All it takes is one good idea to build a company and

redefine an industry. We found 20 of them

We’ve come a long way since our inaugural Innovators of the Year competition five years ago. Last year we moved the gala event to a spectacular waterfront room at the Vancouver Convention Centre and the air was electric with the buzz of all those brilliant minds gathered in one room.

The excitement carried over when our Innovators panel met early this year for our 2013 edition. The enthusiasm ramped up as we traded thoughts on the power of innovation. “What’s more important to business than innovation?” asked one panellist, declaring that the Innovators gala should be the blowout event of the year, the Academy Awards of the business community. We couldn’t agree more.

This year’s big lesson? The true mark of innovation isn’t just a good idea; it’s one that can be scaled and replicated. If Reliance Properties had simply renovated a downtown heritage building, offering affordable microloft rentals, that would have been pretty cool. But the real value of the innovation is the level of detail Reliance put into the planning and design so that other cities, including New York, have been able to take a close look and have since announced plans to proceed with similar projects.

Another lesson? Innovation isn’t something you do just once. Weatherhaven Resources had a pretty good business in the 1980s supplying prefab portables for remote mining camps. But when the Canadian military came calling, the company figured out how to pack an Arctic research station into a standard shipping container. Today it supplies militaries around the world with ground satellite stations and field hospitals, all pre-packed in standard shipping containers.

There are plenty more lessons in the pages that follow—20 in all. If you’re as inspired as we were, you’ll likely find your company in these pages in years to come.

1 Reliance Properties Ltd.

Billed as the smallest self-contained apartments in Canada, microlofts built by Reliance Properties Ltd. in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside are redefining the boundaries of urban living. With the smallest suite clocking in at 229 square feet, these rental apartments offer something previously unheard of: affordable living space for young singles working and studying downtown.

A 50-year-old developer with residential buildings throughout downtown, Reliance had seen hundreds of requests from tenants looking for affordable downtown housing. “People would say, ‘I don’t care what it is, but I can only afford $800,’” says Jon Stovell, president of Reliance. When the historic Burns Block building on East Hastings Street near Pigeon Park was left unoccupied in 2006, Reliance jumped on the chance to convert the single-room-occupancy hotel into 30 microlofts. In a concerted effort with the City of Vancouver, which offered heritage restoration grants and relaxed the minimum home requirement from 320 to 229 square feet, Reliance completed the redevelopment of the Burns Building in August 2011.

Since completion, the lofts have been showcased as a solution to Vancouver’s deficit of affordable rental space. David Allison, Innovators panellist and a partner at Braun/Allison Inc., says that “using those small spaces so they actually become livable is considerable. To take the risk… and to be willing to go into an environment where [they] know it’s going to be difficult, there’s an amazing innovation there.”

The development proved a success for Reliance, which owns the building and rents out the units, with all 30 suites renting out within one week through Craigslist. Nothing was spent on advertising or marketing. With a waiting list building for Burns Block, Reliance is currently working on a heritage building of 113 suites in Victoria and has plans to continue development in Vancouver, including at least one strata-owned building.

Reliance was contacted by New York City’s head planner in January 2012, inviting Stovell and others to New York to discuss the economics and design of the lofts. Shortly after that visit, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a public competition for architectural firms to come up with their own microloft concept.

“We like to think that they stole our idea,” says Stovell with a chuckle. —S.F.

2 Weatherhaven Resources Ltd.

With an economy built on extracting resources from remote terrain, it’s only natural that B.C. has developed expertise in supplying portable field camps to resource industries. But one company has continually innovated on the basic prefab model, to the point where it is now supplying not only mining and forestry companies with bunk houses, but militaries around the world with pop-up field hospitals and satellite ground stations.

Burnaby-based Weatherhaven got its start in 1981 supplying remote mining operations with prefab offices and bunk houses. The initial units, like tents in the shape of Quonset huts, were reusable, easily transported and quick to set up and take down.

The first milestone innovation came about 20 years ago, when the Canadian military asked for a self-contained unit complete with plumbing, electrical systems, furniture and specialty equipment. Weatherhaven’s response was its patented Mobile Expandable Container Configuration, or MECC: a standard shipping container whose walls come down to triple the floor space; soft fabric walls pop out and inside are all the fixtures and equipment. Outside are standard connections for water and electricity. “It’s plug and play,” says CEO Ray Castelli, adding that units are fully operational within a half-hour of delivery.

