$3.4m loan ices Artificial Intelligence research angle for Nelson aquaculture sector

The development of an Artificial Intelligence Institute at Nelson has taken a major step forward with a $3.4 million loan from the Government's Provincial Growth Fund.

Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Regional Economic Development Fletcher Tabuteau was in Nelson on Friday to announce the loan as part of new PGF investment in the top of the south totalling more than $4.5m.

The development of a collaborative commercial space for startup food companies, called the Food Factory, is set to receive $778,000 while $400,000 is earmarked for the Nelson, Tasman and Marlborough councils to use for economic development project delivery.

"Artificial intelligence is on the cusp of a global revolution and I am pleased the PGF has recognised the economic and social opportunities the Artificial Intelligence Institute will bring to the top of the south region and New Zealand as a whole," Tabuteau said. 

"The institute will focus initially on using artificial intelligence in the aquaculture industry in a region where 70 per cent of the country's aquaculture industry is located and where untapped potential remains."

Artificial intelligence is the simulation of human intelligence processes by machines, usually computers. It can enable discoveries and decisions to be made quickly and easily when there are large data sets that are difficult or impossible to analyse manually.

"The proposal is a mix of commercial activity with a strong education focus involving the Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology and over time, the [Artificial Intelligence] Institute will expand into different sectors and across the country," Tabuteau said.

Artificial Intelligence Institute directors Brian Russell, Mark Houghton-Brown and Julian Maclaren, who were at the funding announcement, said they were very pleased by the PGF investment.

Russell said the AI team had been working with NMIT over the past year to put together two courses – one to help managers identify what business problems they could use AI for and one around the technical skills required to help implement AI.

In April, the institute was awarded $95,000 from the PGF, as part of a $6.4m investment in a top of the south ocean package with the expectation that a more substantial application would follow.

Tabuteau said the default for PGF applications was to negotiate a loan for "just about every commercial endeavour where there's a payback".

"So, if everything goes to plan for these guys, they're going to make lots of money," he said. "That's why it's a loan."

However, the funds for the Food Factory and councils' economic development project delivery were grants.

"I am really excited the PGF is also supporting the construction of the Food Factory, an initiative spearheaded by Picot Productions Ltd, which produces Pic's Peanut Butter," Tabuteau said.

"The Food Factory will provide startup food companies with a collaborative environment to develop new food products."

Now under construction near Pic's Peanut Butter factory in Nelson, the Food Factory is set to include four fully equipped commercial kitchens, warehouse, storage and chiller space as well as a demonstration kitchen to enable aspiring food and beverage entrepreneurs to test their product's concept, potential scalability and marketing in a supported environment.

Advice and support would also be on hand, along with market opportunities and exposure to visitors and the tourist market.

Pic Picot, who famously started his business roasting peanuts in a stainless-steel concrete mixer, said Picot Productions would take the head lease and sub-let to a trust.

He had been thinking about the idea for the Food Factory for a while as he remembered frustrations he faced trying to find somewhere to grow his peanut butter business.

A facility like the Food Factory "would have been really cool", he said.

"I want people to get in, be able to do it and commercialise [their idea]," Picot said. "They don't have to sit at home thinking: 'Oh no, I need a commercial kitchen, it's too hard'."

Nelson Mayor Rachel Reese said it was likely the $400,000 PGF grant would be used to establish two economic development roles – one in Marlborough and one in the city to cover the Nelson-Tasman region.

The PGF announcements aligned closely with the vision of Nelson City Council.

"Nelson is the smart little city, and clever business and innovation supports connections and growth for our communities," Reese said. "We enjoy living fulfilled lives in smart, sustainable communities, and all these investments go a long way to ensuring we can meet that goal."

 - Stuff

CHERIE SIVIGNON

Last updated 14:54, Aug 23 2019