SFU’s RADIUS offers visionary social innovation programs to support
entrepreneurial leaders and solutions for a better world.
Einstein said that a problem can’t be solved by using the same mindset that created the quandary in the first place. Following SFU’s tradition of doing things differently is RADIUS: RADical Ideas, Useful to Society—an SFU Innovates program. Since its launch in 2013, the social venture lab and incubator has taken a cutting-edge approach to finding and supporting new solutions to meet today’s social and environmental challenges.
RADIUS was co-founded at the Beedie School of Business to establish SFU as a leader in social innovation, building a powerful movement of “Radical Doers” and supporting students and community to tackle tough social problems. The program thrives with the help of ongoing support from founding community partner Vancity Credit Union and has also received significant funding from the JW McConnell Family Foundation’s RECODE initiative, Scotiabank, Global Agents for Change and the Business Development Bank of Canada.
Open to both SFU students and community members, RADIUS programs serve as a one-stop shop to meet entrepreneurs and innovators where they are along the tricky path from inspiration to execution.
“RADIUS is unique in the full spectrum of integrated opportunities it offers for everyone, from inspired students to growth-ready companies,” says RADIUS co-founder Shawn Smith. “Our programs have a strong focus on incubating not just individuals but entire communities. These are connected to a broad network of influencers who are effectively nurturing a changemaking movement and ecosystem.
The key RADIUS program areas are:
RADIUS Ventures identifies and amplifies high potential social ventures via one-on-one support, co-learning sessions, subsidized downtown office space, and access to an extensive network of expert mentors and investors. New initiatives are launched often to supplement its two main programs: the Slingshot Accelerator, a six-month program which focuses on growth-stage impact ventures, and the Trampoline Accelerator, a “pre-accelerator” for ventures looking to refine their business model for optimum success down the line. RADIUS Ventures is also the home of SFU’s new RBC First People’s Enterprise Accelerator, a 10-year initiative to support the development of Aboriginal entrepreneurs and early stage businesses.
RADIUS Ventures has welcomed dozens of socially conscious ventures, a number of which have met with success, including LifeSpace Gardens, makers of self-watering planter boxes that make growing your own food easier, Localize, a technology company making it easier to find and support local food choices in grocery stores, and Transformation Projects, a renowned special events production company with a focus in public engagement.
RADIUS Edu focuses on creating the “Radical Doers” society needs to tackle tough problems by curating innovative curricular and extracurricular opportunities for students to foster more agile problem solving skills. The flagship RADIUS Fellowship is an intensive personal development and leadership program, about to recruit its second annual cohort of top emerging social change leaders in BC.
RADIUS Lab works closely with community partners to understand complex problems and generate transformative interventions. Their first program, the Local Economic Development (LED) Lab, is a partnership with Ecotrust Canada and a network of community organizations including Potluck Café, the DTES Street Market, Carnegie Centre, and the Binners Project. The LED Lab is working to stimulate a more dynamic and inclusive inner city economy, and is supported by the Vancouver Foundation, the City of Vancouver, the Downtown Eastside Community Fund, and Mitacs Canada, among others.
In addition to the many organizations already mentioned, RADIUS has partnered with several other collaborators in pursuit of their mission to make smarter, bigger impacts on society.
• In 2014, it partnered with the MaRS Centre for Impact Investing on a new national investment fund for ventures committed to tackling social and environmental challenges. As the Western Canada representative for the fund, RADIUS will be responsible for driving deal flow and building investment readiness within the impact venture community in the region.
• Earlier this year, RADIUS partnered with the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC), Canada’s only financial institution dedicated exclusively to entrepreneurs, for a lending initiative that donates a portion of every loan fee toward the RADIUS Slingshot venture accelerator program.
• This May, RADIUS worked with Ashoka Canada and Groundswell Economic Alternatives to host a sold out 2-day education innovation conference and design jam for over 100 educators, students, entrepreneurs, and administrators.
As fraying health, economic, environmental and other systems cry out for solutions, RADIUS is a prime example of how SFU is developing talent, technology and transformative ideas through SFU Innovates, a university-wide strategy and action plan to inspire, develop and support impact-driven innovation and entrepreneurship.
Shawn Smith is an adjunct professor and founding director of RADIUS at SFU. He has also founded a number of organizations and initiatives including Global Agents for Change, Education Generation and the Catalyst Initiative. Most recently, he co-founded Impacto Quito to help build Ecuador 's impact entrepreneurship ecosystem. He completed his MBA at the University of Oxford as a Skoll Scholar in Social Entrepreneurship, and was named one of Business in Vancouver’s Top 40 Under 40 in 2014.
Q & A with Shawn Smith
If you could sum up the value of university research/innovation in a word, what would it be?
How important is collaboration in advancing new ventures?
The nature of the interconnected challenges we face as a global society demand collaboration across sectors, domains, communities and nations. There are no firm boundaries between the economy, environment, human wellbeing, democracy and governance, health and other pressing questions. In a time of accelerating change and often bewildering complexity, we need to learn to work together to find new paths forward.
What motivates you as an innovator?
A better world is possible. We are dramatically under-performing in comparison to our potential. Many of us know this is true, but don't always understand our own agency in bringing this better world forth. Our work is as much about helping build that agency and collective capacity and of finding new ways to work together, as it is about any particular social innovation or intervention.
SFU bills itself as “Canada’s most engaged research university.” How does your own work/RADIUS exemplify this spirit of engagement?
I don't think there is anything we do that is NOT about the engaged university vision! All of our programs reinforce a permeable membrane between the university, the ingenuity and passion of its students and faculty, its research power, and the real needs and aspirations of our communities. We're primarily interested in how the university can be a force for positive change, in partnership with the citizens and communities who spend their lives trying to build a better economy and society.
What advice would you give to your younger self on the challenges you faced as a researcher/innovator?
Ask for more help, more often.
Putting one’s research or innovation out into the world often requires a leap of courage. Where do you derive your courage from?
Haha, I'm not sure I'd describe it as courage. I think it is more a combination of a blindness to how hard ideas are going to be to accomplish while I'm excited about their potential, a mulish stubbornness once I'm in motion, and having had enough tastes of my own agency in bringing ideas to life to not be able to go back to doing anything else.
What do you see as the most noteworthy emerging trend that will shape the direction of university research/innovation over the next 50 years?
I think the entire world of education will undergo a seismic shift in far less than 50 years, one which will fundamentally challenge universities to redefine their place in the world. A combination of online learning, the changing value of degrees in a world where knowledge is ubiquitous, economic shifts from automation to artificial intelligence devouring jobs and whole sections of the old economy…the world is getting awfully complicated, though it is more rife with opportunities than ever.
More and more, what students need is help in navigating the increasingly difficult path to discovering who they want to be in a world with few obvious paths. They need community and connection, and help understanding what kind of world they want to build when the possibilities at their fingertips are virtually endless.