Weatherhaven initially sold about 200 of these units to the Canadian military, and went on to sell 2,500 to armed forces around the world. The company has configured the units as surgical operating theatres, satellite ground stations, vehicle repair centres and offices.

The U.S. military liked the idea, but wanted hard walls. Weatherhaven’s response was the HERcon, or hard-wall expandable redeployable container. The company secured a U.S. patent for the innovation in 2012 and in that year licensed the technology to AAR Corp., a Fortune 1000 company that supplies the U.S. military.

Today about half of Weatherhaven’s business comes from military clients; 30 to 40 per cent comes from commercial clients, including mining companies; and about 10 per cent of its business comes from supplying field hospitals and disaster relief operations. —D.J.

3 SemiosBIO Technologies Inc.

Even with increased regulation on pesticides in North America, Canada still tolerates significantly more toxins on our crops than Europe, which means we miss out on business when exporting our harvests. Add to that the need for more effective, economical and sustainable pest management and the agricultural sector is facing a sea change.

Enter Vancouver-based SemiosBIO Technologies Inc., which since 2009 has offered SemiosNET, a pest management system for farming that is devoid of neurotoxins. Camera-equipped traps that monitor pest activity are placed throughout a field or orchard, approximately one for every hectare. A central hub then delivers this information, as well as weather data, to SemiosNET software that both records the data and manages the devices. Growers and their consultants then monitor their crops in real time and isolate insect pressure on a precise area, then use remotely controlled dispensers (approximately two per hectare) to spray pheromones; these manipulate the insects’ communication pathways, confusing them so that males can’t find females and the bugs can’t reproduce. In addition to being non-toxic, the pheromone treatments actually cost less than traditional pesticides.

Michael Gilbert, a chemist and chief scientific officer at SemiosBIO, credits the company’s coup in bringing this product to market to good timing: it perfected its alternative to toxic pesticides just as the machine-to-machine technology at the heart of the SemiosNET system became available.

SemiosBIO now has 22 employees, $6 million in capital investment behind it—plus a recent $2.8-million injection from the federal government—and 25 systems in the field in Canada, covering about 1,000 hectares of crops. This year it projects more than 40 systems in Canada, five in the U.S., five in Europe and up to 10 in Latin America. “The company is in a land grab,” says Gilbert. “We want acres.” —K.M.


Mobilearth Inc.

Mobile banking innovator TRG Mobilearth Inc. is changing the way people do their banking. The privately owned, Vancouver-based company has developed software that allows users to bank by smartphone, tablet and personal computer. Mobilearth’s breakthrough innovation, however, is MobiBranch, a new tablet app that brings the bank to its clients, wherever they may be.

Creating a new account or applying for a loan or mortgage used to require a visit to the branch, but with MobiBranch, bank employees can perform secure banking transactions and process documents via tablet, whether the client is at home, on the job site, in the airport or at work. For Innovators panellist Dean Prelazzi, this development is disruptive in a sector that has been slow to embrace new technology. “Mobilearth’s technology for mobilizing branch functions into the hands of mobile employees has the potential to turn the entire retail banking business model on its ear. Over time, it could completely eliminate the need for bricks-and-mortar bank branches.”

With MobiBranch, account applications are paperless, signatures are digital, processes are streamlined and wait times are reduced. If a car dealership is negotiating financing for a client, for example, a bank employee armed with a MobiBranch-enabled mobile device can come to the dealership to oversee the process immediately.

B.C.’s Mount Lehman Credit Union and First West Credit Union have become Mobilearth’s first two MobiBranch clients. “We’re changing the way people interact with their financial institutions, in terms of offering banking mobility, digitizing the process and becoming more environmentally friendly through paperless banking,” says CEO Tia Lee. —D.H.

5 Tasktop

Technologies Inc.

Countless hours are wasted at work due to inefficient communication between departments. Mik Kersten, CEO and co-founder of Vancouver-based Tasktop Technologies Inc., has set out to solve this very human problem, at least for software developers.

