Kelowna techies talking mentorship

A program out of MIT aims to link big fish with floundering startups

  • Mar. 18, 2011 6:00 p.m.

If British Columbia is going to expand its tech sector, it’s obvious a boost from some pretty heavy hitters is needed.

What’s likely less obvious is the latest theory to provide that boost, which considers building the sector on a one-on-one basis, a single company at a time.

Thursday afternoon, the newly amalgamated Okanagan Science and Technology Council (OSTEC) and Okanagan Research & Innovation Centre (ORIC)—now Accelerate Okanagan—announced just such a venture with the BCIC Mentor Program.

“Today tech makes up 4 per cent of the GDP (in B.C.), but long-term we would like to double that,” said Paulin Laberge, BCIC entrepreneur-in-residence.

During the dot-com bubble, Paulin pointed out the sector was already twice the size it is today, saying he’s hoping for a return to a more information-based economy as it does not tax natural resources, offers good return for a small investment and provides higher paying jobs.

The BCIC program launched in Vancouver two months ago. It offers a structured approach to building a company taught to program leaders through MIT.

Laberge’s job is to link successful tech mentors with entrepreneurs just launching their business—a role he says should provide more stability for the B.C. economy in the future.

“Rather than cutting down trees and pulling out fish why don’t we just use our brains?” he asked, during a pitch session for media aimed at attracting mentors to the program.

After the January launch in Vancouver, BCIC was able to drawn in 100 companies. In the Okanagan, they’re hoping to partner 25 companies, but said the trick to starting the venture is to attract quality mentors.

“I think we’ll see a good number of people step up,” said Jeff Keen, AO program manager. “This area actually has a lot of people who have been very successful in the sector.”

Finding mentors comes with strings. The mentors need to have run multi-million dollar companies, need to have roughly two days a week worth of hours to dedicate per month and can’t be in it for themselves.

“We’re really looking for people who don’t have any hidden agendas,” said Martin Yuill, ORIC director.

The mentors sign confidentiality contracts and are barred from investing in the companies they are mentoring to ensure there is a free flow of information and the up-and-comers get the full benefit of the process.

“It’s as much work as you want to take on,” said Phil Holland, a mentor up from Vancouver who developed CIRCA Communications, the predecessor to Polycom, a digital telecommunication company.

Holland said his efforts as a mentor are the next step for him as he’s gone from developing one company, to helping shape the future of the sector for the entire region.

“It’s just a bigger game,” he said.

As part of the mentorship, companies are put through the Acetech Validation Program to figure out whether their idea will fly before investors ever come on board.

According to Laberge, less than five per cent of the startups come out of academia, with 30 per cent stemming from those trying transition from a service-based company to a product and the rest largely comprised of individuals who have had a great idea the company they’re currently working for does not want to pursue.

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