The Okanagan tech community was one of only five tech communities selected to participate in the Techstars Community Pilot Project. The Techstars team arrived at the end of August and performed a grassroots, founders-first assessment of our startup ecosystem. The goal was to accelerate growth in our community beyond what would happen organically and to inspire future innovation and ideas for a diverse group of community leaders and partners to rally around.
The initiative has inspired much community support, with the following organizations acting as sponsors: Okanagan College, Central Okanagan Economic Development Commission, University of British Columbia, Valley First, a division of First West Credit Union, City of Kelowna, Lawson Lundell LLP., WTFast, Strawhouse, Community Futures of Central Okanagan, Bananatag, Data Nerds, and Nucleus Strategies.
The University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus is a key player in Kelowna’s innovation ecosystem and an avid supporter of entrepreneurship activity in the region.
Dr. Phil Barker, Vice-Principal Research and Innovation at UBC Okanagan, is a homegrown success story. A renowned molecular biologist and biochemist by trade, Barker left Kelowna when he was 18 to attend university and complete his PhD. He then attended Stanford University in the heart of the Silicon Valley, where he performed postdoctoral studies in neurobiology.
Barker is passionate about deepening the research culture and increasing innovation capacity in the Okanagan to bring the benefits to society more swiftly and efficiently. His lab is currently exploring early-stage interventions for neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Barker also co-founded biotechnology company Aegera Therapeutics Inc., holds several patents, and has developed and licensed a number of technologies to major pharmaceutical firms.
We recently caught up with Barker to learn more about his love for problem solving, the power of partnership, and the future of Okanagan tech.
We are constantly creating new knowledge but taking discoveries and translating them in a way that will have a meaningful impact on society is, to me, what innovation really means. It requires bold thinking and the courage to take risks and failure is almost always part of the equation.
UBC Okanagan has an amazing team of 300 researchers, over 9,000 students and 650 staff working to study and solve these big problems. We are investing in developing clusters of research excellence that will be pillars of strength for our campus and help us recruit and retain top talent in the region. These researchers are working at the highest international level and are among the best in their field.
We’re cultivating new ways of working together and building creative partnerships that will help our region thrive in the new economy. We just opened the Innovation UBC Hub in the Innovation Centre downtown to provide the UBC community with a space to interact with and be part of Kelowna’s innovation network. We’re investing in entrepreneurship training programs there and on campus, delivered in partnership with Accelerate Okanagan, to support our growing cohort of students, researchers and early-stage entrepreneurs who are eager to transform their ideas into viable ventures.
On Making it Easy to Say ‘Yes’…
My PhD supervisor taught me the importance of making it easy for your colleages to say ‘yes’. I learned to come prepared to present a compelling, data-supported case with a clear path forward and a defined set of outcomes. Part of my job is ensuring our researchers have what they need to be unimpeded in their work. Whether that’s opening up funding opportunities, partner connections, lab space, or providing access to professional expertise to help commercialize ideas, my role is to help make it easy for potential partners and funders to say ‘yes’.
UBC Okanagan has grown exponentially over the past 12 years and now brings in over $20 million per year in research income. We are proud that our collaborations with industry, government and non-profit organizations are contributing an estimated $1.5 billion in economic impact to the region and excited at the prospect of doing much more.
Our campus is rapidly expanding and we have some exciting infrastructure projects underway. We will be breaking ground soon on a new experimental greenhouse and we are now finalizing plans for our 50+ acre Innovation Precinct. Part of the conversation we’re having is how to leverage UBC’s expertise and ability to bring partners together to take on the big challenges of tomorrow. Only a fraction of our 520-acre campus is developed, so we are really just getting started.
UBC has long-standing relationships with major multi-national companies like Microsoft, Boeing, Cisco, Google and IBM and is a founding member of the new BC-led Digital Technology Supercluster, which is expected to create 50,000 jobs and inject $15 billion into the BC economy over the next decade or so. We’ll be hosting an aerospace innovation summit soon to explore how this industry can benefit from new digital opportunities, provide an update on the Digital Learning Factory, and discuss and what this could mean for the Central Okanagan. I was drawn here to advance our research agenda and to facilitate the impact UBC Okanagan is having on the region and I am keen to partner with community leaders, businesses and not-for-profit organizations on this and other projects.
On the Techstars results…
I’m a big fan of mentorship and the development of an inclusive, supportive innovation ecosystem. It’s up to us now, as a community, to align our efforts and ensure people have an opportunity to thrive and succeed in the region. I was pleased to see the Techstars recommendation regarding increasing outreach to high school students and engaging tech-enabled sectors such as advanced manufacturing. Having a world-class university campus in the Okanagan presents numerous opportunities and I’m proud to be part of an organization that is having a profound effect on the region.
On the Talent Pipeline…
If we want an innovative society, we need to create a culture in which innovation can be supported. UBC Okanagan is responding by adding exciting new programs like the Master’s in Data Science and Bachelor of Media Studies. We’re also expanding our Engineering program and launching a nationally recognized youth outreach program to engage kids in STEM related activities.
Nearly 50 percent of our graduates are now choosing to stay in the region, which is an exciting statistic. When I graduated from KSS more than thirty years ago, there were limited opportunities for students to settle in the valley. I had to leave my hometown in order to attend university and it took me decades to get back. Now, not only are local students able to learn and launch their careers without having to leave the Okanagan but UBC is acting as a talent magnet, attracting bright and enthusiastic students to the Okanagan, many of which decide to stay.
On Research and the Future of Okanagan tech…
Research is critically important for advancing our society. I have been involved in biomedical research now for 35 years and have personally seen the major impact this work has had on diagnosing and treating cancer and neurodegenerative disease.
I’ve also seen how investments made in research can be amplified multiple times in a university setting – where individual researchers can achieve far-reaching impacts by working with other institutions and partners to solve complex challenges no one person or organization would be willing to take on.
UBC Okanagan is working hard to expand opportunities in aerospace, creative arts, sustainable infrastructure, and health related technologies that could have a transformative impact on the economic development of BC’s interior. Our research activities are attracting new partners that are seeking solutions to technical and social problems. Several are exploring opportunities to locate in close proximity to us and build long-term relationships that could open up a new chapter for Okanagan innovation.
To learn more about UBC Okanagan’s entrepreneurship activity, check out the Innovation Centre’s recent blog post. To get the full Techstars report click here. To see a video of the full readout, click here.