SFU’s 30 years of transforming ideas into innovation in Vancouver

SFU’s Vice-President of Research and International, Joy Johnson| Submitted

Over the past 30 years, Simon Fraser University’s Vancouver campus has developed a reputation of engaging students, researchers and the local community to create, share and embrace knowledge, which benefits Vancouverites and generates meaningful change. 

“It is important to not just do excellent research, but to make sure that research makes a difference,” says Joy Johnson, SFU’s vice-president, research and international. “Part of that is thinking about ways of mobilizing knowledge—to think about how we can apply business principles to scale solutions and solve pressing social issues.”

This takes form through SFU Innovates, the university’s innovation strategy. SFU Innovates moves ideas into action through industry and community research partnerships, incubation and acceleration, entrepreneurship and social innovation—with SFU’s Vancouver campus playing an essential role. 

Scaling up business acceleration

SFU VentureLabs is ranked North America’s top university-based business incubator. It occupies two floors of the Harbour Centre tower in the heart of Vancouver’s financial district. VentureLabs' mission is to scale up technology companies by connecting them with talent, research capacity, entrepreneurial expertise, and capital and international expansion opportunities. 

“VentureLabs’  main role is business acceleration,” says Johnson. “How do we take great ideas and great inventions from our researchers, and help them commercialize and expand businesses?” 

Since it started, the accelerator has trained more than 1,800 entrepreneurs, over 600 companies have accessed programming and services, 106 patents have been filed and 94 products and services have been commercialized. 

Like the businesses it supports, VentureLabs is also scaling up. In July, the accelerator established the B.C. Regional Women Entrepreneurship Knowledge Hub (WEKH), in partnership with the federal government and Ryerson University. This hub will be one of nine regional hubs in a national research and collaboration network for women entrepreneurs.  

Plans are also in the works to establish a centre that will help western Canadian entrepreneurs and companies maximize their business opportunities and gain access to business tools to help them grow, with a $3 million investment from Western Economic Diversification Canada.

Fostering changemakers and community connection

As one of over 40 Ashoka U Changemaker campuses around the world, SFU educates changemakers and passionate problem solvers through programs such as RADIUS: a social innovation hub based out of SFU’s Beedie School of Business, located in downtown Vancouver at the Charles Chang Innovation Centre.

“At RADIUS, students, social innovators and entrepreneurs collectively work towards a transformed economy that is just, inclusive, resilient and sustainable,” says Johnson.

RADIUS supports over 150 social ventures and provides venture incubation programming in four thematic areas: Refugee Livelihood Lab, Health Promotion Lab, First People Enterprise Accelerator Program and Future of Work Lab. 

The purpose of RADIUS is for students to take ideas that have social importance and think about how they can apply business principles to solve those issues,” says Johnson. 

RADIUS students annually participate in the Oxford “Map the System” Challenge. The international competition has participants research a specific social or environmental issue and articulate their findings in a way that engages audiences and promotes understanding. Over the last three years, SFU student teams have won first prize twice and placed third at the Oxford “Map the System” Competition.

A campus that inspires

“SFU’s goal with the downtown campus has always been to encourage students to go beyond familiar boundaries—like a campus—and engage with the world head-on,” says Johnson.

SFU’s Vancouver campus turned 30 years old on May 5, 2019. A yearlong series of 30 events showcases the campus’ innovative programming, research and community engagement. 

For details, visit: www.sfu.ca/van30.