Silicon Valley North #50                                       December, 2002


The Way I See It… by Michael C. Volker


We need more initiatives to nurture our brain trust (Shad Valley)


A favorite topic among proponents of Canada’s innovation strategy is that of nurturing the natural resource base of advanced technology, i.e. people and their know-how. This is expressed in many ways: the acute shortage of management skills, the importance of technical talent, and the need for more entrepreneurs and risk takers.


Two decades ago, technology executives were voicing the same concerns. Canada’s future in the technology sector would depend directly on our human talent and our ability to grow and cultivate this talent.  Their goal was simple: to get more bright high school students to look at high tech as a career option.


That’s why, back in 1981, a group of industry folks (mostly CATA members) decided to get behind a unique initiative to encourage the country’s brightest teenagers to pursue careers in science, technology, and entrepreneurship. Instead of looking for government handouts, this group got their companies to support the concept.


The concept I’m referring to is Shad Valley, named after the creek running through the Aurora, Ontario campus of St Andrew’s College where the idea turned into reality. Shad Valley started as a modest program with fifty teenagers spending a summer stretching their minds on exciting technologies plus getting immersed in technology entrepreneurship by spending half their time interning at sponsoring companies.


Today, some twenty years later, this scenario is repeated at almost a dozen university campuses from coast to coast. There are more than 7,500 alumni, 13 of whom are Rhodes Scholars.


When selecting participants for the program, Shad Valley looks for high academic achievement, especially in math and sciences, indications of a creative mind, demonstrated initiative and drive, and good interpersonal and communication skills. Indeed, it is these gifted “kids” that the Shad program targets. We have many good programs for so-called “special needs” people – those that are at the other end of the spectrum for whom life is a struggle. But in much the same way that these need help, those with exceptional talents require nurturing and support as well – if they are to achieve their full potential.


There are now more than 200 companies and organizations that provide support. Some companies view this as a way to encourage young Canadians to choose a career in the science/IT/engineering fields, while others see it as a recruiting tool.


An important component of the Shad Valley experience is the company work term that follows the on-campus part of the program. This takes place at a sponsoring tech company. Sponsors are often overwhelmed by what Shads can accomplish in a short period of time – even though that’s not why they’re there. Students make significant contributions in a variety of work environments such as a laboratory setting, information systems, engineering or human resources, just to name a few. Students have completed work terms in departments including IT, engineering, market research, finance, human resources, technical writing and many other aspects of business and science.


Shad Valley students make a difference. More than 85% of them have gone into science or engineering disciplines in university. At or near the top of the class, they continue to garner numerous awards and scholarships and approximately half go on to pursue graduate degrees. Many Shads have established their own enterprises.


I think the students say it best: “I think the most important impact was a much greater interest in entrepreneurship. Before Shad Valley, my goal was to make robots with a large firm; now it is to make robots with my own company.” Another noted: “I was amazed by the emphasis of the entrepreneurship aspect of the Shad Valley program. In school, business and science were taught as two unique disciplines of the curriculum. The Shad Valley program showed me how the two disciplines could be combined to compliment each other.”


The way I see it, there are many things we should do to develop our brain trust. More industry-led initiatives such as this will allow us to realize the potential of our country’s most valuable natural resource.



Michael Volker is a high technology entrepreneur and director of Simon Fraser University’s Industry Liaison Office. He oversees Vancouver’s Angel Technology Network and is Chair of the BC Advanced Systems Institute and past-Chair of the Vancouver Enterprise Forum. He may be reached at