Creating ‘Queenstown Techtown’

Quietly beavering away in the background is a new trust which could be a game-changer for Queenstown. PHILIP CHANDLER talks to tech entrepreneur Roger Sharp about his Whakatipu Hangarau Trust, his grand plans for the resort’s tech sector and why he recently undertook a 3000km roadie in the United States

Since Covid first struck, exposing Queenstown’s over-reliance on tourism, there’s been a lot of chat about the need to diversify our economy.

In turn, a lot of the chat’s centred on the technology sector, due to its promise of high wages and low environmental impact.

Amidst all the talk, one Queenstowner, with a lot of public and private sector help, is putting his money where his mouth is.

That’s tech entrepreneur Roger Sharp, a 61-year-old who founded his first tech start-up when he was only 23.

He’s set up Whakatipu Hangarau Trust — ‘Queenstown technology’, in te reo — which is working on a 10-year, ‘‘or probably a 20-year’’, strategy for tech in the Whakatipu Basin.

‘‘This is the first time in living memory anyone’s put together a strategic plan for the tech sector for this region,’’ he says.

The stats suggest, despite all the chat, Queenstown’s tech sector’s under-performing — contributing just 1.8% to our GDP, versus 7.2% on national average, and compared to tourism and hospo generating about 60% of our GDP.

‘‘Each percentage point is worth $33 million, so, in broad terms, if we can increase the contribution of tech to the community just to the national average, that’s $150m to $200m a year,’’ Sharp says.

‘‘If we can then increase it to beyond the national average, it is literally hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars we’re not seeing today.’’

Helping Sharp pull together the strategy is a ‘‘multi-disciplined’’ team led by establishment director Ron Clink.

He’s a ‘‘policy guru’’ who’s been lent to the trust for 18 months, ‘‘and possibly longer’’, by Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment CEO Carolyn Tremain.

Also in the mix are three Otago University professors, a fulltime researcher and a panel of more than 30 experienced tech sector pros.

The Queenstown council’s economic development unit’s also a key partner.

Sharp, who’s also put in a decent financial whack, also self-funded a three-week road trip, in July, across the Pacific Northwest and Rockies regions of the US.

He conducted more than 50 meetings with tech people in about 12 mountain towns that are also diversifying their economies by building tech ecosystems.

Among his many findings are that ‘collaboration rocks’ — in Bend, Oregon, and Boulder, Colorado, for example, there’s strong interplay between tertiary education, start-ups and scale-ups, multinational tech companies and remote workers.

Clearly, Queenstown has a long way to go, however Sharp says it’s good to see Queenstown Resort College offering a tech course on ‘machine learning fundamentals’ and the Porter brothers building a research and innovation centre at Remarkables Park.

‘‘There’s a whole ecosystem of tech players who will consider coming to New Zealand, and to Queenstown, if the enablers are in place,’’ he says.

Those enablers include, wait for it, affordable housing — ‘‘that old chestnut’’.

Sharp says once the strategy’s complete by early next year, ‘‘and we have a clear set of targets and a pathway to get to those targets, we will go out to raise money to fund the operations of the trust, which is in effect a tech development agency’’.

‘‘But you don’t want to do that until you’ve got the strategy really clear, and we need to stress-test it and consult with the community and make sure people are happy with it.’’

However, as he writes in a blog, it’ll take at least a decade, and probably 20 years, to see material change.

‘‘As one university professor said to us in Bend, ‘you’re planting trees for a shade you may never sit in’.’’

But, Sharp adds, ‘‘so be it’’.


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