University’s Innovation Centre adds to thriving tech sector

Greater Victoria’s burgeoning high-tech sector may want to brace itself — it’s about to get even bigger.

That’s the warning from Jerome Etwaroo, associate director of the Coast Capital Savings Innovation Centre at the University of Victoria, who said his campus program has been brimming with life since it was relaunched last year.

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“Watch out Victoria. There are going to be some incredible new ventures coming out of the city. We can see the early signs here that something great is going to happen,” said Etwaroo. He noted the program has nearly tripled the number of ventures through its doors that its predecessor saw in its first few years of existence.

That mirrors the explosion of the local tech sector, which has set a goal of having combined revenues of $10 billion annually by 2030. Currently, technology revenue from Greater Victoria’s 880 tech firms is estimated by the industry’s umbrella group, VIATEC, to be in excess of $4 billion a year.

The new version of the Innovation Centre, which replaced the three-year-old ICE project in 2016, has a new mandate and focus and a broader appeal than its predecessor, and that seems to have translated into more interest on campus and beyond.

ICE was initiated in 2012 by the Gustavson School of Business, and expanded the following year across campus. The idea was to provide tools, expertise and space on campus to help entrepreneurs develop their ideas.

Since its start, ICE helped launch about nine companies and brought 21 companies from ideas to the stage where they were ready for investment.

Since it was relaunched in partnership with Coast Capital Savings last year — with a financial commitment of $450,000 over three years — the Innovation Centre has met with 75 ventures and helped about 20 to get to the marketplace.

“Over the last year, we have seen close to 75 companies. When we started last year that was our three-year goal,” said Etwaroo.

The difference has been the partnership with the credit union.

With funding from Coast Capital, the centre has offered seed money for prototypes, supported business-plan competitions to help entrepreneurs develop their ideas alongside community mentors and created learning opportunities with co-op terms for students working on their own business ideas.

Etwaroo said at the same time the Innovation Centre moved out from under the business school and into a more central role in order to appeal more broadly to the entire campus, and in so doing create partnerships between departments and faculties.

The centre takes no stake in the companies it incubates. “We have support across campus from every faculty,” he said, noting there has been a cultural shift toward eliminating silos and fostering collaborative efforts. “We have more examples of engineers wanting to work with business students and business students working with engineers. We are finding some real community building on campus.”

Tyler West, program co-ordinator for the centre, said they have seen a bit of everything come through their doors on campus.

“We have entrepreneurs from every faculty — we have a girl making traditional Chinese dumplings all the way through to some very high-tech projects,” she said.

They are dealing with companies of all stripes, including Pani Energy, which is working on renewable energy generation and storage systems for sustainable energy development; a mobile application developer called Antidose that is developing software to help people receive first aid in situations of opioid overdose; and an on-demand cleaning service called BnBreeze that bills itself as the Uber of cleaning services.

Etwaroo said as the program has grown in popularity, so has community support. “A big change in the last year is the number of people who have put up their hands willing to help,” he said. Organizations such as VIATEC and other business veterans have been willing to work with the early stage companies.

The Innovation Centre now has volunteer executives in residence and a large community of mentors willing to help.

Etwaroo said early signs suggest a deluge of great ideas are about to hit. “We think the business case for the [Innovation Centre] speaks for itself,” he said. “The indication is the impact has been a positive one and it’s reaching a lot of entrepreneurs and providing them support.”

aduffy@timescolonist.com

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