Shining the spotlight on BC Innovation: talking with Chris Hadfield, BCIC’s Greg Caws & Greg Malpass

Commander Chris Hadfield

The Vancouver Board of Trade and the BC Innovation Council  are presenting The B.C. Tech Forum: Leapfrogging Innovation to Business Revolution on March 20th. The event will be taking a detailed look at B.C.’s thriving technology sector. With more than 84,000 people in over 9,000 companies making up this diverse industry, the forum is focused on addressing a number of key questions and topics including:

  • How are we doing and what does innovation mean to B.C.?
  • What’s driving innovation in technology and how can B.C. strengthen its contribution to the global economy?

The day will be highlighted by a keynote address from Commander Chris Hadfield. There’s also a panel conversation entitled “Fast Growth Homegrown Champions” featuring stories about the potential of innovation in business as a mechanism to leapfrog competition from:

 
To make the event more than a feel-good talk fest, the organizers invited 15 B.C. startups to deliver a 90 second presentation highlighting what they’re all about and how they can help other B.C. businesses. The lucky 15 are:

 
The event provides an excellent impetus to move the talk of innovation into the action of innovation. I had the opportunity to get panelist Greg Malpass (CEO & Founder) of Traction on Demand to share his thoughts.

Greg Malpass

How do you define innovation?

At its heart, innovation is solving an old problem in a novel way. What is incredible about innovation is really how easy it can be. It can be as simple as cutting through the clutter and recognizing patterns between problems, or porting existing solutions from one problem to another in a different environment.

Why do you think innovation is so difficult to achieve?

Because it takes belief. Investment. And willingness to fail. Innovation is not a bridging strategy, it’s a leap strategy. It takes a lot of trust for a leader to drive the fundamental changes required by innovation and it takes a lot of trust in their leader for followers to pursue.

Who do you pay homage to as an example of a great innovator?

Elon Musk is, in my mind, the greatest innovator of our time. But, I’ll add an alternative. My vote is Rod Roskopp. He is the founder of Santa Cruz bicycles.  Under his leadership they changed the bike game. They invented the virtual pivot. They built the best bicycle for each type of riding and only changed the model once they felt they had truly created a major innovation (meaning sometimes they’d run the same bike for 3-4 years when everyone else changed annually). The Santa Cruz Nomad reigns as the best bike on the planet. And c’mon – that is a tough industry to disrupt.

What would you point to as being an impactful innovation in the last five years?

API’s. API’s were historically kept private, and used as competitive blockers in technology. Now, the interoperability between systems is incredible. Anything can talk to anything through API’s that are easy to understand, allowing for the realization of a true market economy approach to technology. No longer does the platform matter.  It’s all about API’s.

What are the three key things you do to foster innovation in your company?

I make time for it. We talk about people’s ideas at huddle. We celebrate disruptive approaches in huddles. We host Re-useit Fridays’ and Beer o’Clocks and Town Halls. We have a group within Traction called TractionLabs, solely there to experiment and develop new approaches to problems. Labs is launching their second product in less than a year and have over 30 candidates looking forward.  Also, if an employee has an awesome idea that we can wrap a business around, we’ll chase it.

Greg Caws

Greg Caws, CEO, BCIC also took time to share his perspective.

Almost 1.5 years into the role as CEO, what have been your most unexpected and pleasant surprises about B.C.’s technology industry to date?

It is incredible to see the speed at which the technology industry evolves; both disruptive and incremental innovation is shifting the global market so rapidly that new opportunities for B.C. innovators are unveiled on a daily basis.

Today, technology touches almost everything we do in our daily lives and plays a role in all industries – from wireless to big data, robotics, wearables, and genomics. It not only creates new industries, but also advances more traditional resource industries such as mining, forestry, agri-foods, energy, etc – and it’s exciting to see its impact on these sectors and their contribution to B.C.’s economy.

On the flip side, what have been the unexpected frustrations or disappointments with the industry to date?

Though B.C.’s technology industry is thriving, awareness about its true impact is still relatively low to outside groups. This fact was one of the drivers behind us creating the B.C. Tech Forum.

What are B.C.’s biggest advantages in helping entrepreneurs be innovation leaders?

B.C. has an outstanding network of technology programs and accelerators. The B.C. Venture Acceleration Program has many partners offering services in all regions of B.C. while the well-known BCIC New Ventures B.C. Competition has for over a decade kick-started some of B.C.’s fastest growing tech companies.

Going forward, we are hoping to see more women entrepreneurs get involved in technology and serve as role models for the next generation of change-makers. We also want to see more leaders from non-tech industries collaborate with tech startups to create new solutions and improve processes.

Do we have enough innovation leaders, or are too many of our entrepreneurs simply iterating off existing ideas, being too niche focused, and not looking towards acting on bigger more global opportunities? How do we change the mindset of playing “small-ball?”

In the past this may have been the case, but I believe this is changing. I look forward to welcoming Commander Chris Hadfield to the B.C. Tech Forum to inspire our entrepreneurs and CEOs to think even bigger, outside of their comfort zone to leapfrog the competition and take their business where no business has gone before.

