James: Max, you have an incredibly interesting history. You were Born in Siberia, spent time studying the humanities and arts, got into National Research Nuclear University (Lyceum) at 15, to study maths and physics and moved to New Zealand at 18. Following two degrees in Engineering Science and Biomedical Engineering from the University of Auckland, you put your BE Hons in Engineering Science on hold when you found your passion in space and are now the CEO and Co-Founder of Zenno Astronautics in Parnell, a company working towards a propellant free space propulsion technology. What is that in layman’s terms?
Max: In layman’s terms, we’re developing magnetic satellite engines that are about the size of a bag of pineapple lumps. Solar powered stuff, so that satellites can interact with each other. Think of spacecraft interacting like a swarm of bees.
James: You developed a desire to come and study in New Zealand. What attracted you to set up business in Parnell, in the same premises that once housed Rocket Lab?
Max: It was really thanks to LevelTwo that Zenno was brought to Parnell. They provide a home and support for start-ups on the bleeding edge of science and technology and Peter Beck who founded Rocket Lab in 2006, grew the company out of the basement of LevelTwo and is still on their advisory board. LevelTwo’s reputation, flexibility and early support is what counts. They’ve got a good vibe, with a lot of other companies at different stages of their journeys.
James: Why do you think Parnell has attracted so many incubators, innovation hubs and deep tech start-ups?
Max: Parnell has industrial heritage and buildings like LevelTwo, The Textile Building, and Saatchi & Saatchi. They capture the spirit of deep tech.
James: How and where do you think Parnell can continue to lead in this area?
Max: I think remaining attractive to tech start-ups is the key: keep the local workers involved in events, make sure they network with each other to share their experiences, help them engage with the local community.
James: You have said you think that people in the arts are often innovative as they can envision concepts – what do you think connects the arts and deep tech?
Max: Creativity and fantasy. People may not realise it but a lot of deep tech involves guessing, intuition and inspiration. There is a process to doing research & development, but the ideas come from all over the place, at random times.
James: My mentor/ lecturer/ the bro/ and the person that most inspires me is award-winning artist Shannon Te Ao. He used to work at Te Tuhi and is one of the artists in Toi Tū Toi Ora, on show at Toi o Tāmaki.
How important is mentorship for you?
Max: Very important, of course. Good mentorship is critical, it’s just super hard to find.
James: How do you think we can engage more young people in our place (our precinct), how do we inspire the spirit of possibility?
Max: Early stage start-ups are filled with bright ambitious youth who have a spirit of possibility but there are also some quite practical things. Good food options in the area and affordable office space were important for us early on, likewise having a critical mass of people here makes us stay. Access can be a problem at the bottom of Parnell: parking isn’t the easiest and public transport can be slow.
James: One of my favourite spots in Parnell is the Farmers Market behind the Parnell Library on Saturday mornings. I also love Winona Forever, for coffee first up in the early morning, nice peeps. Or Parnell Baths after sitting on the motor way, the salt water is soooo good for my skin, haha. Or a leisurely stroll in the Domain on a Saturday morning, with a cheeky selfie in the Winter Gardens.
What do you think is special about this lower part of Parnell, often called the warehouse district?
Max: The Rose Gardens, Mechanics Bay and access to Tamaki Drive walkway. I’ll often take the team for long walking meetings in a loop from LevelTwo all the way along Tamaki Drive and back.
James: What would you wish to see in Parnell that we don’t yet have?
Max: Parnell is really multicultural yet the heritage of Maori is not so apparent. This whole area was a major living, transport and food gathering area for Maori. I’d love to see more things happening, and present, to remind us of this and celebrate that link with the past.
James: My grandmother Jean Linton was a schoolteacher from the Wairarapa, who always had a plan for her day, and diligently kept to her routine. My god father Irvine Munro always took time to listen and nurture conversations with everyone he encountered. I take their ways of being as mantra for my own behaviour.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Max: Those who win often don’t understand how they win. Regardless of this, a winner’s path is already explored, so nothing truly valuable can be found there.
I listen carefully to those who’ve failed. Learn what not to do. Then explore new paths.
A lot of the stuff I try doesn’t work. That’s how I learn, from failure.