Interview with Co.Labs Executive Director Matt Stefan

Co.Labs Is Ready To Support The Future of Saskatchewan Tech

Matt Stefan took the reins at Co.Labs, a tenant at Innovation Place in Saskatoon, as the new Executive Director back in January 2021 and has hit the ground running, ushering in a new chapter for Saskatchewan’s first technology incubator.

We spoke with Matt about Co.Labs’ new programs and initiatives, like the Virtual Pitch Showcase and Co.Learn Summits, his ideas for expanding the sphere of influence in Saskatchewan and generating investment opportunities for startups and a lot more. (Like, a lot.)


You’ve been the Executive Director of Co.Labs for over four months now, moving back to the Prairies, seeing through ongoing initiatives, all during a pandemic while Co.Labs continues to produce and develop programs at what feels like a breakneck speed.
So I guess the question on everyone’s mind is: How are you doing?

Oh wow! [laughs] I'm doing very well. I'm excited to be back in the Prairies.

One of the conversations I've been having internally with my team is what has changed while I’ve been away. I left Saskatchewan right after I finished high school and have been gone for almost a decade — spending time in other ecosystems like Vancouver and Toronto. I look back on those years at how much the world has changed, not just in Saskatchewan.

Saskatchewan can get a bit of a bad rap for being one or two seasons behind the trends, but I think it's not always the worst thing because you get to learn from the experiences of others. That's one thing that I really appreciated when I was considering the role at Co.Labs. This organization was formed through lots of conversation with incubators in more mature ecosystems to ask “what did you want, what should we do, how do we set this up for success?”

I can say that as I've stepped into the role, we've got alignment all the way from the federal government down through our provincial government. There's a lot rallying behind the tech community in Saskatchewan and that has helped set up Co.Labs well for success.

To speak openly about some of my anxieties coming into this role, I didn’t know where my support systems were going to be. I didn’t know if promoting tech in Saskatchewan was going to be an uphill battle. If I was going to be beating a drum no one wanted to listen to.

But it's been the opposite experience. People across industries are all ears to hear what Co.Labs is doing and keen to identify potential pathways for collaboration. That type of welcoming and open attitude to collaboration is something that I've never really experienced in other ecosystems — it's usually a lot of beating down doors. Here, one email and an intro call opens the doorway to all types of collaboration opportunities.


You bring up some great points about partnerships and support. Recently, the province committed $375K to Co.Labs for the next year.
What impact does this investment and continued support from organizations like Innovation Saskatchewan (and Innovation Place!) have on Co.Labs and the startups within it?

We’re incredibly grateful for the continued support of Innovation Saskatchewan and Innovation Place. Their support of Co.Labs signals a commitment from the province to early-stage innovation.

I believe Saskatchewan innovators with great ideas and the passion to solve complex problems just need to be directed. Investments from organizations like Innovation Place and Innovation Saskatchewan into Co.Labs are the affirmation we need to continue supporting these innovators. Co.Labs will continue to be an inclusive hub where people from all corners of the province with an idea for a technology company can come for direction.

In our short history, we've seen companies move through all the stages of the Co.Labs programming that are now hiring 30+ people a quarter, becoming some of the fastest growing companies not only in our province but in the country.

Continued investment from the province is recognition that Co.Labs commitment to Saskatchewan’s innovators can create tremendous economic impact making it a critical part of the innovation ecosystem.


Backing it up again, what has it been like getting up and running as the new Executive Director for Co.Labs, overseeing the existing projects while trying to inject your own vision?

I have to give it up to my team. They’ve given me the space to get up to speed and speak with every founder in our program. I’ve listened to their challenges and uncovered opportunities for ways we can improve.

The first thing I pitched to our team was the opportunity we have to continue expanding our sphere of influence. It’s this idea that in a virtual world, it's easier than ever for us to create relationships with people in different ecosystems and then bring those perspectives to Saskatchewan. To hear the stories of others and shape those to our unique experience.

