SFU’s director of entrepreneurship talks about how the university is trying to address the gaps in Canada’s development of innovators
As an undergrad business student at SFU in 2006, Sarah Lubik landed a co-op job in which she interviewed founders of new technology companies in Canada, the U.S. and the U.K. on the challenges they faced as they tried to take their products to market.
Since then she has tackled that question over and over, first in her research for graduate degrees at the University of Cambridge (including a PhD in commercialization of advanced materials from university spin-outs) and now as SFU’s director of entrepreneurship.
Lubik has also tested the waters herself, as marketing director of U.K.-based Lung-fish Dive Systems, which has developed a rebreather—diving equipment that recycles exhaled air.
Was there a point where you had to decide if you were going to go into academics or work in business?
There have been lots of points like that, actually. One of the great things about working at SFU is that they liked the fact that I had my own business when I came here, because I had the hands-on experience.
I’ve had a few opportunities to go back into the private sector with startups, and it’s tempting, but it doesn’t make me as happy. Because I think SFU is a platform to change how we do education, and it’s nice to be in a place where you can have that much impact.
What does entrepreneurship education look like at SFU?
What we’re doing here with entrepreneurship is building a continuum, from mindset change and education, through to early-stage incubation and on to growing and scaling ventures.
Is it possible to teach entrepreneurship?
Absolutely. The model of education that we’re putting forward is almost incubation in the classroom. You’re learning to be an entrepreneur, work on a team, develop that mindset, work ethic, and build your networks really early. The students come up with a problem they want to solve, and get together in interdisciplinary teams and get out into the world and come back and say, “I’ve interviewed 30 people this week, and another person built the technology.” So in an undergraduate class they’ve got products, they’ve got partners, they’ve got market traction. This year I had one with an offer for acquisition before they even finished the class.
Why is teaching entrepreneurship so important?
One of the reasons it’s so important is because the world is changing faster and faster. We can’t tell students, “This is the career we’re training you for.” And so school needs to say less, “I’m going to train you to be an accountant”—and don’t get me wrong, we still do that—but more, “I’m going to give you the skills you need so that you have the ability to make your own opportunities.”
Through its curriculum and incubator and accelerator programs, SFU says it encourages social innovation. What does that mean?
It’s a venture that is started at least partially to solve some sort of social problem or market failure. We are increasingly faced by significant problems in the world, and you need people who are willing to wade in and learn about them and break off manageable pieces. It’s important to us to make sure that we are making a difference in our community, not just making tech.
When you look at an early-stage venture, how do you know it’s going to work?
With an early-stage venture, I care less that the venture’s going to work and more about building that entrepreneur. Because any venture is one part about the team and whatever they’re doing, and it’s also about the timing and the opportunity.
So it might be a fantastic idea, but the timing isn’t right. Or they’ll do all the due diligence, and then they say, “This isn’t where my passion lies.” But then they’ll come back a second or a third time and find that thing that gets their passion. And by then they’ve built up all the skills that they need. Or they go to work for a company, and that company is lucky to have them.
Last year Navdeep Bains, the federal Innovation minister, appointed you an Innovation Leader. When you led roundtable discussions with business leaders, academics and students on the topic of how to create an entrepreneurial society, how did people respond?
One of the things that came out of these consultations is there is a culture shift that needs to happen around creating that entrepreneurial mindset. And you can do that a lot easier by intervening in schools than you can by hoping that when people self-identify as entrepreneurs later on, then you pile resources on them. That’s one of the reasons that SFU is working with YELL [Young Entrepreneurship Leadership Launchpad] in high schools, so that you don’t kill that mindset, that you actually encourage and nurture it.
You have said that SFU is in its growth phase. What are you scaling up to?
My ideal vision would be that we figure out how to get entrepreneurship education more widely in the early stage, through our entrepreneurship partners. That we have triple the amount of people in entrepreneurship programs as we do now, or more. We’ve made it that every student can get access to entrepreneurship. So now the question will be, should they be able to opt in, or should they not be able to opt out? That would be a very significant shift—everyone a change maker, everyone an entrepreneur.