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On March the 22nd 2016, I had the pleasure of attending the opening of Enphase Energy’s fantastic new Christchurch Research and Development facility. The occupation of this state of the art R&D centre represents the culmination of US$4.4 Million (NZ$6.5M) and 5 years of investment in Enphases’s largest engineering workforce outside of the United States. Enphase plans to double this investment over the next few years hiring 20 additional software and firmware development engineers as well as production engineers.

This represents a great development for our economy and something we need a lot more of. When Helen Clark wanted to Catch the Knowledge Wave in 2001, this is no doubt exactly the kind of thing she had in mind – highly skilled jobs, with an international impact, that are not reliant on the boom and bust rollercoaster of commodity prices. Back in 2001, Enphase didn’t even exist yet.

Enphase Energy was established in 2006, beginning operations in Christchurch in 2011 with the hiring of nine of Eaton’s top engineers when the company shut its R&D facility in a post-GFC restructure. Enphase’s Christchurch office was originally focused on the design, development and testing of microinverters for the Asia Pacific and European markets. Software defined, microinverters are a clever piece of electronics that convert the DC electricity from solar Photovoltaic (PV) panels into AC in sync with the mains, making the solar power usable in the home or building.

Enphase relied on its Christchurch engineers’ research capabilities and expertise in power electronics to boost the company’s development capability and scale its products for the global market.

There are now over 10.3 million Enphase microinverters in over 430,000 residential and commercial solar photovoltaic systems around the world. The design, development and testing of the power electronics in the latest 5 million of these microinverters was spearheaded by the team in Christchurch. So will the design of the next 10 million. The team can be proud that the work they are doing here in New Zealand is having a global impact.

Today, Christchurch continues to lay the foundation for much of the company’s patentable hardware development and standards for future products. As Enphase moves toward the release of its residential battery storage and energy management solution, the Christchurch engineering team is heavily involved in its review and development.

Enphase Energy’s Christchurch office has grown to 32 employees of which 30 are engineers. Almost half of Enphase New Zealand’s engineering employees are graduates from the University of Canterbury, which offers the only power electronics training centre for the whole of New Zealand and is ranked in the top 50 in the world.

Enphase continues to build strong ties with the University of Canterbury and deliver an annual presentation to students to provide insights into developments on solar engineering and power electronics. The company has also provided microinverters to the University of Canterbury’s EPECentre to assist with their research into future smart grid capabilities.

Christchurch has a proud history of great electronics engineering. Companies like Tait ElectronicsEnatelEatonHumanwareAuCom and Trimble Navigation, just to name a few, have all capitalised on and built on the power electronics expertise of the Christchurch engineering community.

It has long been doctrine that innovation happens in “ecosystems.” The word ecosystem is often used when discussing centres of innovation and R&D and that is because the nature of the environments that encourage innovation are very much like ecosystems. Tall Totara trees (in Christchurch’s case Tait Electronics), with a myriad of smaller trees, contributing to and drawing from the bigger Totara trees. And the most important and measurable output of these innovation ecosystems? Patents.

It is through measuring the output of patents that Shaun Hendry and Sir Paul Callaghan explored what makes an innovative knowledge-based economy in their book Get Off the Grass. The book is a scientist’s view of what we need to do to shift New Zealand’s economy away from reliance on primary industries into an economy that is globally competitive. Their prescription is exactly the kind of innovation ecosystem that is growing in Christchurch. Not surprisingly they recommend investment in science, research and development, and innovation ecosystems.

The concept of innovation ecosystems is often talked about but poorly understood. Hendry and Callaghan expand on this idea to show how important regional clusters of innovative companies are. The tendency for industries to co-locate in particular regions is called agglomeration. Hendry and Callaghan quote the English economist Alfred Marshall (1842 – 1924) who said,

“When an industry has thus chosen a locality for itself, it is likely to stay there long: so great are the advantages which people following the same skilled trade get from neighbourhood to one another. The mysteries of the trade become no mysteries; but are as it were in the air.”

Hendy and Callaghan’s add “There are many examples of agglomeration in particular industries around the world: the high concentration of software companies in the Silicon Valley, the co-location of the ‘big three’ car manufacturers in Detroit, and even the cluster of electronics companies in Christchurch.”

Enphase’s investment in the Christchurch electronics ecosystem gives the Christchurch electronics industry a direct link to the spiritual home of innovation, San Francisco, California; where Enphase is headquartered. This link magnifies the impact of what Enphase is doing in Christchurch – developing clean energy technology that is changing the world. That is something that all kiwis can be proud of.

Hendry and Callaghan also advocate taking science seriously, embracing the weird, connecting collaborating and opening up, and learning to value nature as well as knowledge. These are the things New Zealand needs to do if it is going to continue on its trajectory to become a global leader in knowledge-led economies. The opening of Enphase’s new R&D facility signals not just an opportunity to link with one of the most innovative high technology companies in the world; it also gives us the chance to recognize the newest player in the innovation ecosystem of what Sir Paul Callaghan liked to call the “city of 4 million people.”

Chris McArthur

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