Kersten and his team created a tool to help companies with large software development divisions track their time and tasks more effectively from the creation phase all the way to testing and delivery. Typically, developers use what’s known in the industry as application lifecycle management, or ALM, tools to help developers, testers and other staff organize and coordinate their work. Larger companies might use a number of such systems; Boeing, for example, might use one from Microsoft and another from HP. These systems don’t always communicate with each another, leaving teams out of sync, with constantly evolving requirements lost in the translation from idea to a final software product.

Tasktop created software that allows management systems for software developers to integrate and communicate more efficiently. They’re the first company to connect disparate software-development systems, up to 70 at a time, and the first to market in this area, according to Rizwan Kheraj, the industrial technology adviser for the National Research Council’s IRAP program at SFU who has worked with Tasktop since its inception. “You can think of them as the Switzerland of ALM systems,” Kheraj says. “They’re sort of the arms dealer that deals with multiple conflicts.”

Since its launch in 2008, Tasktop has continually expanded its efforts to quell conflicts in the software world. An earlier version of its software called Mylyn, released for free as open source, is downloaded two million times a month.

Tasktop counts such Global 2000 corporations as IBM and Microsoft among its clients and has doubled staff and revenue in the past 18 months. —L.P.

6 Williams & White

Machine Inc.

Mention “robots” and one of two things usually comes to mind: evil technology gone awry, as in 2001: A Space Odyssey, or futuristic servants catering to our every whim, à la The Jetsons.

Automated industrial manufacturing may not be quite as sexy as movie and TV robots, but neither is it the stuff of science fiction: it’s here, and it’s boosting manufacturing productivity. And one Vancouver firm is on the cutting edge of robotics innovation.

Williams & White Machine Inc. is a Burnaby company that got its start in 1957 fabricating bridge and construction components. It branched into sawmill components and about a decade ago it spawned a new division, called Remtech Systems, specializing in industrial automation. Under a company reorganization now underway, the fledgling division is about to be launched as a stand-alone company under the Williams & White group of companies.

One of Remtech’s early clients was Ballard Power Systems Inc., which about six years ago contracted Williams & White to assemble a fuel-cell stack, for which Remtech also designed a virtual testing environment.

A more recent Remtech client is 2012 Innovators of the Year winner Canada Metal (Pacific) Ltd., which makes small metal discs that attach to the underside of boats to help prevent corrosion. Williams & White CEO Justin Williams explains that “they were originally pouring molten zinc into casting moulds by hand.” The process was not only slow and laborious, but dangerous. Remtech designed and installed a fully automated robotic conveyor system, eliminating human interaction with molten metal, and increasing output by up to 300 per cent.

“They were able to ramp up productivity to the point where they are competitive with China,” notes James McCartney, a research associate at BCIT’s Applied Research Liaison Office who has worked with Remtech on similar projects. McCartney adds that Remtech’s true innovation lies in the software it develops to tie all the hardware pieces together: “It’s really digital automation where companies gain efficiencies. You can get all the parts to work together and you can find out how to make it run faster. It’s a collaboration of analysis and software optimization and Remtech definitely has the expertise to deliver on a solution.” —D.J.

7 Corvus Energy Ltd.

To most people, batteries conjure images of the AAA that powers a TV remote, not a 70-kilogram power source for a ferry. But that’s precisely what’s so unique about Corvus Energy’s industrial lithium ion batteries: they can be quickly adapted to turn almost any kind of vehicle into a hybrid.

Originally developed to prevent tugboats from wasting fuel (and help protect the environment) while waiting for work, Corvus’s batteries are now used in airport vehicles, 18-wheelers and even in car-carrying ferries in Norway.

In addition to the batteries’ infinite uses, Corvus has also managed to create a unique and practical delivery process. According to Brent Perry, CEO and founder of Corvus, each battery is customized and delivered as a turnkey kit. Corvus ships each battery pack in a container with all the parts and detailed visual instructions so customers can install the units into their own vehicles in just a few hours. Corvus later deploys an employee to check on every battery to ensure it’s working properly.

Since Corvus first brought its industrial lithium ion batteries to market in 2010, revenues have grown each year, as have the uses for the product. Sales increased from $100,000 in 2010 to more than $43 million for the 2012 fiscal year. –L.P.

