How can Vancouver become a stronger innovation hub?

BC's Minister Brenda Bailey, Lite-1’s Roya Aghighi, ClimateDoor’s Chad Rickaby, and Ignite Technology’s Trish Josephs tackle this complex question

Across Vancouver, we hold a strong claim to being home to leading R&D institutions and startups that set us apart from other innovation hubs around the world. 

But, as with any hub, there are fragments we need to piece together to become stronger, and, ultimately, help more startups access the resources they need to thrive.

How do we get there? This complex question was the theme of a Vancouver Startup Week panel hosted earlier this month by Hiroki Kudo, a serial entrepreneur from Japan now based in Vancouver who founded Easy Proposal, a platform offering a hassle-free and efficient way to find and win government contracts.

Kudo called on ecosystem actors with local and international experiences for their take on how Vancouver can be a better tech hub:

  • Roya Aghighi, co-founder and CEO of Lite-1, a biotech startup transforming the dye industry with 100% sustainable colours

Fly our flag better and consider opportunities beyond our backyard

Kudo set the tone for the panel by opening with the message that we all share the common goal of strengthening our innovation hub and that listening, rather than pointing fingers, is key to driving progress.

Bailey was the first to take to the mic and said that while we may never be a jurisdiction with the lowest cost, she would argue that we are one with “the best people.”

“There's this sort of frontier mentality. This go make your way in the world [and] desire for entrepreneurship. I've seen it in other places, of course [...] But it's very alive and well here and couched in a strong sense of desire for social and environmental well-being,” said Bailey.

Bailey emphasized that the combination of these things is one of our strengths, yet we don’t talk about it or ourselves enough.

“We need to do it a lot, and we need to do it better,” added Bailey.

Rickaby agreed as he’s spent a lot of time in Singapore and Europe and noticed that we don’t “fly our flag very well.” He also added that another thing we could do more of is think about potential opportunities beyond our own backyard.

“You might have something here that’s highly competitive or not as applicable in this market, but in a place like Singapore, it might be very useful,” said Rickaby.

Increase resources for early-stage companies

Aghighi questioned how we can ensure entrepreneurs can stay in the city if they choose to, given some are leaving in search of more resources. 

For example, Aghighi shared a story of a friend who had to move from B.C. to Nova Scotia after running into many “dead ends” when looking for the funding and infrastructure needed to scale.

“As soon as she arrived, it felt like one of those video games where she was suddenly surrounded by all kinds of support that the company needed to grow,” she said. “Her first-ever customer was the government.”

Aghighi said that Lite-1 also found itself running into dead ends in the early days. Because of its stage and sector, the company couldn't tap into certain grants, and it was challenging to access wet labs.

“Normally, it feels like the focus is just around the later-stage companies ready to launch to the moon. What happens to the rest of us that have high potential [...] We need support and a pathway to get there,” she said.

Aghighi added that she’s noticed successful hubs in other countries investing in innovative solutions that are expected to mature within the next decade. 

“They're going to set that record for gaining that leadership position of being an innovative hub,” she said. “That’s what I see in the Netherlands [and] a lot of other places as well.”

For entrepreneurs who aren't finding the resources they need, Bailey advised them to connect with trade associations and noted that an online option is "going up now."

“It’s designed for up-and-coming companies,” added Bailey. “That happened because of the life science advocacy […] There's really good trade associations that are advocating on behalf of entrepreneurs all the time. It just elevates your voice in a way that’s much more powerful.”

Amplify collaboration between entities and provinces

Bailey pointed out another takeaway from the life sciences sector: it became the fastest-growing in B.C. because industry, academia, and government are all working together.

“When I look at what's happening in the life sciences sector, I see a great example of what we can do when we're all coming together. It’s a perfect story of how we do it, and we need to do that in other sectors as well,” said Bailey.

Josephs added there are many possibilities for B.C.'s and Alberta's health tech sectors to collaborate given the presence of innovation hub AGE-WELL in B.C. and research centre envisAGE Beachhead in Alberta.

“I think there's a huge opportunity for us to be synergistic,” said Josephs. “Alberta is going to open the second largest cancer centre in all of North America in November. Right there is an opportunity for us to ask, ‘What does that look like when we're working together?’”

Kudo shared that a great example of collaboration already happening across provinces is the Jump Ball initiative, which allows entrepreneurs to tap into 64 R&D centres within Canada. 

Entrepreneurs looking for R&D support can fill out an online form that requires listing their innovation challenges and deadlines. Then, a representative will review and provide a curated list of centres that have volunteered to assist and their points of contact.

“I think that having governments connect to each other and introduce all these wonderful programs to each other would be helpful because you have a limited budget. You can't just do all the infrastructure at once,” said Kudo.

One of the biggest takeaways

Among the biggest takeaways on what we must continue to drive progress? 

It goes back to practicing what Kudo opened the panel with. Listening with the intent to understand, at a ground level, what each ecosystem actor experiences and struggles with.


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