Again, we want open eyes to the possibilities and opportunities for all businesses, whether in tech or not, to disrupt the way things are done in their industry. Now that our beautiful province is being recognized internationally as a city of innovation, we will see increasingly more conferences like TED, SIGGRAPH and GROW locate here and bring the world’s greatest tech and innovation leaders to our doors to collaborate on ground-breaking project and push our entrepreneurs even higher!

What areas or technology verticals do you think B.C. entrepreneurs are missing out on?

Clean technology is one of the world’s fastest growing markets and B.C. is a world leader in this field. It offers enormous possibilities for B.C. because we already have natural resource industry expertise, globally competitive cleantech companies and an international reputation of excellence.

Our province is recognized for its bounty of traditional resources. Earlier this year BCIC welcomed the Sumas Regional Consortium for High Tech (SRCTec) to its network of accelerators delivering the Venture Acceleration Program to innovators in the Fraser Valley. The new B.C. Agri-food Venture Acceleration Program based in Mission will provide entrepreneurs and startups in the Fraser Valley with training, coaching and the network to help them accelerator growth.

Lastly, how can we, as an overall community be more innovative to help close the gap on the digital divide? Participation in technology, the use of technology, and the opportunity to be part of the knowledge economy just can’t be for those who can afford it.

There is no doubt that digital literacy will become increasingly important in the 21st century, so programs like the free learn-to-code event HTML500 and various coding workshops will have significant impact in breaking the barriers to entry into this field. As technology runs through all aspects of our lives, understanding the language of programming will facilitate a strong and naturally growing technology-based economy at it’s very core.

We have an incredible level of tech talent in B.C. already. However, more specialized technical training and education programs would accelerate B.C. into the ranks of a globally commanding technology center that much faster. BCIC consults and collaborates with academia, government and all levels of industry to ensure this progress.

Commander Chris Hadfield

Saving the highest-ranking speaker for last, it was a privilege to talk with Commander Chris Hadfield and have him share some of his insights on innovation.

“For a lot of professions like my own lack of preparedness equals death.”

Hadfield said he sees the process like playing Tetris. “If you spin them right or line them up right something that looks like there’s no way it could work suddenly turns into another horizontal line and lets you move onwards. I think that way of thinking is how I’ve approached the challenge of creativity and innovation my entire life.”

It didn’t come as a surprise when Hadfield said, “I am dissatisfied with myself when I don’t know something or when I don’t understand something.”

“It not like I just don’t want the PowerPoint answer,” he continued, “I really want to go back to the basics of it. Why does that work that way? What is better, should you have a hybrid, should you have a very fuel efficient gas car? Should you have a pure electric car? How is that changing over time? That’s a really complicated question, and there’s a bunch of variables, and you can just make a simple decision or you can really dig into it.”

The drive to know more, to keep learning, and to stay curious weaved through most of our conversation. At the heart of it all lies preparation, which is something Hadfield is very focused on. He asked me (rhetorically), “what level of preparation are you comfortable with before you step into an event in your life? And for a lot of lives, all you’ll be is unprepared, you’re not going to die. But for a lot of professions like my own lack of preparedness equals death. So it’s sort of self-driven that you have to be and ready for this thing, or you will be not just incapable or unsuccessful, but you and your crew will be dead. That was true when I was a fighter pilot, when I was a test pilot, and very much true as an astronaut. But I think the methodology carries over no matter what.”

“What are you doing? How many cat videos can you watch?”

It’s an interesting exercise to ask yourself what Hadfield asks himself. “If you have 15 minutes available before the next green flag goes up then why aren’t you getting ready? What are you doing? How many cat videos can you watch? Why are you not doing something to get ready for what’s actually happening in your life?”

Hadfield knows that getting ready improves your chances of success, saying that “when you get there instead of having this weird combination of incompetence and fear paralysis, you’ll get there comfortable and calm so that you can understand the experience more fully. You get more out of the experience if you come into it with all of the trepidation at a minimum. I think you have a fuller life as a result. You don’t miss it. A lot of things only happen once and you don’t want to go at the end of it, ‘what the heck just happened there, I missed the whole thing because I was so focused on the speedometer I didn’t notice anything else.’ So I think preparation in life is key.”

We’ll have more of my exclusive interview with Commander Chris Hadfield in an upcoming BetaKit article.

John Gray

John Gray

John is BetaKit’s first West Coast Editor. He’s BC born and raised with a Vancouver postal code for the last 35 years. John’s been involved with the start-up community since early 2009. He’s co-founder of Omniscient Technologies a visual analytics company whose assets were acquired in October 2011. John and his co-founder reacquired their IP in October 2014 and will be launching a new version Mentionmapp.com this year. As a writer, John cares about keeping the humanity in our stories and conversations about technology. He has a B.Ap.Sc. in Communications and a B.A. in English, both from Simon Fraser University.