West Coast tech grows up: Launch Academy looks to the future

Ray Walia Launch Academy

Vancouver’s Launch Academy co-founder and CEO, Ray Walia, smiles when he thinks about the 120,000 cups of free coffee served up from its busy kitchen to caffeine-injected startup teams over the last three years.

“The accountant in me cringes, but when you think about the implications of it, that’s a testament to the amount of traffic coming through here, learning, collaborating and coming to events that have helped build out this city’s tech hub,” he says. “It’s not just Launch Academy, but having Lighthouse Labs, Stanley Park Ventures, HIGHLINE and a whole community compounding the efforts to build entrepreneurs who are in turn building companies of the future, it’s amazing.”

“The really key number is that for every $1 spent, Launch Academy has returned $61 in GDP for the economy.”

We caught up with Walia on the heels of a big announcement of important milestones stemming from Launch Academy’s focus on tech education and mentorship: over the last three years, the hub has helped over 350 startups create over 635 jobs and collectively raise $57 million.

“For me, the really key number is that for every $1 spent, Launch Academy has returned $61 in GDP for the economy, making it one of the most cost-efficient technology hubs in the country,” Walia says. “The total funding of $57 million raised can be taken with a grain of salt, because this is involving some early-stage companies. As to the return on investment, I’d love to have more government dollars coming in so we could do even more with it. But it’s a testament to the team that we’ve got in here, using the Lean methodology to maximize resources, providing real support for startups.”

The look back at Launch Academy’s past was encouraging, but what does the future look like for this fast-growing technology hub?

“We want to see more structure,” Walia says. “Launch Academy started as a side project to develop an environment for our businesses (we’re all entrepreneurs as well). Now we want to see the bar higher for the type of companies growing in BC – but you still need to work with those first-time entrepreneurs, help them overcome initial hurdles and access resources, so when they’re on their second or third startup, they can have a shorter timeline to success.”

The telltale sign of a successful tech ecosystem is having more startups being run by second-or-third-time entrepreneurs, Walia notes. “Someone on their first startup might not know how to leverage networks and resources – but on the second time around, they’re able to do that much better. We’re on the threshold. We’re starting to see a lot more companies in Vancouver become successful and get traction. You realize the brain trust starting these companies are more seasoned. They may be people in their 20s or 30s, but they know what to do to position themselves for success. This has a compounding effect on other seasoned entrepreneurs as well as first-timers.”

Launch Academy

Pitching investors is a perfect example of where serial entrepreneurs can have the advantage – and where first-timers can benefit from education if they’re willing. “First-time entrepreneurs might think they already know how to pitch so they don’t take our workshops on articulation,” Walia says. “Then they bomb and waste that opportunity they had. Instead, they could go to one of the sessions we’re providing and they would have had a better chance of success.”

As much as the community aims to provide helpful mentorship and educational programs Walia argues that the most valuable resource in Launch Academy’s building is fellow entrepreneurs. “The ones you have access with on a daily basis, building their own business at the next desk are very useful. It’s pure collaboration. The network is available here, where you’re tapping into fellow entrepreneurs’ networks of investors and strategic partners.”

That’s Launch Academy’s mission for the future – but there are a few hurdles in getting there. “One of the biggest hurdles we’re facing here at Launch Academy is relevant to everyone in this tech community: access to talent. Being Lean has been a strength, but that also makes it a challenge when we’re facing more demand for our services and we need to make sure we’ve got the right mindsets here.”

The key to meeting that challenge? “Being proactive on the education front,” Walia says. “We need to train and retrain talented people to be part of a thriving business sector in BC. Even general exposure to what kinds of businesses are shaping the future is critical.

“Someone might not grow up thinking they’re going to be a coder and maybe that’s not where they end up, but having knowledge of what code is will help them in the future. But it goes beyond coding. Salespeople are using social media tools. Architects use technology every day. Knowledge of tools is a significant hurdle and we need to see quicker integration of new tech tools. This academy is a microcosm of what’s happening across Canada and we benefit because it’s also like a laboratory. Being a desk over from these developers, you see what’s germinating and can use them right away.”

Feature image courtesy Emily Jackson.

Disclosure: BetaKit’s West Coast desk operates out of the HIGHLINE co-working space, located within Launch Academy.

Jonathon Narvey

Jonathon Narvey

Jonathon Narvey is a content marketing strategist and BetaKit Senior Editor. Living and working in the heart of downtown Vancouver, he's watched this city's tech hub grow and start to compete on a world-class level. He has learned most of what he knows about tech startups and entrepreneurial spirit by interviewing some of the most innovative thought leaders here and abroad. He's always up for learning something new about the startups, leaders and technologies that are changing our world.