Getting creative in a pandemic: Vancouver startup incubator encourages businesses to adapt in the wake of COVID-19

League of Innovators preaches flexibility during these challenging times.

Credit: League of Innovators

League of Innovators preaches adaptation during these challenging times

Like so many budding entrepreneurs, Sophie Wyne found a gap in the market. Only hers was a tad more personal.

Having experienced a toxic workplace in what the Vancouver native calls “another life,” Wyne realized there were no B2B solutions that companies could use to pinpoint and resolve internal misconduct. So she quit a job in the cybersecurity sector this January and gave her full attention to Spotlight.

“You can say I was harassed at my workplace, but what does that mean? No one really knows,” Wyne argues. “So what we want to do is provide not only a channel for employees to reach out to HR personnel but also add tangible metrics. HR receives access to a dashboard that shows overarching trends, predictive trends, like ‘Cyberbullying has gone up 13 percent last quarter,’ things that indicate that you may want to invest in that area.”

It was all going relatively smoothly—Wyne had earned a spot in the League of Innovators, the startup incubator created by Hootsuite founder Ryan Holmes—and interest in Vancouver-based Spotlight was growing.

Then the realities of COVID-19 came crashing down on the world.

Although Spotlight and other LOI ventures can no longer work out of Hootsuite’s Mount Pleasant offices, 23-year-old Wyne is still getting expert advice from the incubator—via Zoom calls—and pivoting her business accordingly.  

“The traditional routes to report misconduct are very much shifted,” she says, given that remote offices reign and there’s no personal contact with other employees or HR personnel. “We also wanted to help organizations cater to potential mental strains that employees are struggling with. That could be burnout or anxiety, or if you have staff that are completely isolated from friends and family and live alone, their workplace might be the only connection they have with the outside world.”

Spotlight is one of about 30 businesses across North America that LOI signed on for its current 12-week program, the fourth time the organization has welcomed a new cohort. This group promises to be unlike the previous three: it must weather one of the greatest economic challenges of our lifetimes.

But Joanna Buczkowska-McCumber, who has been executive director of LOI since it launched in 2017, thinks most of the current initiatives will come out of the pandemic unscathed. “Those that are earlier on in their journeys are at a position where they have a little bit more opportunity to pivot before they even launch, because they aren’t even in the marketplace yet,” she says. “So it’s really thinking about, what is the opportunity? It might have been different three months ago, and it’s definitely going to look different in the next three or six months down the road.”

After just a few years, LOI has something of a laundry list of successful businesses it’s helped along the way, including Vancouver-based low-sugar candy producer SmartSweets and Victoria payment software firm DivDot. That’s partly because it keeps working with them long after they graduate.

“One of the things we talk about is developing programs with no cliffs,” notes Buczkowska-McCumber. “Yes, you’ve finished your program with us; maybe you’ve got investment, maybe not. But our goal is to make sure you’re going to be successful with your career as an entrepreneur.” 

She points to DivDot and its co-founder and CEO, Matthew Smith (a 2019 LOI grad), as an example of a company well positioned to adapt to the pandemic.

“It was running in circles a bit at the beginning; the company was built around payment systems and processing cheques,” Buczkowska-McCumber recalls. After the program, in September, DivDot raised a first seed round and refined its business model to focus on eliminating cheques for freelancers and small businesses. “And now that things have gone completely virtual, they’re seeing major growth.”

So how does Buczkowska-McCumber think Wyne and Spotlight will fare in this challenging time?

“I really love Sophie’s idea, and I think having a company that hasn’t fully launched yet may be in her best interest for long run,” she says. “Some entrepreneurs are there just to be entrepreneurs, and then there are those that are there to create value and do something really good in the world through the business they’re trying to create. And I feel like she’s the latter. She’s trying to solve a real problem that exists, and one that is probably going to be amplified [by COVID-19].”