President and CEO of Innovate BC, Shirley Vickers shares with us insights about the way technology impacts the success of a business. She shares the accomplishments she’s most proud of and her advice to business owners just starting out.Shirley is an entrepreneur with many years of experience building companies from the ground up. She has started, owned and managed several multi-million-dollar oil and gas drilling companies and helped develop and commercialize drilling technologies that reduced costs, improved efficiencies and increased worker safety. She believes that technology is everywhere, and she has a passion for cleantech and sustainability-focused innovation.
Prior to being named CEO, Shirley served as Entrepreneur in Residence at BCIC. In this role, she identified and developed strategic initiatives and relationships of high value to BC technology entrepreneurs and innovators. She also developed a cross-industry strategy that connects industry problems with innovative “problem solvers” in a variety of industries.
Shirley is also a registered respiratory therapist, having worked in acute care, medical technologies, as well as having managed private healthcare delivery companies in the past. Her distinct background has positioned her to lead BCIC during a pivotal time, where technology plays a crucial role in growing BC’s economy.
Your background demonstrates that you have several years of experience when it comes to helping businesses start off. What would you say is the biggest challenge that business owners face when they are starting off?
In a lot of ways, it depends on the type of business. Generally, it is figuring out what support you need to build your business and where to get it. You need to know who can help with it; getting the right type of people; where to get funding; how you are going to fund it; are you going to bootstrap it; are you going to use. Depending on the amount of money you might use angel investment, capital investment, equity. There is a variety of things and of course funding and cash flow is always key at the bottom of that. How do you get decent cash flow to get you going? Innovate BC is such a good resource for innovators because we connect entrepreneurs to the resources that small and medium-sized enterprises actually need. It might be government funding things that might be available. We can put them in touch with different types of investments. We also do a lot of work connecting them with entrepreneurs in residence who have been there, done that, built the businesses themselves and continue to help start up and also in growth stages. We help with scaling a company. People that can actually help you minimize some of the risks that you face as you go along building your business. Basically, you can think of it as “I made all of these mistakes, so here I’m going to show you the mistakes I made.” It is a little more involved than mentorship. Depending on the stage of the business. It might be a new technology business. It might be actually determining what type of scientific help you may need to make your technology more advanced and leverage technology more. It might be actually how do you capitalize on things? How do you define your market? When you are growing your business, at a certain stage, if you get around 25 employees you end up in a whole other world. You then need structure. How do you deal with human resources? How do you deal with compliance issues and governments and boards of directors? All of those sorts of things. It depends on the stage and the type of business.
You’re a firm believer that technology can help entrepreneurs develop their business and help them expand. In your opinion, what is the biggest impact that technology has had on businesses?
I think that with technology and development generally, you have to look at things at the revolution that we are facing. And it affects the development of every type of business. For traditional industries like mining, forestry, agriculture, oil, and gas. All of those resource types of businesses have been really impacted by technology and other types of businesses as well but I am really interested in the whole natural resource because being in British Columbia our history has been to build the economic wheel in the natural resource industry and in the oil and gas industry in particular. We know how much technology has impacted them. We look at mining and the whole health & safety of the employees, some of the technological developments. When you look at agriculture and the new technology has really impacted the agritech industry because of things like “How do you even track the food supply.” How do you actually do that type of thing? It’s really, really interesting. And we find in British Columbia we see so much prospect & collaboration with the large public and private tech sector adopting new technology. We have something called Innovation Marketplace. A couple of really good examples that we have done. We have built on the idea that if somebody has a problem such as a big global company has a problem, we should be able to connect researchers who are trying to solve that problem together with the person having the problem. If you take the Ministry of Agriculture here is seeking innovative solutions to do that. One example is looking after clean water and how do you reclaim water that you have used for industrial profits. What is really cool is that whole cleantech sector.
Being CEO and President of Innovate BC, you have probably seen a lot of entrepreneurs who came up with innovative ideas to grow their business. What is the most innovative idea that you have seen?
No there are too many that cross so many sectors. There are so many innovative ideas that cross sectors, geno mapping, general fusion, dealing with energy. A business that we have here that is going to change the world is the whole quantum computer sector. We are a world leader in that in the Vancouver area and I think it’s going to revolutionize a lot of businesses. It’s hard to say which one. It depends on which sector you look at. That’s what I love most about my job. I get to see the most amazing things that people are doing. It’s so much fun. We work a lot with academia as well so the people that are doing basic research at universities. It’s just phenomenal some of the things that they are trying to research and bring forward. That’s what’s really cool about what we do. We bring all of these groups together in a collaborative way.
Innovate BC encourages the application and development of innovative technologies that meet the needs of the industry in British Columbia. What is the biggest need that the province needs in terms of technology that could help business owners?
