Janice OBriain, Director of Coast Capital Savings Venture Connection and now also Programs Director for the Chang Institute for Entrepreneurship, has won the 2020 SFU Staff Achievement Award for Innovation

Growing entrepreneurship key to success for Coast Capital Savings Venture Connection director

August 06, 2021

By Logan Kardash

An innovative and entrepreneurial mindset are central to leadership at SFU, and nowhere is that more exemplified than recent Staff Achievement Award for Innovation winner, Janice OBriain.

The Chang Institute for Entrepreneurship’s Director of Programs, OBriain says innovation at SFU has changed phenomenally in her time at the university. While SFU has always been rich in innovative research, when she started with Venture Connection (now Coast Capital Savings Venture Connection) at its launch in 2008 there were few entrepreneurship resources and programs at SFU, with only a single entrepreneurship concentration for undergraduates in the Beedie School of Business.

Fast forward a decade and innovation is now woven throughout the university, and entrepreneurship is thriving thanks to Venture Connection and the more recently-launched Chang Institute, which provides interdisciplinary entrepreneurship education for undergraduates in all faculties (through programs like the Charles Chang Certificate, Technology Entrepreneurship @SFU and Make Change Studio), as well as for graduate students (i2I Invention to Innovation).

Alongside university-wide strategies like SFU Innovates, SFU helps students and researchers mobilize their ideas for positive social and economic impact.

For start-up support, Venture Connection has been joined over the years by later-stage accelerator VentureLabs and RADIUS, a social innovation hub, creating a strong continuum approach – supported by partners at the Technology Licensing Office and core facilities like 4D Labs.

Janice OBriain helps judge Venture Connection's annual Made By SFU competition with Stephen Dooley, executive director of SFU's Surrey campus in 2018.

OBriain’s decade plus in arts management was a key reason she was first hired at SFU in 2008, and it’s still relevant today.

“This role positions me at an intersection of varied stakeholders, marshalling resources to enable and support new creation,” says OBriain “In some ways it’s not so different to bringing together a community of artists, production and technical crew, funders, venues and audiences for a theatrical production, though maybe not quite so many late nights and costume changes.”

She adds, “The entrepreneurial mindset is evident just as much in artists and creatives as in start-up founders (they are often one and the same)–think about how much collaboration, curiosity, resourcefulness, imagination, empathy and resilience it takes for the arts to thrive. Venture Connection’s incubator has been broad-based since day one, supporting founders and start-ups from all industries, everything from food trucks to fuel cells, and diverse business structures including not-for-profit and co-operatives.”

Being a long-standing member of the SFU community has been rewarding. Janice says, “It can be a little challenging at times innovating within a large institution. But there are such supportive people here–we’ve successfully engaged with every faculty and most of the core student-facing departments such as Student Services, Work Integrated Learning, libraries and the Spirit Shop / Bookstores.”

A vital part of her role is to liaise and bring funders to impact on the community and innovative programming.

“Our interdisciplinary approach, and ability to deliver has led us to have some amazing community partners, funders and donors, who believe in the potential and vision of what SFU can achieve and are so important to the work we do here. They provide the latitude to experiment outside the usual post-secondary box and pilot new programs and initiatives, many of which we’ve now adopted into ongoing programming, like paid entrepreneurship coop terms, and embedded mentors in classrooms.”

● Visit both the Coast Capital Savings Venture Connection and Chang Institute for Entrepreneurship websites to read about some of these innovative programs and startup success stories.

Janice finds meaning throughout her work. “It’s always about the people for me – the inspirational students, our dedicated staff, the amazing program mentors and first and foremost the founders we teach, mentor, and support.

"I have the privilege of witnessing all these community members coming together to make impact, transfer skills, and practice entrepreneurship – with both success and failure. Our students and participants are developing resilience and tolerance for ambiguity, helping them to better understand and prepare for an uncertain future.”

This story was originally published in SFU News.