Industry expert: Local startup guru John McPherson talks top businesses, tech trends, and more
With more than 39 percent of B.C. residents owning their own company or running a side hustle, British Columbia is the most entrepreneurial province in Canada—and Vancouver is its hub. Named the top startup ecosystem in Canada and the 15th-best place to start a business in the world, the city is one of the most welcoming places to quit your day job and work on your own terms.
That explosion of innovation makes John McPherson’s role incredibly varied.
As the clean-tech-sector development manager at the Vancouver Economics Commission, McPherson is tasked with managing events, programs, and activities for businesses as they grow from smart idea to billion-dollar unicorn. Primarily focused on green technology and how companies can help create smart cities—think self-driving cars, AI-enhanced garbage cans, and solar-powered street lighting—he helps startups connect with investors, navigate city-hall regulations, and guide founders to useful resources. Pretty helpful when you’re faced with building a business from scratch.
The most exciting part of his job, he says, is helping passionate entrepreneurs find the right path to success, but it’s the diversity of Vancouver companies that inspires him to come into the office every day. With the city boasting some of the wildest startups in Canada—businesses that are replicating the reactions that happen in the sun, for example, or that manufacture the high-definition cameras on the International Space Station—McPherson and the Vancouver Economics Commission are tasked with staying on the cutting edge of innovation.
Making it his personal goal to help companies become anchor businesses like Vancouver staples Hootsuite and Avigilon, McPherson tries to make sure entrepreneurs and their organizations can stay in the city amid rising costs of living.
Best Vancouver startup people haven’t heard of
There’s a lot to choose from. One is A & K Robotics. They’re developing an intelligent navigation system, which is the brains of how to make a machine self-driving. They’re starting with industrial cleaning machines and making them autonomous—so I guess you could think of it as an industrial Roomba for places like airports.
Another is called Virtro Entertainment. It had to make our list because it’s so interesting. It’s a virtual- and augmented-reality company that is making everything from a language-learning tool in VR to a noughts-and-crosses-type game with soldiers in AR.
Best industry to create a startup
VR and AR is a hot industry right now. Everyone’s talking about it, including investors, and we’re running some events around that on capital support for those kinds of businesses. It grew really quickly from probably seven-ish companies a few years ago to over 200 today.
In the clean-tech space we have close to 250 companies in Vancouver. We’ve seen significant growth in the industry, and a lot of those companies are starting to scale up and hire considerably. We really punch above our weight there.
Then there are cannabis-technology solutions, blockchain startups, AI, and all these smart-city technologies—these are all current trends in Vancouver. A lot of entrepreneurs are interested in these sectors when they think about starting a business.
Best local resource for entrepreneurs
If we’re looking at startup incubators and accelerators, there’s organizations like Spring, which provides mentorship, training, guidance, and advice on fundraising. Launch Academy is another accelerator and creative destruction lab in Vancouver. The Generator out of Discovery Parks, SFU Venture Labs, and then BC Tech all have some innovation programming as well. Then there’s New Ventures BC, which is a competition that helps companies go through the steps of developing their business plans, and there’s a prize at the end with a big event.
Best neighbourhood to run a business
It depends on the industry you’re in, but I’d say there’s a high degree of loyalty to the downtown space. I heard a story about a company that was bought here four or five years ago. The organization became absorbed by its parent and had to move to another municipality in the region. Instead of employees moving to that area, they quit and founded another similar company in the same industry, because it was downtown. They were almost more loyal to the location than the business.
Best new trend in the Vancouver startup ecosystem
There’s a lot more support now for coworking buildings. WeWork and Spaces are creating communities and enabling a more collegial climate and atmosphere between startups. The Hive is another example in Gastown. These are great for really bringing businesses together and working together collaboratively. That’s a trend we’re seeing right now, around coworking and telecommuting.
Best thing about being a startup in the city
From the companies that I’ve talked to, I think we’re really friendly to early-stage innovation. You get a lot of tax breaks from all levels of government, and there’s a lot of incubation support. And then there’s the ease of connecting with each other, and the social and networking environments—including Vancouver meet-up groups. A lot of events and activities bring entrepreneurs together, and we find that it’s a pretty cohesive, tight-knit industry.
Best way to encourage people to become entrepreneurs
I would say that you shouldn’t have to feel you should become an entrepreneur, as it’s definitely not for everyone. You should feel it and be passionate about something, see an opportunity, and then go for it. You should be self-motivated and self-directed. Sometimes I find the best solutions come out of solving very specific needs and focusing on that niche and then expanding from there. My advice would be to talk to other entrepreneurs—people that have done it before, who know what you’re getting into.