Teen entrepreneur wins support through rural innovation lab

Alex Stewart, a 14 year old entrepreneur from Whanganui with WombatNET - providing affordable broadband access to rural farms and communities. 
Alex Stewart, a 14 year old entrepreneur from Whanganui with WombatNET - providing affordable broadband access to rural farms and communities.  Photo credit: Supplied/Rural Innovation Lab

A14-year-old entrepreneur's idea to provide broadband access to isolated, rural communities is one of four projects to receive support from a new initiative. 

The Rural Innovation Lab was launched in Palmerston North in February, with funding from the Provincial Growth Fund. 

Since then, it has engaged with over 150 farmers, growers and Māori landowners to identify the key challenges they face, and develop solutions.

Chairman of the Rural Innovation Lab, Mat Hocken, said the projects came from a recent call-out for people to submit ideas to help solve burning issues in the rural sector, as identified by farmers and growers.

"How do we move from our existing systems and succeed in an uncertain and challenging future? The best way to get ahead of disruption is to innovate," he said. 

Damien O'Connor at the launch of the 'Rural Innovation Lab' in February.
Damien O'Connor at the launch of the 'Rural Innovation Lab' in February. Photo credit: Supplied

The four innovation projects were selected from a pool of 50 applications, and also included a carbon calculator co-designed with farmers to estimate on-farm emissions, an online platform for farmer-to-farmer rentals and the development of a Māori agribusiness collective. 

"We also have 80  third-year Massey University students working on a further ten projects," said Hocken.

The projects were announced at a celebration afternoon tea at Parliament on Thursday. 

Minister of Agriculture and Rural Communities, Hon Damien O'Connor, said the projects supported the Government's priority to assist thriving and sustainable regions.

"These projects exemplify the sort of enterprise and innovation that we want to see in our rural communities," he said.

"The food and fibre industries are the backbone of New Zealand's economy, delivering more than $45 billion in export revenue last year," said O'Connor.

"The Coalition Government wants to help extract more value from what they already do, in a sustainable way that means our natural resources will be there for future generations."

The four projects will receive a package of support from the Rural Innovation Lab including project facilitation from start-up and company development experts The Factory, access to partners within the Lab's collaborative network, including Massey University, Microsoft and the ecentre, mentoring by leading farmers and growers in the Manawatu/Whanganui region, and a contribution to project costs.

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