8 Global Relay

Communications Inc.

Secure message archiving has been around since the dawn of email, but constant innovation at Global Relay Communications Inc. has kept the Vancouver firm one step ahead of the competition.

At the heart of Global Relay’s innovation is the decision early on to target an industry with very specific needs: financial services and the complex regulatory requirements for investment brokers and dealers. Lots of companies can track, store and retrieve digital communications and lots of lawyers can advise brokerage firms on compliance requirements. Global Relay can do both.

The strategy has landed the world’s biggest banks as clients for Global Relay and has placed the company within shouting distance of global IT giants. A 2012 report by research company Gartner Inc. places Global Relay among the leading challengers to the three giants in enterprise information archiving: IBM, Symantec Corp. and Proofpoint Inc.

Another of the company’s early innovations was to house its archiving system on remote servers since the company’s inception in 1999, long before most people had heard of cloud computing. CEO and co-founder Warren Roy explains that the decision wasn’t based on technology, but on the quest for a business model that could weather any recession. Rather than simply sell clients a software package and walk away, Global Relay bundled its product and its expertise as a subscription service, providing stable, recurring revenue. “The customer is mandated to use the technology by regulators; they can’t turn it off,” Roy explains.

The Internet-based platform meant that financial institutions could access all their digital communications—not only email and instant messaging, but industry-specific platforms such as Bloomberg mail and Reuters messaging—through a desktop browser.

The company’s most recent innovation was to adapt its services to mobile platforms and incorporate social media. In the past year Global Relay has rolled out mobile search applications for BlackBerry, iPad, iPhone and Android devices, and added Twitter and LinkedIn to its archiving function. Now financial brokers and dealers have instant access to all their archived communications through their tablets and mobile phones.

Global Relay’s staff structure is proof of its dedication to innovation: 125 of its 225 employees are software developers. The company grew from Roy’s previous career in architectural design and construction; it began as a service to track the exchange of digital documents throughout the life of a building project, but initial uptake was slow. “At the end of four years, we had three employees and $50,000 in revenue,” Roy says.

When U.S. securities regulators issued strict new rules about communications storage and retrieval in 2001, on the heels of the Enron scandal, Roy had his big idea: “We realized we were focusing on the wrong industry.” The three-man team of Roy, co-founder Duff Reid and software developer Eric Parusel, was augmented by a fourth employee: Shannon Rogers, a lawyer with expertise in financial regulations. As the financial industry scrambled to make sense of the new regulations, the upstart Vancouver firm got its big break when it was named an “approved message archiving compliance resource provider” by the National Association of Securities Dealers in the U.S. (now the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority).

Today Global Relay serves 16,000 customers in 90 countries. Shannon Rogers, now the company’s president, was named Canada’s top female entrepreneur by Profit magazine in 2011 and in 2012 Global Relay was among Deloitte’s Technology Fast 50. —D.J.

9 Solegear

Bioplastics Inc.

Solegear Bioplastics Inc.’s star is rising. The developer, manufacturer and distributor of non-toxic, bio-based and compostable plastics has recently closed financing with clean-tech investor Yaletown Venture Partners Inc. and landed a strategic investment from Best Buy Capital (the investment arm of NYSE-listed Best Buy Co. Ltd.). It counts five global brands as clients, including key players in the electronics, cosmetics, toy and IT industries. Not too shabby for a Vancouver-based startup with a dozen employees.

Solegear’s Polysole resin is designed to biodegrade, turning into H20, CO2 and soil within one year in an industrial composter. Solegear’s business model is a rare combination of scientific readiness and refined market-development skills: it works with partners, using their equipment and facilities instead of building its own, cutting costs and allowing it to sell its products at competitive prices compared to the petroleum-based incumbents.

Solegear is still an early-stage company. Its 2012 revenues were nominal as it continued to refine its product, supply chain and market support. This year, with product commercialization in full force, founder and CEO Toby Reid is forecasting revenues approaching $6 million or $7 million.

“Not very many startups get to go elephant hunting out of the gate,” says Reid. “We’ve been fortunate that with our team, technology, business model and our sales approach, we’ve been able to do business with Fortune 1000 companies.” —D.H.