The best way to describe what we do is we connect BC innovators to government resources & funding. We have a variety of initiatives that we actually do. As the technology industry as a whole develops we are going to have a job shortage in the future. That doesn’t matter if you are a startup or if you are a company like Google that is in Vancouver now. We have a few programs like the Tech Co-op Grant. Hiring grads in which we supply funding for small businesses to hire co-op students. They get job experience and introduces them to a career in tech and develop our future workforce. The other thing that we do which is really, really interesting and one of our most popular programs is the ignite program which is collaborations between industry and academia to overcome market streaming challenges. For example, we would have an industry consortium which is a partnership between an industry person and an academic to solve an actual problem. We can get some research grants towards that too. That means the province as a whole has an investment and industry has an investment and academia investment really has the past experience helping entrepreneurs. We have had a lot of research grants in a lot of different water issues. There is a million different ways they are looking at water as reclamation. How you change water and how you purify it in different industries. That’s such a great program. That collaboration really helps businesses grow. It helps the companies grow their businesses because they are able to work with the province’s top researchers. It helps them to attract investment by going through that process.
Innovate BC partners up with several organizations to help business owners. What would you say is the most challenging part when it comes to finding the right partner that could help entrepreneurs?
We have partners and accelerators that are situated all over the province. It isn’t a challenge, but the benefit is that no matter where you are in the province you can access support and funding and information to help you build your business. The most important component to build a strong partnership is to make sure that we have our goal in mind which is ensuring BC’s emerging tech sector grow throughout the province. Whether you are located in Fort Nelson or Prince George or on Vancouver Island you should be able to build the technology that you want. Sometimes it’s challenging to find the right partner. It’s really important that you have alignment of your goals.
One of the core values of Innovate BC is to guarantee results by monitoring regularly its programs and services with the partners and clients they deal with. What factors are used when monitoring to ensure results are met?
That really depends on the program itself and what the actual results are that we are trying to achieve and the impact. Because we are a crown agency it’s important that the money we spend and the resources that we spend have really good results. We put a lot of value in reviewing and analyzing feedback from our program partners and investors and that allows us to improve every program that we have an initiative around. For example, the student hiring process is pretty simple to chart and graph and we can compare to previous years as well. The hiring institution and the students give us feedback on the program. In the innovation marketplace, we have constant contact with the client throughout the entire process. We can adapt easily. The most important for me as a CEO is to ensure that we are regularly reviewing the metrics to get the desired impact that we want. And also that we are using our resources very efficiently.
How does Innovate BC put creativity and originality at the gate of its operations?
We are a very entrepreneurial organization ourselves. We have to be really in tune with what our industry needs because our goal is to grow the industry. We always have to look at what is needed. For example, Innovation Marketplace is a great example of how we can integrate creativity and originality into our operations. The challenges that these people work on trying to solve are that we have to be very flexible and open to new ideas and new ways of delivering these services. Always with the goal in mind of what we are impacting with them. Another example of creativity is the BC Tech Summit which is the largest conference in western Canada. Every year we need to come up with new ideas and ways to make it unique and make sure we are providing the value for our delegates. The investors have an Investment showcase, there is an educational content and we have a big youth innovation day to try and expose our secondary school students to what is happening in technology in the province. We make sure we are providing value & services for their needs. Part of our mandate and legislation is to provide policy recommendations to the government which is a very important component.
If you were to compare British Columbia to other provinces across Canada, what would you say is the main difference in terms of technology when it comes to growing a business?
This is a hard question. Our innovators here in BC run across different sectors and it’s very interesting the amount of research that is being done by our academics and institutions. We have over the last few years worked with entrepreneurs and researchers that are creating and finding solutions. I mentioned clean drinking water in third world countries; plastic consumption reduction. If I had to say about BC’ers in general, they want to change the world with their technology because when you compare it population wise to other parts of the world, we are small so we don’t have a marketplace to showcase it. They want to change the world with their technologies and we do everything we can to help them do that.
Finally, as CEO and President of Innovate BC, what is the best accomplishment that Innovate BC has had that makes you most proud?
A lot of Innovate BC makes me proud. I’m proud to work here with such a talented group of people who are just absolutely passionate about what they do. One of the biggest accomplishments over the years that Innovate BC has done is putting together that partnership that reaches every single corner of the province. Making sure that we have a direct line. I think that is the biggest value proposition that we have in our organization. No matter where you are, we can make sure that as an innovator in the province you are taken care of. I’m really proud of the amount of amount of work that is happening in the cleantech space. Not so much in BC but generally. The other big accomplishment is the development of the innovation marketplace which helps solves problems in the world by using and connecting technology with innovators and researchers to come up with solutions to problems and its amazing impact. We work with using the Innovation Marketplace. We work with large government organizations working with artificial intelligence with the justice system in BC. They had some challenges they wanted to address. We work with a big mining organization and are going into the second stage to solve some of their problems in the interior mining sector which is all through our Innovation Marketplace. It has been fascinating and I am really, really proud that we have developed that.
Innovate BC employs less than 25 people but they have a big reach through a partnership with other organizations and the federal government to help small and medium-sized businesses reach their goals. It’s about how to maximize your resources right.