Builder, innovator Sarah Lubik bridges enterprise, education gap

A profile of Sarah Lubik, director of entrepreneurship, Simon Fraser University

Photo: Chung Chow

Growing up in Vancouver, Sarah Lubik spent her summers at a place on Indian Arm, a picturesque waterfront area located just northeast of the city. Her father had built the family a cabin while in his 20s, and Lubik got a first-hand feel for what it took to make something from scratch. The house had no hot water and was lit by kerosene lamps, making for a particularly rustic feel.

“So all summer we’d been reading books by the crateful or I’d be helping my dad build something or fix the roof,” said Lubik, who was born in 1983. “And so it became getting your hands dirty and making stuff, and that was a big part of my childhood.”

Lubik, now Simon Fraser University’s (SFU) director of entrepreneurship and an adviser to the federal government on innovation issues, said the ability to fix things was another skill she picked up from her handyman father during that time.

“He always encouraged me to not just watch. And I’m sure I got in the way more than I was helping, but I always thought I was helping.”

In 2001 Lubik graduated from high school and headed off to SFU that same year. She originally intended to take sciences – but wrote her entrance essay on the subject of why she probably wouldn’t end up taking sciences.

The writing got her noticed.

“I got a science scholarship,” she said. “And so I took a semester of science-orientated classes and then transferred to business.”

Lubik said the move to business was driven by a desire to make an impact on the world around her, and sprint to the forefront of a fast-moving industry.

“It seemed like a place where you could facilitate significant change,” she said. “It seemed like a lot of the power in the world lay in business, and it seemed like an exciting place to be.”

By 2006 Lubik had graduated with a bachelor of business administration from SFU’s Beedie School of Business, focusing on international business and marketing.

Before she graduated, Lubik said, her mother pushed her into a work experience program, which had a profound influence on her life.

She first worked for a conference management company, and hated it. Then she got a job working for SFU Prof. Elicia Maine. The role was as a research assistant, working with Maine on a joint project between SFU, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Cambridge, looking at the commercialization of advanced materials and fuel cell technologies. Lubik loved it.

“The job was essentially calling people up and getting them to tell me their story,” she said. “So I imagine it was a bit like being a reporter.”

The project also led to an opportunity for Lubik to undertake studies at Cambridge, where in 2007 she entered a graduate program, looking into engineering. Lubik also got a job as an administrator during a chance meeting.

She said she’s grateful for all the opportunities that have come her way.

“A lot of my life has come down to being in the right place at the right time – and just asking.”

Moving to England was also a big life experience for Lubik, who had yet to travel outside of North America except for a brief stint at Cambridge while still pursuing her undergraduate degree.

“There definitely were some daunting moments, but mostly it was an adventure.”

By 2010 she had a PhD in commercialization and advanced material technology. While in England she also got the opportunity to work on various research projects including ones within Cambridge’s Centre for Strategy and Performance, focusing on emerging industries. Lubik said living in the university city, which has a history stretching back thousands of years, gave her an eye-opening perspective on the relative youth of her own country and hometown.

“The first building that I lived in was older than this country,” she said. “It’s quite humbling to be around that much history and with that many cool people. And to also have the advantages of living in England and Europe because you can take a weekend holiday to another country, or several other countries. And that allows you to explore even more and open up your world.”

Lubik said going to England also deeply shaped her personally.

“I think I became much stronger in who I was, because I was far away from anyone who had been a part of shaping my previous identity. And so I got an opportunity to shape my own identity.”

During this time Lubik also dipped her heels into the world of private enterprise, helping start a company in 2011 that would become Lungfish Dive Systems, a closed-circuit rebreather system for scuba divers. She was originally the business coach for the venture, but quickly became a co-founder and still serves as the company’s marketing director.

After she had completed her PhD and fully immersed herself in the world of entrepreneurship, Lubik had a decision to face: stay in England or come back home to Canada.

“The question in my mind was ‘Do I stay here and become part of something world-class that someone has already built, or do I go home and be part of building something that’s part of my home and my country?’”

Lubik decided to return to her alma mater, and took the job as SFU’s first director of entrepreneurship in 2013. Jill Earthy, chief growth officer for startup investment company FrontFundr, said she met Lubik when she got home from England and instantly recognized she had the chops to take on what to many might seem a daunting role at the province’s second-largest university.

“During our first meeting over coffee, I recognized that she had a big vision, and the drive to see it through,” Earthy said. “She is a strategic thinker who thoughtfully navigates each conversation and opportunity to arrive at a clear outcome and plan.”

Lubik said part of the reason she decided to come home was the chance to help build something from scratch, joining SFU’s push to bridge the divide between the world of academia and business.

“It was a chance to create something new, in a place where it would be very important or make a big impact.”