How Graham Lee is giving UBC entrepreneurs an edge

NURTURING TALENT | Graham Lee checks out the work of a young entrepreneur at UBC’s Graham Lee Innovation Centre

Fewer than one in 10 grads give back to their alma mater. Graham Lee, UBC Sauder grad, aims to change that–and strengthen B.C.’s entrepreneurial culture in the process

Jason Yee was a defenceman on the UBC hockey team for four years while studying kinesiology. He graduated in May and hung up his skates, but he’s not quite ready to forget the game he loves. Along with a teammate, engineering grad Ben Schmidt, he’s developing AI Coach—a technological platform that analyzes game videos using statistical algorithms to identify players’ strengths and weaknesses. 

As the 26-year-old describes how the system goes beyond counting goals and assists—looking also at key moments such as shot attempts and turnovers—Graham Lee listens intently. The two men are sitting in roomy armchairs in the lobby of the Graham Lee Innovation Centre, home of entrepreneurship@UBC
—also known as e@UBC—and the incubator of AI Coach.

Lee, 52, has several interests in common with the young entrepreneur. His business, GSL Group, owns the Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre in Victoria, the arena where Yee ran his first coaching business. He also owns the Victoria Royals hockey team. “Our WHL scouts scour all of Western Canada and the U.S., spending hours and hours watching video,” Lee says. “So I saw some synergies with what Jason is doing. It’s little things like that—how can I help him with his business?”

Launched in 2013 by local tech mogul Greg Peet, e@UBC offers resources and support to UBC students, staff, faculty or recent alumni who are trying to start a business. Funded by UBC, various government agencies, sponsors and private donors like Lee, the centre offers workshops, programs for business model development, mentorship and startup space. The most promising entrepreneurs are invited into the Venture Builder program, in which they are paired with a mentor—an experienced c-level executive who helps them shape their idea into a viable business. They then can apply for investment from the $2-million e@UBC Seed Fund, which was started by a small group of local tech executives and is sustained by annual donations from individuals and corporations.

E@UBC was initially housed in the dark, cramped quarters of a building wedged between the health sciences and forestry faculties. Several months into its tenancy, a proponent approached Lee to make a donation that would enable the program to consolidate its smaller offices into the larger central space in the Robert H. Lee Alumni Centre (named for his philanthropist father). He thought it was a natural fit. The new space, in the light-filled basement of the alumni centre, can accommodate more than 70 people in working areas, plus boardrooms, offices and a fully equipped kitchen area. 

Lee started his own business directly after graduating from UBC’s Sauder School of Business in 1987, using a business plan he developed in one of his commerce courses. GSL Holdings was a real estate fund for offshore investors, which he used to build residential developments, shopping malls and industrial facilities. “I had no money and no experience. If I had someone I could have come and talked to, like this,” he says, gesturing at the slow stream of young people carrying backpacks in and out of the offices, “it would have eased my way through.” 

Eventually Lee moved into multi-purpose arenas, e-commerce, a private airline and blueberry farming. He says he got involved with e@UBC because he believes the province needs to up its level of competitiveness. “I think the way we’re living in B.C. right now is unsustainable,” he says. “We’ve got this weird setup here where we’ve got a beautiful city and a lot of money coming in as a resort city but not a lot of innovation. So this is my way of saying, we have to start creating higher-paying jobs here, more opportunities and more disruptive businesses that can actually make a huge difference in the world.”

Since the seed fund was set up, $1.35 million has been invested in 12 startups, typically in amounts of between $50,000 and $250,000. The businesses—which include promising start-ups such as Nanozen Environmental, an air monitoring system for industrial settings, and Aspect Biosystem, which creates human tissue constructs by 3D printing for use in testing new drugs—have created more than 100 new jobs and generated $4.1 million in revenue in 2015, according to Todd Farrell, president of e@UBC.

Lee, who now sits on UBC’s board of governors, calls those startups “inspirational.”

“Historically we’ve been living off the land, with forests, mining and real estate,” he says. “We’ve got to move into this age where you make money through knowledge.”