Supporting Startups: Encouraging Independent Innovators

Patrick Christie

Before The Wood Innovation Group (TWIG), and compared to our booming tech, gaming, and cleantech sector, British Columbia was a barren landscape for anyone trying to “startup” an idea related to wood. Although we are in a coastal rainforest in a province rich in natural resources, the support for entrepreneurs in wood is closer to the ecosystem of a desert. Even finding a way into the industry as a newcomer or outsider is challenging unless you’re studying in programs that are industry-driven with co-op and work placements.

Most of the choices relating to how wood is used are happening elsewhere, behind closed doors and in companies with no R&D departments. As a result, independent innovators are working in isolation across the province, tinkering away on ideas and using the resources they have in proximity to them or what can be found online – using what they can to do their best. For Indigenous communities across the province, the circumstances are even more isolating, as 75% of communities across BC do not have access to broadband internet for streaming. For them, access to information, high-quality video content, and Zoom is not an option – basic affordances can have a huge impact on the livelihoods of remote communities. 

“Our goal is to let users and makers of products interact and explore opportunities in a casual, relaxed atmosphere that encourages creative ideas and fosters new partnerships.”

In being founded and supported through the Center for Advanced Wood Processing at UBC, the strong foundation of Wood Science, Forestry, Manufacturing, and new Technologies was extended into TWIG (at the time called Outside the Box). With UBC being out on a peninsula, the events were hosted in East Vancouver in the heart of the arts and culture district, and where many woodworkers have set up shop. I was one of those people who had set up shop with four other Industrial Design graduates from Emily Carr at a space called the Yew Woodshop, and this facility became the main location for OTB to host events for the first few years.

From here, the OTB meetup group started to take shape, as the recurring interactions within a saw-dust-making space allowed for a community to establish a sense of place and identity that was different from the regular 9-5 mode. We hosted over 50 in-person meetups with 35 special guests who presented on a range of wood-based topics. Our monthly meetups took place over ten venues across the city and created 100s of connections that resulted in many startups, project opportunities, and long-lasting connections. 

The format of OTB was simple. Meet at a common location with food and drinks provided for a small fee of $20. The evening would fill our plates and stomachs and meet other attendees. After 30 minutes of informal conversations, the organizers would introduce themselves and the group. Then the guest presenter would share their story, either in a digital presentation, a hands-on show and tell, or a combination of both. The topic and ideas they presented would spark the room for discussions and Q&A, and people would have a chance to share any ideas they would have or concepts they were working on.

We had people attending from many generations, from those in their 20s to veterans in their 80s, all with a shared interest in doing more and adding more value to BC products. I met my mentor, Art Paul (Permanent Pole), in his mid-80s. I learned how to add value from an alternative perspective through him, driven by creativity, design, ingenuity, and teamwork. He said that you couldn’t be innovative by simply tweaking or adjusting something existing. You have to go beyond what others are thinking and doing and invest in processes and methods that will enable you to produce unique results that push you ahead of the competition. 

“The value in the material is in how you treat it.” – Art Paul, 1930–2017

This article is the third in a five-part series exploring how TWIG offers an alternative pathway to innovation that values humans, resources, and the economy.

Patrick Christie is an independent contractor, entrepreneur, and artist doing work primarily under Daly Co. Design with a foundation of Industrial Design from Emily Carr University. He has been with TWIG since the beginning and stepped into the organizer role in 2017.

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