This week, Ken gets a “taste” of social innovation at Simon Fraser University’s RADIUS incubator, speaking with co-director Shawn Smith and social entrepreneur Dylan Jones about their work. We learn how innovation requires bureaucratic flexibility, and Ken winds up at a loss for words with his mouth full of crickets!
For decades now, higher education has embraced the entrepreneurial incubator to promote the commercialization of software developers and research breakthroughs in engineering, chemistry and medicine. (10K covered the movement broadly in this episode on “Campus Incubators and Accelerators”, and visited the University of Waterloo’s “Velocity Garage” ). But in recent years, a wave of incubators has begun appearing to support social enterprises, launched by a new generation of altruistic entrepreneurs and “changemakers,” focused on the so-called “triple bottom line.”
SFU’s Beedie School of Business established the RADIUS social innovation hub in 2013. (The name is an acronym for “Radical Ideas Useful to Society.”) Every year, RADIUS Fellows hosts emerging leaders in the social economy, and RADIUS ChangeLabs deliver extracurricular activities to SFU students. RADIUS’s Local Economic Development Lab (LEDlab) is working in Vancouver’s downtown eastside to build a more dynamic and inclusive economy (www.LEDLab.ca). They helped turn an informal group of wastepickers and recyclers into The Binners Project, with its own brand, marketing, and business model for R&D, cartsharing, and event services. (Learn more at www.binnersproject.org).
RADIUS Ventures delivers incubation support to startups at the business model validation stage, and acceleration support to growth-ready companies ready to attract venture capital. These social-purpose companies have potentially profitable business models, but also aim to improve society by addressing environmental sustainability, homelessness, and other social challenges. RADIUS “co-entrepreneurs” with the ventures, going deep and ensuring they provide a meaningful change in trajectory for the entrepreneur and the company.
One RADIUS venture was Zero Waste Market, Canada’s first package-free, zero-waste grocery store. (They changed their name literally days after this episode was completed, to Nada Grocery. Learn more at www.nadagrocery.com).
Another great example of a social enterprise incubated at RADIUS is Coast Protein, a sustainable energy bar and protein powder company (see www.coastprotein.com). Their products are all-natural, with no artificial sweeteners or preservatives, and very few ingredients – primarily Canadian-farmed cricket flour. Cricket protein is far more sustainable and nutritious than beef or chicken, explains CEO Ryan Jones: per pound of protein, cows take 13x more land, produce 100x more greenhouse gases, and require 2,000x more water. And instead of 30% protein by volume, crickets are 65% protein, while also being high in iron, calcium, and B12 – an essential vitamin often missing in vegetarian diets. It’s still “the wild west of crickets right now,” Ryan explains, and most of Coast Protein’s marketing budget goes to consumer education. People don’t realize that the insect protein market is already about $200 million annually in North America, and expected to grow to about $1.5 billion by 2023. Or that crickets taste like “burnt roasted almonds with a hint of roasted mushroom.”
Shawn observes that innovation can sometimes be challenging within a bureaucratic environment like a major public university. Entrepreneurs need to respect boundaries and structures, while remaining adaptive and responsive in an emergent space. RADIUS functions like a “skunkworks” at SFU, where risks can be taken, failures go quietly, and lessons can be learned. Academic innovators need their “pockets of innovation” to be protected from needless bureaucracy, and depend on “bridging innovators” in a wide range of departments, particularly in finance, to make their innovation work possible. Shawn emphasizes that SFU has a lot of these people, but that “they don’t always get the recognition they deserve.”
On the upside, though, a university setting provides a wealth of expertise and cutting-edge researchers in a wide range of disciplines, and an endless supply of enthusiastic students who deeply care about social issues and want to make the world a better place. Social incubators like RADIUS need to bring people together from disparate perspectives, to “bite off problems that people haven’t quite figured out yet,” and universities are an ideal setting in which to do that.
Shawn Smith is Director of Social Innovation at Simon Fraser University, co-founder and co-director of RADIUS, and an adjunct professor in the Beedie School of Business. He earned an MBA in social entrepreneurship from the University of Oxford in 2010, and has spent 12 years working in social impact organizations, including Impacto Quito, Global Agents for Change, and Education Generation.
Special thanks to Shawn Smith, Dylan Jones, and the SFU videographers who made this episode possible.
For more information about SFU’s RADIUS, please visit www.RadiusSFU.com.
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