Canadian Universities Breeding Tech Startups

B.C. university students are dreaming big and driving tech startups.

BC student tech startups | BCBusiness
Enterprising B.C. students are taking their class projects to market with an impressive rate of success.

B.C. university students are dreaming big and driving tech startups.

Seventeen years ago, I was an MBA student with an idea. Luckily for me, I was enrolled in an entrepreneurship class at UBC that allowed me to take the idea and form a proper business plan. Three classmates and I built a financial model, studied the market and wrote a solid plan. The plan was good enough to get us a very good mark, win an international business plan competition and convince me to raise some angel money and give it a go. Life was good, despite limited income. Then life happened. The young newlywed Hollidays got pregnant and, well, that meant I needed a steady income. So I abandoned my first startup and sold the assets to a company in Toronto, ending my company born from UBC after only nine months.

Universities are fertile ground for innovation in Canada. Professors and graduate students work in laboratories creating new inventions in computer science, medical technology, biotechnology and countless other areas. Two interesting young companies in Vancouver illustrate what can happen when the students, unlike me, are able to see their innovations through to commercialization. 

One of those is the cover story in this month’s edition of BCBusiness: Energy Aware Technology Inc. sprang from the minds of Janice Cheam and Lauren Kulokas while they attended UBC and took a course called New Venture Design. They were able to raise angel rounds from prominent local individuals and assembled a strong board. They built the product and formed relationships with equipment suppliers to the biggest electric utilities in the world. Now the company is selling in North America and Australia and has plans for European distributorship. They have 16 employees and plan to expand. All of this emerging from a class project. 

In a very similar story, Hamid Abdollahi was a graduate engineering student at UBC who did a New Venture Design class project with MBA students Dan Eisenhardt, Darcy Hughes and Fraser Hall. Their idea, born in 2007 as Recon Instruments Inc., was to add display technology to goggles used in sports. I met them in a tiny lab at UBC shortly after they graduated in 2008. They showed me a mock-up of ski goggles with a display for temperature, altitude, velocity, vertical feet skied and notification of cell phone alerts (the last of which I found most useful as I hated fumbling for my cell phone on every chairlift ride to see if there was a message). Dan explained that they were already talking to the largest brands in goggles and their plan was to incorporate the technology and sell through retail channels. I wished them luck, thought them naïve and secretly hoped they might bear children so that they might go get a real job. In other words, I didn’t give them a chance.

In January 2011, I went to the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas and was shocked to see Recon Instruments’ Transcend goggles were winners of the product innovation award. Not only had they reached market, but they were winning major awards. I went to see them and their 25 employees in Yaletown and was blown away. They have raised millions of dollars of angel money, convinced major brands to make their new goggles “Recon ready” and are set to explode in the 2011/2012 ski season. They gave me a pair of the goggles and as soon as I had a chance to try them out my son (the one who wrecked my entrepreneurial career, you will recall) promptly bested me by 10 km/hr in the top speed reached. The goggles tracked every move I made on the mountain, and when I downloaded the software it showed my entire ski day on a map overlay. Very, very cool.

There are many examples of innovation and commercial technology coming out of universities, but I especially love the stories about the students themselves having the chutzpah to take their class papers and turn them into international businesses.