10 Beedie School of Business, SFU: Executive MBA in Aboriginal Business and Leadership

B.C.’s aboriginal business community has a big stake in the province’s economic future. Treaty agreements, renewed autonomy over aboriginal land and increased control over health and social services have been game-changers for bands and First Nations across B.C. But future opportunities are still tied to present challenges, and big questions. Can business priorities reconcile with indigenous world views? And how can aboriginal business overcome the financial limitations and economic disadvantages embedded in the Indian Act and inherited from a history of colonization?

The Executive MBA in Aboriginal Business and Leadership at SFU’s Beedie School of Business is tackling these challenges head on. Launched last September, the program attracted business leaders, administrators and senior officials as students, including Squamish Nation Chief Ian Campbell, and former mayor of West Vancouver, Pam Goldsmith-Jones.

Semesters are divided into tight, two-week sessions at SFU’s downtown campus, allowing the participants to ferry between the Lower Mainland and their full-time jobs, with some participants travelling from as far away as the Yukon.

According to program director Mark Selman, 80 per cent of the content is the same as the regular EMBA. The difference? Addressing the role of indigenous knowledge in the boardroom, and the accounting for unique policy and governance issues that aboriginal enterprises face.

“We look at standard business models like Apple, but we get to a point where that won’t work in our communities, so then we have to make it applicable within our world,” explains Tamara Goddard, a student in the program’s inaugural semester and the founder and CEO of Blue Habitats Distribution Ltd., a manufacturer of eco-friendly building supplies.

Six months in, the program is a pilot for First Nations professional training, and has provoked conversations about aboriginal commerce and economic development. Teck Resources Ltd., a financial supporter of the program along with Vancity, started hiring students two months in. Selman says other Canadian universities are interested in developing a similar program.

“The education goes two ways,” says Goddard. In tackling issues from climate change to urban poverty, “learning from other cultures that have a different way of approaching business is what we need.” —J.P.

11 SoleFood Farm Inc.

Anyone who can figure out a way to coax edible vegetables from the ground in South Central L.A. has got be onto something innovative. Michael Abelman certainly was when he began cultivating urban soils in that city back in the 1980s.

Now an 11-year veteran of B.C., Saltspring Island-based Abelman, co-founder and co-director of SoleFood Farm Inc., has developed the means to take urban farms well beyond small gardens common in urban horticulture to a point where sales revenue can fuel future growth.

He faced three key challenges: how to grow on paved land, how to grow on contaminated land and how to grow on land only available for short-term lease. Abelman’s response was to isolate a growing medium that is both off the ground and movable in collapsible boxes that are easily hoisted by forklift onto standard shipping palettes. He then devised methods for growing densely, using a special seeding tool, and vertically through drilled PVC pipes.

In 2009, he co-founded the charity Cultivate Canada Society, which provides job skills training and work for hard-to-employ individuals, including many residents of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Cultivate Canada wholly owns SoleFood Farm Inc. and Abelman says that SoleFood exists expressly to fulfill the charity’s mission.

In 2009, its first year, SoleFood turned out 4,500 kilograms of produce. Last year it produced almost 15,000 kilograms, and it now sells to more than 30 restaurants. For its urban-agricultural model, in 2012 SoleFood snagged a Real Estate Foundation Land Award and the Canadian Urban Institute’s Brownie Award, which recognizes leadership, innovation and environmental sustainability in the brownfields redevelopment across Canada.

But Abelman isn’t hanging up his hat yet. “I’m not claiming victory or success here. This is a process; it’s ongoing. I don’t think you ever actually get there in this work.” —K.M.

12 Energold Drilling Corp.

Environmental risks most often associated with resource exploration include scars left by open-pit mines or overflow from gushing oil wells. But in fact it’s not the exploration activity that does the most damage to the environment; it’s the transportation infrastructure needed to haul all the heavy equipment to remote locations.

Energold Drilling Corp. came up with a more environmentally responsible alternative to carving out swaths of jungle or forest. Its component-based portable drilling system is at the heart of its business model; the biggest piece weighs 350 pounds and entire rigs can be pieced together on-site.

