Westport, NZ's Blockchain Hub: Interview with Ben Dellaca
The Buller District on the West Coast has long been associated with gold and coal mining, the highest rainfall in New Zealand, and some of the most beautiful landscapes on offer. In recent years, with the decline in mining, the Pike River disaster, and the aftermath of earthquakes the West Coast has seen a massive economic downturn. But a new era is dawning; technology could be the sector to help revitalise the Coast’s economy.
A business hub with a mission to grow innovative companies has opened in Westport. EPIC Westport, founded by husband and wife, Ben Dellaca and Tash Barnes-Dellaca, offers an open plan co-working space, private offices, and meeting rooms for individuals or small businesses available for however long you need, whether that is for one day, one month, or permanently.
Ben Dellaca has a keen passion for blockchain, and EPIC Westport is hosting New Zealand’s NEM Blockchain Hub as mentioned in a previous article. As well as EPIC Westport, Ben has been involved in numerous other technology-based businesses including CerebralFix. CerebralFix is an international game development studio that specialises in mobile games and virtual reality. Today, we present an interview with Ben Dellaca and ask him about the success of his companies, the West Coast, and the blockchain solutions he uses.
So Ben, how did CerebralFix begin?
Originally, the company began out of my interest in gaming as a hobby. It quickly turned into a tough business endeavour though, as the commercial realities of running what was actually a software development export company set in.
Speaking of gaming, you’ve partnered with some big names for some of the games you’ve developed. EA for Transformers Terrorcon Defense, Disney for Solitare and Imagicademy, tell me about some of the other big projects Cerebral Fix has been involved in?
Yeah, it's quite frustrating to not be able to tell anyone the coolest stuff the guys get to work on, but these industry-leading organisations bind us to secrecy on what sometimes feels like pain-of-death. The Gap Filler project was something that was great to be involved in, especially because it had an impact on home soil, here in New Zealand. The other thing to appreciate about CerebralFix is that it is a delivery agent specialising in engagement, so it doesn't just make games for entertainment, it also delivers products that help train people like Virtual Medical Coaching, that help educate and even products that help rehabilitate people after major medical events like strokes etc.
That’s a broad range of applications! You used to be based in Christchurch, what prompted the move to the West Coast?
Actually, the majority of the CerebralFix Group is still based in Christchurch spread over two different studios and it continues to grow steadily there. We do have a wing of the operation now in Westport and the EPIC Westport business unit as well. The reason we are there at all is twofold, firstly I’m a local boy and secondly, the place went through a really rough patch losing 1200 jobs, which is a lot when you consider the population is only 4,000 odd. Because we played a large role in building out the industry in Christchurch over the last 15 years, we believed we could apply a lot of those learnings in the attempt to better kickstart the digital economy on the Coast.
So, what does EPIC Westport do? What sort of businesses are based in EPIC? And are any crypto related?
Our EPIC program has really grown into an incubator/accelerator of new companies in Westport. Basically, we encourage folks to start their own businesses then do everything we can to help them become successful, faster. We have a broad mix of business, a couple of ours plus a host of new startups and a few older existing businesses too. Em’s Power Cookies, West Coast Rewards, LootWinner, NEM Foundation and companies like Logic and Vertigo have come through the program, to name a few. Because the next phase of the EPIC program focuses on the economic diversification of the workforce on the Coast we are going to see a number of crypto-related business pop up in Westport from now on. Yesterday TravelbyBit announced their intention to come to the Coast and the NEM Foundation are actively investing in the program. We also have three more companies that will announce their participation over the year coming, so it's a good place to keep an eye on! Additionally, EPIC Westport will begin running a program to educate folks up and down the Coast as to what the blockchain is, what it can be good for and how to get involved with cryptocurrencies. It is worth noting that we think BitPrime does an excellent job of helping everyday Kiwi’s get involved in crypto, particularly if someone is new to the whole space. It’s BitPrime’s steadfast commitment to integrity in this space that continually impresses us.
Thanks, Ben! With all these new businesses, what’s the infrastructure like for tech businesses in Westport?
Great, that's what we are for! And we are really proving that ourselves in that we are working with clients all over the world and attracting international titans of industry, like Lon Wong of ProximaX and Jason Lee of the NEM foundation to Westport. Really the better question is “Why not Westport!”
Lon Wong and Jason Lee are big names when it comes to blockchain technology. Is it easy to find high-quality tech staff to work in the Buller region?
It's a mixed bag, people already here tend to be gainfully employed, experienced international developers are often very interested in all the benefits the region offers. Ironically, they tend to appreciate those better than us Coasters. National talent is quite a bit harder, but we have had a level of success there too.
As for blockchain technology itself, what prompted you to use the NEM blockchain as opposed to other options out there for your match three game, MatchNEM?
Simple, the benefits of the NEM solution is that it's easy to use and fast to deploy which we feel is a perfect starting point for new businesses.
That makes sense! What other ways are you using blockchain technology in your businesses?
The NEM Foundation are launching a NEM Blockchain Hub which CerebralFix will be hosting.
What benefits will this Blockchain Hub provide for startups, enterprises, and software developers?
It will give them a head start, a leg up in the industry if you will. Any business that participates in the program will get OPEX support, education support plus business development support and in addition, they will also be able to apply for funding up to $1.2m and get access to quality developers to deliver their visions.
With the economic downturn on the West coast and the huge loss of jobs you mentioned earlier, do you think the Hub will attract more startups to the area?
That is certainly our hope and so far, it has been working.
Sounds very positive Ben! It has been said that New Zealand can become a global blockchain centre. With the NEM Foundations blockchain startup community funding programme providing access to non-equity funding, how do you think this can improve New Zealand’s blockchain projects?
We (NZ) used to lead the world in consumer fin-tech, does anyone remember the old days where you would go to the UK pull out your EFTPOS card and have the guy in the shop say, “what's that for”? Blockchain is a chance for us to lead the world again like we have in the past and the fact we now have $1m grants active in the nation should be a rallying call to have kiwi’s get stuck in!
Yeah, we’d love to see New Zealand leading the industry too. If people want to get in touch with you about the NEM Blockchain Hub what’s the best way for them?
Yeah, so if anyone is up for the challenge, prepared to come to Westport in order to take over the world, then they should reach out our Hub Lead Julian Brown on email@example.com and begin that journey by talking to him.