grow North Smart Innovation District strategy.
Grow North is an initiative by those organisations to unearth and connect the large number of largely ‘invisible’ globally successful exporters on the North Shore – establishing a so-called Smart Innovation District. The initiative involves a group of ‘visionary district architects’ overseeing 12 parallel work streams. 
Marsh’s first job is creating a single “mother database” of all the tech businesses in the district so they can better connect, collaborate and innovate going forward.
Recent figures reveal that for the past decade ICT employment on Auckland’s North Shore has grown almost twice as fast as the Auckland-wide rate. Growing just this sector presents exciting opportunities, he says.
“There are so many amazing businesses but they remain somewhat invisible locally as they are focused on the export market.”
But this is changing, Marsh believes.
“There is a great resource of global expertise and experience within the North Shore – everything necessary to create a smart, living innovation ecosystem is already here. We just need to make the innovation visible so people with ideas can connect and collaborate and experienced exporters can share hard-learned lessons.” 
Marsh is talking about the leaders from local business, a forward-looking Massey University that’s long moved on from its agricultural roots, plus incubators such as the eCentre, and various tech clusters including Smales Farm’s new ‘B:HIVE’ development and Techapuna (Takapuna). There’re also some of the country’s top schools in the region, high-growth companies undertaking ‘new-to-world’ R&D, and many successful entrepreneurs choose to live there.
Marsh is a natural for the job at hand. He has started and grown businesses over a period of 30 years. He’s specialised in marketing, strategic planning and has designed and facilitated programmes for business owners, and helping businesses to export. 
He blames the northern motorway traffic and long-haul flights for his involvement in Grow North.
“I’m a long time North Shore resident who over many years has sat in traffic and aircraft seats pondering what the future for New Zealand is going to be like.
“I can’t see any reason not to have thousands of weightless export businesses across Auckland North providing highly skilled jobs and building a high-wage economy close to where people live and play.”
For the past three years Marsh has already been facilitating an Albany export software owners group for ATEED, and he’s seen the members grow their offshore customer base.
“It’s a place where people can come and lift the bonnet on their business, trust each other and share their experiences.
“I’ve seen practical evidence of what’s possible with the right mind-set and mastery of the right business skills.”
Having a DIY mentality in our DNA may be fine for solving problems, but collaboration with those who are successfully undertaking the garage-to-global journey is the key to attracting investment, developing new-to-world technology, and quickly establishing the channels to overseas markets, believes Marsh. 
Innovation input is all very well, but at the end of the day success for everyone concerned comes down to innovation output – in other words, the idea is worth nothing until it is sold.

Collaboration and connections
The Grow North Smart Innovation District is about connecting existing innovation businesses with other pockets of innovation within Auckland and the rest of the country, with the aim of ‘new economy’ players collaborating and seizing big opportunities.
Marsh uses RocketLab as a case study – which happens to have a North Shore-based investor in Stephen Tindall’s K1W1. Who would have thought five years ago that New Zealand would become one of a handful of space nations? How many local start-ups, university research projects and ancillary businesses with specialist services will come to serve this new space industry in the years ahead?
Marsh also uses North Shore-based businesses Invenco and iCOS LIVE as examples of collaborative efforts to serve customers in offshore markets.
He’s excited about the potential of the Innovation District, describing its creation as a cross between “herding people together for all the right reasons” and “a dating agency”. 
“Creating a database so that researchers, experts and entrepreneurs can find each other”.
It’s also early days. ‘Grow North’ is a preliminary title, and an upgraded website is still being finalised – but Marsh says interested businesses and individuals can go on the existing website ( and register their interest, or contact him direct ([email protected]).
For Marsh it’s now all about getting on and doing it. It’s time to create an additional string to our export bow, a truly digital nation, he believes. 
“The more innovative thinking there is out there and the more collison of ideas – the more valuable output there will be.”
His message for emerging export firms in New Zealand is to get out into the world more; be open and inquisitive, and develop a global mindset. With the world quickly being ‘Uberfied’ anything is possible when you look back at your business with a fresh set of eyes, he says.
Perhaps the vision for the Innovation District is best summed up by Steve Maharey, vice-chancellor at Massey University, when he says: “We have the opportunity to create our own New Zealand version of Silicon Valley right here on the North Shore, but rapid growth needs to sit alongside visionary planning. That’s what Grow North is all about.”

Story by Glenn Baker, This artricle first appeared in the Dec/Jan issue of NZBusiness.

Glenn Baker

Glenn is a professional writer/editor with 50-plus years’ experience across radio, television and magazine publishing.


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