Saskatchewan people are humble in not always sharing their stories for fear of looking braggadocious. I think this can restrict us from recognizing our greatness. People from other ecosystems are often impressed by what they experience here, so continuing to expand our sphere of influence is one thing we’re committing to this year.

And obviously these things take time, but in the short run I’m proud of what we've been able to accomplish even in the last three months: we put together Co.Labs’ first ever inaugural pitch showcase, giving 17 companies the opportunity to pitch in front of 44 unique investment firms from all across North America — it led to dozens of meaningful connections and even some investment offers for our companies.


You’re stealing all my questions!

[laughs] Sorry!


I was curious about what you said on Startupville about how your experience as a founder brings a new perspective to Co.Labs and how one of your goals is to expand the sphere of influence sharing the message about what the tech sector is doing in Saskatchewan. That tracks with what quite a few tech sector people in various areas that I have spoken with have said.
Can you expand on what you think the best way is to approach that challenge of getting the message out about Saskatchewan?

There's a lot of value in those conversations. I think the best way for us to get the message out is to let the founders tell their stories. They're going through the growing pains, facing unique challenges and have perspectives that are always shifting. By creating opportunities for our companies to share their stories, we have the greatest opportunity to put Saskatchewan in the limelight in a positive way.


Let’s talk about Co.Labs right now. A lot has happened since you came on board: the website relaunch, rebranding of the Co.Labs program structure, the virtual pitch session to name just a few. We spoke a bit about the Virtual Pitch Showcase already, but can you tell me how this project came to be and why it’s necessary right now?

I got this message right before I got in this interview and one of the companies that pitched in the Virtual Pitch Showcase received a $100,000USD investment offer. To me that validates the entire concept behind the event. So wow, that's incredible.


Wow. Congratulations! That was real, that just happened!

Thank you!

The Virtual Pitch Showcase really came out of conversations with our founders. Our scale-up programs, Co.Link and Co.Lead, have been defined as non-programmed programs because there’s no denouement or set end date. This means no final showcase. This desire to demonstrate their products in front of investors was brought about in my conversations with our founders.

There were three core audiences we focused on to create these networking opportunities: startups, venture capital or institutional investors and angel investors in the province and beyond. Our panel discussion was facilitated by Katherine Regneir, CEO and founder of Coconut Software, between Silicon Valley titan investor Neil Dempsey, Sean O’Connor of Conexus Venture Capital, Cam Taylor of ROK Resources Inc and Stuart Henrickson at Bold Commerce. We were trying to bring all those audiences together and have a conversation around what it’s like to raise and deploy capital into Saskatchewan with the hope that investors from Vancouver, Toronto, San Francisco, New York and beyond can understand what the ecosystem is like here, learn more and hopefully get excited about investing.


Recently, we’ve seen a lot of money invested in Prairie companies like Rivercity Innovations, BrewNinja and Calia Flowers and, as we can see, the Virtual Pitch Showcase has only added interest and more investment opportunities in startups. How will Co.Labs continue generating interest and investment opportunities in startups in Saskatchewan?

Investment is all about hype cycles. For us as an incubator, we aim to create a regular cadence for our companies to get in front of investors. We want to tap into hype cycles and give the companies regular opportunities to demonstrate their traction to investors. We want to build excitement.

It also goes back to what we talked about before, which is giving founders the opportunity to share their stories. We see news stories, especially about deals and investments, but I think Saskatchewan is also very well positioned to do a better job of amplifying and highlighting the stories of great companies that have come out of Saskatchewan and ensuring that we’re in the minds of investors, putting ourselves on a world-class stage to compete with any ecosystem.


[laughs] I think I’m getting called out.

That's where I think we work together well!


Yes, absolutely. Speaking of your programming, one area Co.Labs seems to really be tapping into is young talent. New programs like Co.Learn with its Founder and Employee Summits are helping engage the future leaders and workers for Saskatchewan tech. Why is this important to Co.Labs?

There are three things that founders need access to — talent, capital and customers. By recognizing those three things, Co.Labs is always trying to position itself to provide support in all three areas and Co.Learn is part of the talent piece.

