Venture Connection offers the SFU community a spectrum of no-cost programs
and services to grow their business ideas while being mentored by the best
Do you have an innovative idea, but need help getting it off the ground? If you are a current SFU student, a recent alumnus/alumna, a post-doc or a faculty member, the University’s entrepreneurial skills program Venture Connection can help you with your entrepreneurship and business development needs. Since 2008, the program’s staff and mentors have welcomed approximately 4000 participants, including hundreds of student teams, and over 170 startup ventures, many of which have gone on to earn their stakes on the Canadian and global business landscapes.
“8 years ago, there wasn't much going on in Canadian universities in terms of formal entrepreneurship,” says founding manager Janice OBriain. “SFU decided to survey the possibilities and then piloted a variety of programs across the university.” Since then, a revolving door of success stories have emerged from Venture Connection, including a hockey agency, wearable technology, and a gourmet food truck that operates in the heart of downtown Vancouver.
In addition to offering Western Canada’s first student business incubator, the multi-faceted program also provides mentorship, co-op terms, competitions, networking, workshops and seminars–all at no cost and without an equity share requirement thanks in large part to SFU’s partnership with Coast Capital Savings.
A key initiative within SFU Innovates, Venture Connection was launched as a collaboration between the University Industry Liaison Office (now the Industry Partnerships Office), SFU’s Surrey Campus, the Beedie School of Business, the Faculty of Applied Sciences, as well as key community partners, with assistance in the form of grants from Western Economic Diversification and National Research Council Canada’s Industrial Research Assistance Program. “What we materialized–which has since been further catalyzed by a partnership with Coast Capital Savings–was and remains a broad-based entrepreneurship program that is interdisciplinary, community-focused, and closely tied to curriculum offerings,” says OBriain, who is now co-associate director of the flourishing program.
Venture Connection’s services accommodate innovators where they are in their entrepreneurship journey:
· The Early-Stage Incubator provides ventures with support, mentorship, training, networking and more as they navigate the difficult early stages business development. An industry mentor is assigned to each team, working with them to set and meet milestones. Current top notch Mentors-in-Residence include Jim Derbyshire, who was named one of Canada’s Top 10 Mentor Rockstars by Startup Canada, and Jennifer Thompson, an angel investor and mentor to many successful local technology ventures.
· Mentor Meet allows students to informally chat with Mentors-in-Residence, all serial entrepreneurs, for guidance with their entrepreneurship ideas.
· Venture Co-Op lets students complete an independent co-op by working on a new venture concept or an existing business, while the Venture Internship gives MBA students the chance to do the same during their last semester.
· The Coast Capital Savings Venture Prize recognizes outstanding SFU ventures based on business concept, current progress and future plans.
Some of Venture Connection’s most lauded success stories include:
· MetroLeap Media Inc: Venture Connection’s earliest hit, the company’s flagship product MetroLyrics.com was the first website dedicated to providing users with the largest database of licensed, complete and accurate song lyrics. It remains the world’s leading lyrics site and now also publishes music and entertainment content. In 2011, it became the biggest acquisition in Venture Connection history.
· Buyatab is a leading supplier of advanced eGift Card online infrastructure and marketing services, with clients including retail giants Tim Hortons and Winners.
· MetaOptima Technologies’ leading product MoleScope provides professional, self-screening imaging in the form of a device equipped with educational software and online consulting. It is used by consumers and doctors worldwide, as well as pharmacists at London Drugs.
While Venture Connection clearly has a proven track record when it comes to venture development, OBriain emphasizes that founder development is just as important to the program’s mission. “We have past participants who absorbed essential principles of entrepreneurship at SFU and then went on to apply them to achieve successful subsequent startups,” she says. “There are others who have become contributors to startups in the local ecosystem and those whose work as employees in larger organizations is informed by such values. We need to see entrepreneurship skills disseminated widely in order to position Canada as a leading nation for innovation.”
Janice OBriain is co-associate director of Venture Connection and an award-winning manager and community-builder with over 15 years of non-profit/public sector leadership. Obriain was Venture Connection’s founding manager and was responsible for developing the incubator’s operations and related programming on all three SFU campuses. Prior to her roles with SFU, she was executive associate with Calgary's EPCOR Centre for Performing Arts (now Arts Commons), and General Manager of Kaleidoscope Theatre, a professional theatre for young audiences. OBriain holds an MBA in Arts & Media Management and a Diploma in Non-Profit Management from the Schulich School of Business (York University), as well as a Bachelor of Music from UVic.
Q & A with Janice OBriain
If you could sum up the value of university innovation in one word, what would it be?
How important is collaboration in advancing innovation?
Essential. It takes a village to innovate.
SFU bills itself as “Canada’s most engaged research university.” How does your own work exemplify this spirit of engagement?
My position with SFU Venture Connection sits at an intersection of SFU and the local innovation ecosystem (including private and public funders, industry associations, industry volunteers, other post-secondary institutions and of course our incubator clients and alumni). The best part of my job is building synergies for all these program participants.
What advice would you give your younger self regarding the challenges you've faced as innovator?
Look to other models in order to learn from others, but take your own risks and think big.
What do you see as the most noteworthy emerging trend that will shape the direction of university innovation over the next 50 years?
Community-engaged learning and an interdisciplinary approach to innovation.