by Glen Schuler, Lorna Shaw-Lennox and Laurel Reich,
U of S Industry Liaison Office

221InnovationPlace The U of S ILO office is located at Innovation Place in Saskatoon The University of Saskatchewan’s Industry Liaison Office (ILO) recently had an External Review Committee assess the office’s performance. The ILO is responsible for the commercialization of research at the University; this research provides significant feedstock into the innovation system. The external review committee talked with several of the ILO’s international clients who work with University technology transfer offices across North America. We were identified as one of the best to work with and a leader in this business. That is not to say we do not have areas for improvement. We do.

We have a staff of specialists in research, commercialization, legal, intellectual property and business development. Being actively involved in encouraging and advancing entrepreneurship on and off campus, we are starting to see measurable outcomes. This couldn't happen without the tremendous support of the business community and service providers that have created working partnerships with the ILO.

One of the comments the external review committee made was in relationship to the ILO as it operates within Saskatchewan’s innovation ecosystem. They suggested that it is “relatively under-developed in comparison to other regions. The environment is characterized as:

  • A high-tech community that is just developing and still embryonic.
  • A multiplicity of players in the innovation ecosystem leading to fragmentation of resources and over-lapping mandates.
  • Limited access to capital (and mentorship) to advance early stage discoveries and companies.”

The first bullet is a fact – but rapidly changing with a resilient and growing community of innovative entrepreneurs in Saskatoon. At a recent NSERC Prairies Advisory Committee meeting with representation from Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan, I was asked by the Winnipeg representative what has led to the rapid increase in start-up activity in Saskatoon. I will try to answer this question a little later.

Before we begin to explore why this is happening, let’s look at definitions for innovation:

In patent law this means distinguishing an element of novelty in an invention; in business it is defined as a process of translating this novel idea or invention into a good or service that creates value or for which customers will pay.

It is a long journey from invention to creating value and universities are integral to this innovation continuum; however, for this article we will focus on the business definition and what it means to support a growing cluster of entrepreneurs.

When describing the “multiplicity” of players in the second bullet, I will not name them all, as most of you reading this will know who they are. Does this multiplicity of players mean there is an overlap of mandates? There should be…. everyone’s mandate is to support entrepreneurs and their ideas wherever they might be along the innovation continuum. Even though the ecosystem in Saskatoon may appear fragmented, the service providers are increasingly working out their various roles and responsibilities. I would suggest that Saskatchewan’s entrepreneurial service providers know where they sit on the innovation continuum and know their strengths.

Creating a business isn't an exact science. There are many ways to get to the same result: sustainable businesses. Entrepreneurs should have many choices when choosing support services; there is no simply solution and every entrepreneur’s needs are unique.

Most local startups take advantage of the support available and make connections with the business community – which has time and again stepped up to help guide and coach the budding entrepreneurs. In fact, one of Saskatoon’s greatest strengths is the local business community and its increasing support of young / new entrepreneurs.

Business plan competitions are an excellent tool for training entrepreneurs. The ILO Tech Venture Challenge is a business plan competition that helps entrepreneurs build plans for businesses rather than building business plans. This competition provides entrepreneurs with legal, intellectual property and business skills training, mentorship and advisory support. In these efforts we partner with other service providers also offering business plan competitions and entrepreneurial training. But the entrepreneurs don’t enter the competition for the training (although after going through the training, they recognize the value); they enter because someone wins $50,000.

Does money find good ideas or do good ideas need to go find the money? Evidence suggests that it is the latter. This leads to the third bullet: Limited access to capital (and mentorship). Startups cannot survive without pre-seed early stage capital. Although there is some angel investment happening in Saskatchewan, it is minimal compared to other jurisdictions that have investor tax incentives for early stage investments. In addition, other provinces support technology accelerators that are attached to investment opportunities.

Lack of investment incentive accomplishes two things: Investor choose not to invest in early stage ventures and stick with the traditional sectors; and the startups leave the province to relocate where there is money and accelerators. For example; Picatic, a successful local company, is leaving the province – moving to British Columbia to be in closer contact with local venture capitalists and other supports. Before making this decision they were part of accelerators in Silicon Valley and Toronto and learned firsthand the value of acceleration in moving their company to the next stage. This is just one example – there are many more. Access to capital is and will always be the ‘tipping point’ for startups.

So were the comments from the review committee accurate? Are we fragmented with overlapping mandates? Yes, in a good way, as demonstrated by the number of new technology based businesses. This innovation ecosystem is a work-in-progress and as ideas are turning into startups and early stage startups are moving to the next level, this innovative community builds on itself and all the members are working together to ensure this growth continues. The service providers are better coordinating their activities. Business plan competitions are moving bright ideas through their processes. Networking opportunities are abundant and well attended. The business community is open and welcoming. Things are happening!

And back to that question from the NSERC meeting – ‘What’ has led to Saskatoon’s increase in startup activity. The real answer is in the ‘Why?’ And that is the result of everyone on the team having the same goal – doing what needs to be done to build strong entrepreneurs.  


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