“It’s an area that most other drilling companies haven’t touched,” says Russell Stanley, a mining analyst with Haywood Securities in Toronto who follows the company. “You can move it into remote regions where the infrastructure to support a big heavy rig in terms of roads doesn’t exist, or the area’s environmentally sensitive: mountainsides, dense jungles.”

Energold includes among its clients industry giants such as BHP Billiton PLC, Goldcorp Inc. and Barrick Gold Corp. In 2012 it was among the TSX Venture 50, and it was among Profit magazine’s 100 Fastest Growing Companies in 2009 and 2010. In 2011, its most recently reported fiscal year, Energold recorded earnings of $26.4 million on revenue of $133.5 million. —D.J.

13 Payfirma Corp.

Companies that don’t offer customers alternatives to cash payment risk losing business. But when you’re a small or mobile business, bulky and expensive point-of-sale terminals aren’t an option. Vancouver-based Payfirma Corp. solves the problem with online-payment systems and a credit-card swiping dongle for the iPhone and iPad.

Payfirma lets businesses accept credit card payments online, in-store and on mobile devices, and stores transaction data in one place. Businesses can then use that data to target marketing efforts based on Payfirma’s geo-tagging function.

Payfirma made a splash in its first year when it was named the Best New Canadian Startup in KPMG’s 2011 Canadian Startup Awards, and the company’s continued growth reflects an under-served market. “We have uncovered a massive greenfield market in the U.S.A. and Canada of businesses that previously dealt in cash and cheque only,” says CEO Michael Gokturk. “We’ve dragged them into the digital age. Plumbers, refrigerator trades, people who have dealt in a cash-only environment, are now taking credit cards.”

What differentiates Payfirma from its competitors? “We get shit done,” says Gokturk. His confidence that Payfirma can dance circles around the big guys isn’t just talk; the company’s revenue grew from $1.5 million in 2011, its first year, to over $5 million in 2012, and according to Gokturk Payfirma is on track to crack $20 million in 2013. “Competing against the banks is not a hard thing to do at all; they move at the pace of a glacier,” he says.

A slow-moving corporate culture prompted Gokturk to leave Versapay Corp., the payment-processing company that he founded in 2005 and took public in 2010, and try the mobile-payment idea elsewhere. Using his share of the proceeds from Versapay’s IPO, Gokturk launched Payfirma with Sunan Spriggs, current COO.

Williams Moving & Storage Ltd., one of Payfirma’s earliest clients, was instrumental in the company’s quick growth, thanks to its referrals to other movers. “Movers were the fastest adopters of our application, because when someone delivers your furniture they want to have the payment confirmed before they unload,” says Gokturk.

Payfirma plans to adapt its product to retail stores, letting customers check out with a staff member from anywhere in a store. Gokturk refers to this as the “Apple check-out experience,” which he believes is a big boost to customer service. “My mandate is to get rid of lineups forever,” he explains. He envisions replacing traditional point-of-sale terminals for retailers ranging from mobile small businesses to giant department stores.

Up next for Payfirma is the launch of its tablet-based point-of-sale system and shifting more of its sales efforts outside of Canada. —K.H.

14 Okanagan Crush Pad Winery Ltd.

It wasn’t a completely warm welcome extended to Okanagan Crush Pad Winery Ltd. when co-owners Christine Coletta and her husband Steve Lornie threw open the doors to their Summerland business in September 2011. Some insiders worried that the couple’s rent-a-winery model would let inexperienced winemakers flood the market with substandard product, and would rob the industry of needed investment in licence, land and equipment.

The innovative model behind Crush Pad, however, has proven a winner, with the facility crushing about 112 tonnes of grapes for clients in 2011 and more than 300 tonnes in 2012. “We’re at max capacity after a year and a half of operation, so I think that tells a lot,” says Coletta, former executive director of the B.C. Wine Institute.

The custom-crush model has already proven successful in renowned wine regions such as France, New Zealand and California, but Crush Pad is a first for B.C. It helps grape growers or budding winemakers who wouldn’t otherwise be able to produce wines without a massive upfront investment in land and equipment, and it’s attracting some of B.C.’s top names in wine. Vancouver wine consultant Kurtis Kolt, the Vancouver International Wine Festival’s Somme