Vancouver Innovation: Comfortably Numb

Tony Wanless

While it’s a good idea that I encourage, one observation I’ll make is that many of the ideas I’ve seen so far weren’t really very innovative. Sure, some did familiar things in different ways, but there didn’t seem to be many breakthrough visions. Nobody I’ve met was really breaking any boundaries. I thought of this recently while reading a BNET article that featured one of BC’s favourite technologists, Caterina Fake, as a guru on how to develop cutting-edge new products. Fake was the Vancouver co-founder, with partner Stewart Butterfield, of Flickr the web-based photo-sharing site bought by Yahoo in 2005 for more than $30 million. In Silicon Valley, Fake now runs Brickhouse, a Yahoo in-house incubator that fosters new ideas. One of its products called Yahoo Pipes was cited by San Francisco Web guru Tim O’Reilly as a “milestone in the history of the Internet”. Fake and Butterfield created Flikr through their company Ludicorp in BC a couple of years before selling to Yahoo. But the irony was that here in Vancouver, which now touts Fake as one of our great innovators, almost nobody thought it was a good idea. Except for some enthusiasm from those who were aware of what was happening in Silicon Valley, the couple couldn’t get a sniff from local venture capitalists, angels, and other “authorities” who oversee technology here. The only financing they could get came from open source advocate Dick Hardt, who had just sold his Active State business to Sophos and was launching his own social networking service SXIP. Hardt reportedly handed the couple $100,000 to develop their idea. He also advised them to head for the Valley, which they did, and quickly drew a whack of investment from Yahoo, which eventually bought the whole company as part of its new web portal strategy. Fake doesn’t have much to do with Vancouver any more. Too bad, because she clearly knows how to get innovation going. We desperately need her kind of thinking here, and not just in technology. While some of the ideas emanating from the mashup culture that’s trying to take root here are impressive, only a few actually come to fruition because they rarely receive encouragement or financing Above that level we often seem stuck in some kind of thought rut, especially in non-technology areas. Occasionally, a new retail idea like Lululemon or a media idea like The Tyee appears, but they’re rare. Maybe it’s the fabled BC lifestyle syndrome: Don’t rock the boat. Go with the flow and you’ll be rewarded. As Pink Floyd said, we’re often comfortably numb. Click here to read Tony’s previous blog entry. Click here to read the next entry.