Co.Learn is all about educating those interested in tech to take their first step toward building a career in this industry. With the two summits, we are providing resources both to those who want to become founders and those looking to become employees at tech companies.

We believe Co.Learn can create a pathway either for those not currently in the tech sector to be confident when entering the sector or be inspired enough to start something of their own.


One problem I've heard from tech people, like Jeff Dyck at Siemens EDA/Solido, is retention of talent in Saskatchewan. Do you think this pathway could shift the reality to people learning, working and staying in Saskatchewan tech as opposed to learning and then high-tailing it out of here for, say, Vancouver [laughs].

You're talking to the guy that literally took off at 18! Now, I’m back for many reasons, the people being the number one. Jeff makes a great point and I think remote work is making it more difficult because now you can live in a Martensville mansion, but work online in Toronto. There’s more pressure than ever on Saskatchewan companies to ensure they’re creating great workplaces that can retain talent.

I don’t have the retention answer. But, I think fundamentally what we believe is that if you can build allegiances with your staff by creating opportunities for them to gain valuable experience and grow as people, you’ll have a better chance of holding onto them.

Part of that comes from developing our leaders and startup founders by giving them the support to build their employees up and create great company culture that people want to remain in.


Besides the Virtual Pitch Showcase and the Co.Learn program, what are you most excited about at Co.Labs right now?

A lot! I think what I'm most excited about is looking at where we're at in our history as an innovation ecosystem. If the venture cycle is about 7 to 10 years — meaning a company goes through initial stages of developing a product, raises capital, and then potentially sells or IPOs in that time &mash; Co.Labs is only 3 years old. So I think the next 3 years are going to be a really exciting swing in the cycle, especially when I look at companies in our program that have traction right now!

I think we're going to see a lot of exciting stories in the next 3 years because in tech things happen so fast!


Definitely. In my own short tenure at Innovation Place, SalonScale certainly comes to mind with that story of growth.

Absolutely.


What are some future projects Co.Labs has coming down that pike that we should know about?

There's a lot of ideas and some big things we want to address. I’m interested in finding ways to unlock access to local customers or creating opportunities for our startups to work with all levels of government.

At Co.Labs, we’re continuing to layer on new elements to our programming, specifically for Co.Link and Co.Lead founders based on their feedback. It’s part of our iteration of improvement and refining what's already there. We’ve got our baseline of what’s working really well and we’re ready to start to layer new elements and test their efficiency and effectiveness.


What are some things you’re seeing in the Saskatchewan tech community that excite you about the future?

The immediate thing that is exciting is access to capital and that capital is looking at early-stage companies. Golden Opportunities Fund, PFM Capital, Broad Street Bulls, Conexus Venture Capital — there’s money here and more people are thinking about how they can invest in early-stage tech. It’s exciting because capital is a core component of what founders need.

I'm also really excited about everything that's happening in Ag-Tech given that 45% of the arable land in Canada is in Saskatchewan. It would be unwise not to recognize it as a potentially massive opportunity. I'm excited to see how Co.Labs can support and play a role.

Lastly, it’s commitment from education. We have great relationships with University of Saskatchewan, Sask PolyTech and the University of Regina and are continually in communication to try to find pathways to work together. The most successful innovation ecosystems are ones that have strong connections to great educational institutions. We want to double down on these relationships and guide conversations to make results and great companies.


Awesome! We’ve covered a lot, but is there anything else you would like to add?

Honestly, I really think that it's partners like Innovation Place that recognize early-stage tech as an important part of the ecosystem.

One thing we have to get over is the inherently rural nature of Saskatchewan and the fact that things and people are far away. It’s a bit more complicated of a problem to solve, but I think that with the right partners, we can continue to offer Co.Labs programming in all corners of the province. That’s the vision that we have as Saskatchewan’s tech incubator — we want to serve the entire province, starting with Saskatoon and opening up new opportunities, especially with virtual.

We’re committed to being that inclusive hub for the province and we can work with organizations like Innovation Place to serve that vision and continue to grow.


Thanks for chatting with me today Matt!

You’re welcome. Thank you!


- May 14, 2021