Starting a business is a complex process but starting a technology company has a unique set of complications that come with different risks. For example, techs often don’t have any physical assets, and, in many cases, they create value in ways that may seem alien to investors used to more mature industries. In these sectors it can be easier to visualize both the equation of revenue – expenses = profit and investment risk, which is assessed based on having assets that can be leveraged or sold off.
But today in Saskatchewan, people looking to start tech companies are getting some serious help. Conexus Cultivator in Regina, and Co.Labs in Saskatoon are two groups providing a base to help grow the Saskatchewan tech ecosystem.
“It’s really important to recognize the companies that made their mark before Co.Labs began,” says Dallas Price, programs and marketing lead at Co.Labs. Price is referring to companies like Vendasta, Coconut, and 7Shifts who secured a large proportion of the venture capital investment in Saskatchewan in 2021. With support from the province’s two incubators at the early stages, a wave of new companies are growing their business, creating new jobs and attracting increased investment to the province. In Regina, Cultivator reports helping incubate over 100 companies, create more than 300 jobs, and helping attract $23M in private capital. Based out of Saskatoon, Co.Labs also boasts impressive statistics, with more than 150 startups incubated, more than 500 jobs created and over $30M in revenue generated by Co.Labs companies.
Good companies solve problems.
David Thomas, the founder and CEO of BudSense, is a Cultivator member with a business proposition that’s easy to understand: we make selling weed easy.
“The reason I got into this was I was a store operator myself. I still am. My brother, John, and I opened two stores on legalization day in Saskatchewan,” explains Thomas. This exposed the brothers to the problems all retailers in the industry would come to face.
Budsense tactically decoupled from regulation, which allowed them to enter any market without government relationships—a competitive advantage in a highly regulated and evolving market. As they set about the process of problem solving, they realized they had something that could benefit others—knowledge and experience. After launching several stores in Saskatchewan and Alberta, and expanding into the US, they went on to help Farmer Jane go from one store to 12 stores in the last two years. Cultivator was a huge help.
“What I am really excited about is what Cultivator means for Regina and Saskatchewan and the jobs it can create and the opportunities it can create. I grew up in Regina, I went to school in Regina, I always wanted to work in tech,” Thomas says, “but the reality for someone who grew up in Regina, is that tech wasn’t really accessible.”
Kayla Kozan, founder of Twello, would agree. She was able to return to Saskatchewan after completing school in Ontario. She started her business after a short stint in the corporate world where she saw a need for corporate wellness training.
“Cultivator made it possible to stay in Regina, you can start a company, get help with it, grow it, and employ people. You can have a tech company in Regina,” says Kozan.
“Something that’s been so incredibly helpful is the network. When I had zero employees, I could talk to someone who had four employees. Now I have four employees, I can talk to someone who has 10 employees. They’ve all had the same issues, used all the same systems and I don’t know how I would have built that network outside of Cultivator,” Kozan explains.
A female founder, Kozan notes the commitment Cultivator makes to equality in tech. “I think it’s worth knowing that Cultivator is significantly more balanced between male and female founders than other incubators—they’re close to a 50-50 split, they’ve done that on purpose, and I think they’ve done a phenomenal job.”
Mental wellbeing is important, and the companies being incubated are making advances in many fields, including artificial intelligence (AI).
Dr. Jon Giambattista founded Limbus AI with his brother and a friend two years ago, after beating childhood cancer. Limbus AI uses machine learning to help identify and plan cancer treatments based on CT scans.
“My experience with Cultivator has been pretty great,” Giambattista explains, “they’ve been really good at getting us in front of investors.” Limbus AI just announced a deal with Accuray which will see their software integrated with Accuray’s treatment machines.
“We leveraged the Cultivator legal resources to help us navigate the contracts, and we’ll be hiring additional people because of the deal,” says Giambattista.
How do we keep building on the success of these incubators?
“We need top tier employees leaving big companies to found their own companies or re-invest in new companies,” says Dallas Price.
He explains that when you get massive companies hitting liquidity events, their employees break off to found new companies in their home ecosystem, which leads to exponential growth in those ecosystems.
Saskatchewan is getting to the phase in which companies are reaching the size and stage where they will begin to naturally shed experienced and talented employees looking to start or support companies of their own.
From the seeds of an idea, incubated into companies that provide real jobs and direct economic impact, to tech giants based right here in Saskatchewan that will give birth to a new generation of opportunity, Saskatchewan incubators are making a tangible improvement to the technology ecosystem, while evolving their own programs.