After over a year of searching, Saskatoon-based technology hub Co.Labs has found its next executive director in Jonathan Lipoth.
Lipoth is a Saskatchewan native who has spent years working in early-stage Canadian tech on the venture capital (VC) side with Regina-based Broad Street Bulls and Vancouver’s Rhino Ventures. He took over from Co.Labs co-founder Alex Shimla in October.
After just over a year in the role, former Co.Labs executive director Matt Stefan departed in early 2022 to explore new opportunities before later joining Co.Labs-affiliated TeamLinkt. In Stefan’s stead, Shimla stepped in as the tech incubator’s interim executive director and initiated a search for its next permanent leader. Shimla noted that it “kind of became the longest-running interim role of all time.”
“With Jonathan, we found the person who checked the boxes.”– Alex Shimla, Co.Labs
“After having to come back, I wanted to make sure that the person we were finding is the next long-term leader of Co.Labs,” Shimla told BetaKit in an exclusive interview. “It was a decision I wanted to get right and the board really wanted to get right this time around. With Jonathan, we found the person who checked the boxes.”
Lipoth’s move marks a return to Saskatchewan, and an opportunity to apply what he has learned working in VC in a more operational role as he looks to help nascent tech startups in the province get off the ground.
“This was a great fit where I [am] able to give back to my home province, come back to the community here, and the reception has been really incredible,” Lipoth told BetaKit.
Shimla noted that today, Co.Labs occupies “a fairly significant place in the Saskatchewan tech ecosystem.”
Funded primarily by the provincial and federal governments via Innovation Saskatchewan and PrairiesCan, Co.Labs is an independent non-profit incubator that aims to help Saskatchewan tech founders and teams “navigate the path from idea to $1 million in annual revenue.” It does not charge fees or take equity in companies. Co.Labs also organizes Uniting the Prairies, an annual Saskatoon-based conference for tech startups.
“Co.Labs was created because there was a void in the [Saskatchewan tech] ecosystem of entrepreneur support,” said Shimla. “We had all these people building companies, and really good companies, but literally in their basements.”
According to Shimla, when Co.Labs was launched in 2017, Saskatchewan became the last Canadian province to get an incubator. Two years later, the province got another when Conexus Credit Union founded Regina-based Cultivator. Since then, Saskatchewan’s tech ecosystem has experienced significant growth, buoyed by homegrown firms like Coconut Software, 7shifts, and Vendasta.
“The community didn’t really have one physical place to gather and aggregate before Co.Labs,” said Lipoth. “That’s developed over the past seven years since Co.Labs’ founding and [has] really been one of the key ingredients to its success.”
To date, Co.Labs has incubated 200 Saskatchewan tech startups, which it claims have collectively raised over $34 million in private investment, generated $56 million in revenue, and created 800 jobs.
“For anyone external to Saskatchewan, this is the place to look for signal,” said Lipoth, who described Co.Labs as a “lightning rod” for Saskatchewan tech. Lipoth said he often looked to Co.Labs to source deals in Saskatchewan during his time as an investor.
Today, Co.Labs’ six-person team currently offers four programs: Co.Learn, Co.Launch, Co.Link, and Co.Lead. Co.Launch is a cohort-based accelerator, while Co.Link is an incubator and Co.Learn is a more “hands-on” residency initiative. These programs are designed to feed into each other and help entrepreneurs progress from ideation to the Series A stage.
For his part, Shimla expects Lipoth to “blow up” at least half of Co.Labs’ programming once he gets situated and has time to evaluate what the ecosystem needs today. “It’s been a hallmark of what we’ve done so far,” he added.
To facilitate a smooth transition, Shimla is staying on as an advisor to Lipoth over the coming months on a full-time basis, and helping to plan and execute Uniting the Prairies’ 2024 event.
“For anyone external to Saskatchewan, this is the place to look for signal.”
As Co.Labs’ executive director, Lipoth plans to ensure the organization continues to serve as a hub for early-stage Saskatchewan tech entrepreneurs, whether they plan to pursue VC funding or take another path.
Lipoth also aims to leverage his past experience and relationships to help prepare the best startups to expand and grow beyond Saskatchewan. “We want to see globally scalable companies coming out of this province,” he said.
Shimla expects Lipoth’s investor mindset and ability to connect Co.Labs’ participants with mentors, experts, and investors both in Saskatchewan and beyond to prove beneficial going forward.
“There’s cool-ass companies here and so I think that taking that culture and starting to export it a little bit now, starting to get a little bit louder, is how Co.Labs [will be] growing,” said Shimla.
Feature image courtesy Co.Labs.