Entrepreneur of the Year 2017: Technology

The annual Ernst & Young list of B.C.'s brightest business visionaries finds a fresh crop of leaders building empires in everything from renewable energy to venture capital to social enterprise

Scott Phillips
President and CEO, Starfish Medical (Winner)

Some entrepreneurs seem to come into the world predisposed to doing business. Take Scott Phillips, president and CEO of StarFish Medical; while the closest most preteens come to setting up shop is operating the odd lemonade stand, Phillips launched his own framing business at the age of 12, on the Ping-Pong table of his family’s Tsawwassen home.

The precocious young Phillips managed to drum up some customers, and the cute little venture became an honest-to-God business that taught him important business skills. “I had to pay for everything myself, and do all my own invoicing and inventory management,” he says. “I actually did that all the way to the end of university.”

After graduating in 1989 with a B.Sc. in engineering physics at UBC—”the nerdiest thing you can study”—Phillips was determined to find a way to build something bigger. After four years of work at a lithium-battery startup and a couple of years of international travel, he began taking on engineering contracts, eventually settling in Victoria with his wife. In 1999, he was awarded a contract to build an ultrasound imager for eyes. “It was the first big thing that I’d taken responsibility for on that scale,” Phillips recalls. “I built a team and had to move out of the spare bedroom of our little apartment and get some shared office space. I remember the first day that we built our first unit and turned it on—this amazing picture came up.”

Phillips founded StarFish Medical that same year, with himself as the only staff member. It has since grown into Canada’s largest medical device designer and developer, with 130 employees and annual revenue that has tripled over the past four years, to $20 million. Its portfolio includes products ranging from a prosthetic heart-valve tester and a sleep-apnea treatment device to a mobile MRI machine that can move between surgical rooms. The biggest key to Phillips’s success? “Getting religion on systems,” he says. “In some ways our job is to put lightning in a bottle. We sell innovation. You can’t procedurize innovation, but there’s a lot you can procedurize around innovation to support it.”

Is an entrepreneur born or made?
Both. I believe entrepreneurs fundamentally seek autonomy, and that’s pretty innate. Also, we’re quite tolerant of uncertainty, which seems fundamental. Beyond that, there are a lot of critical skills, such as developing a management style or learning how to read a financial statement, to pick up which are learned.

Michael Plotnikoff + Michael Priest
CEO + Chief Commercial Officer, Lite Access Technologies Inc. (Runner-up)

When Michael Plotnikoff fell victim to layoffs after years of comfortable work in the telecom sector with giants such as Telus Corp. and Sprint Corp., the co-founder of Lite Access Technologies says it was the best thing that ever happened: “It allowed me to think about what I really wanted to do.”

Plotnikoff sketched out the concept for Lite Access on the back of a pub napkin: the company would install proprietary microduct and fibre-optic cables by air-blowing them through eight-millimetre micro-trenches, more cost-effectively and faster than conventional methods. With clients across the globe and a workforce of some 100 spread between Vancouver and the U.K., he and co-founder Michael Priest have grown revenue to $12.5 million–and they insist that’s just the beginning. “In the U.K. alone, many of the cities or councils are saying the only way things can be done is the Lite Access way,” Plotnikoff says. “The potential is unreal.”

What business-person do you most admire?
The founders of Google—allowing your team to think outside the box, enabling people with the ability to be non-traditional–Michael Plotnikoff

Ryan Peterson + Trent Shumay
CEO + President and CTO, Finger Food Studios (Runner-up)

Ryan Peterson, CEO of Port Coquitlam–based Finger Food Studios, works on the bleeding edge of technology, but he insists that he and chief technology officer Trent Shumay are simply bringing an old-school service model to a new arena. “We had friends founding companies on the billion-dollar big idea, and very few people were taking the pro-services business route,” Peterson says.

Founded in 2009, Finger Food develops mixed, augmented and virtual reality tools for clients. It’s one of only eight firms licensed to develop software for Microsoft Corp.’s HoloLens, a wearable holographic computer.

Finger Food allows customers to design and create products and services without the cost of building real-world prototypes and models. Its clients span manufacturing, retail, entertainment, education and health care; this May it was tapped to develop a new scenographic tool for Cirque du Soleil. Launched in a Port Moody basement, the company now operates a 25,000-square-foot Holodeck studio and posts $20 million in annual revenue.

Peterson predicts that the next big wave in technology will be the digital twin: businesses creating virtual models of themselves to test ideas before pursuing them in the real world. “That’s going to be a huge productivity gain for all businesses,” he says.

Finish this sentence for us: “Entrepreneurs need a lot more…”
Education and job experience. Most of the successful entrepreneurs found their companies in their 30s. The push for people dropping out of school to found their companies is bad advice