This city next to sea and forest is charting a unique course as it evolves into a surprising hub of innovation and ideation.
On a mild December afternoon, Andreas Hagen spins up a winding road from the waterfront home on Hyacinthe Bay that he shares with his wife Danielle. Quadra Island’s network of mountain biking and hiking trails is Hagen’s backyard bliss; it’s where he goes to recharge in between Zoom meetings with entrepreneurs and startup founders, or when he’s not tinkering around with this CNC machine in the shop that serves as headquarters for his company Study-Build. It’s a new venture in partnership with Danielle, a difficult to define hybrid of branding, web development, design, fabrication and prototyping.
Tall and lanky, Hagen’s smile and positivity are as infectious as his insatiable curiosity and diverse interests, which spans from music, biking and art to spotting a business idea with potential. He knows a thing or two about good ideas. Hagen grew up in Willow Point, south of Campbell River. Post high school, he attended an international college in Italy before enrolling at Harvard where he studied genetics and conducted research at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
In 2018, Campbell River launched Vancouver Island’s first city-wide fibre optic broadband network in a project co funded by the city and Island Coastal Economic Trust.
Time spent in the laboratory spawned a business idea with two fellow students: how to bring together expertise, capital and resources across institutions to optimize research and avoid the duplication of effort and repetition of mistakes that is so common in the sciences. Hagen taught himself to write computer code and iLabSolutions was born in 2006, a company he ran for a decade before he and his partners sold it for an undisclosed amount to California-based Agilent Technologies.
In the meantime, he had relocated to Quadra Island, where his wife was raised, staying on as iLab’s chief software architect. In 2018, he left the company he cofounded, with an eye to new ventures and adventures. For example, he’s helping to rewrite the economic story of Campbell River, the “Salmon Capital of the World,” with a small group of fellow successful entrepreneurs known as CRAAG (the Campbell River Area Angel Group).
“I am fascinated by ‘story’ and innovative ideas that are rooted in place and people. It matters to consumers,” he tells me.
He then offers up an apropos exhibit A to illustrate the notion of story – his bicycle.
The work of art that he’s riding this morning is a hardtail mountain bike, one of less than 50 bikes hand built every year by fellow Quadra Islander Sam Whittingham, the founder, chief bike designer and frame welder of award-winning Naked Bicycles & Design.
Hagen has time, money and plenty of energy, much of which he is directing these days into CRAAG, whose members have each taken their own unique paths to mid-Vancouver Island but have embraced Campbell River and its future. Though the seaside lifestyle, close to nature and away from crowds, unites them, they’re far from wealthy recluses. Along with Hagen, the group includes American tech exec and investor Dana Kammersgard (owner of a 35-hectare island in Surge Narrows near Quadra); physicist, computer scientist, entrepreneur and mountain climber, David Baar; and aquaculture innovator and venture capitalist Rick Segal. Recently the group brought on another member, Chris Nelson of Nelson Investments. Hagen almost blushes at the mention of the term “angel investor.” It doesn’t sit well with him.
“It sounds like some benevolent force that descends from on high. But that’s the accepted term in the investment world,” Hagen says with a shrug.
Nomenclature aside, Hagen and his fellow angels at CRAAG are partnering with the City of Campbell River in a unique way to help turn the page from a heavy industrial past, rooted in raw resources, to a nimble 21st century economy with diversity and innovation at its core.
NexStream Tech Challenge, a Dragons’ Den-style competition, is the partnership’s flagship endeavour. The first edition wrapped last September when CRAAG and Campbell River announced the winners: Quadra Island’s Wild Isle Ferments and Portable Electric, who rose to the top of 37 entrants after an intense half year selection process.
The competition is open to anyone, from revenue-positive businesses to first-time entrepreneurs. And the term “tech” is loosely applied — it could be anything from an idea that innovates in Campbell River’s traditional sectors of forestry, fishing, aquaculture and tourism to completely out-of-the-box gig-economy thinking. Up for grabs are cash, business mentorship, and, if the fit is right, a potential investment or equity stake by a CRAAG member.“
I have to say we were surprised by the range of different people who put in proposals, from students to established companies,” Hagen told me.
Lifestyle may have brought the members of CRAAG to the Campbell River region, but if it weren’t for a stroke of genius by way of social connecting through Rose Klukas, Campbell River’s enterprising economic development officer, they wouldn’t have known of one another’s existence.
Klukas, who previously headed up economic development in Kitimat, joined the Campbell River team in 2016. No stranger to communities anchored by heavy industry but looking to diversify, Klukas says the city of 36,000 was already “making a shift from industrial roots to an entrepreneurial economy,” under the leadership of mayor Andy Adams.
In 2017, Campbell River launched Vancouver Island’s first city-wide fibre optic broadband network in a project co funded by the city and Island Coastal Economic Trust. A small but diverse gig-and-innovation economy was taking hold, including entrepreneurs like Cris Fletcher, president and founder of Genesis Marketing, which includes Genesis Graphics and G2 CNC. The city’s broadband network gave a big boost to local Matthew Gionet who had moved to Vancouver in the late ‘90s to pursue a career in sound design and editing before returning to his hometown in 2011 to launch EarWorm Sound. His clients include video game and documentary filmmakers, both local and international.“
My dad and grandad worked at the pulp and paper mill when it was Fletcher Challenge and I worked there, too,” Gionet says. “When I first moved back, my dad called Campbell River ‘plywood town’ because of all the boarded-up stores.”
Since long before its incorporation in 1947, Campbell River’s economic fortunes were inextricably tied to the forest sector. Its industrial tax base collapsed between 2008 and 2010 after both TimberWest and Catalyst Paper closed their operations, collectively shedding 700 high-paying union jobs from the payrolls. It was not a happy time for Campbell River.
When Klukas arrived, a sense of optimism was returning, grounded by an understanding that fish and logs are still important, but Campbell River could do a lot more to leverage its location, affordability and natural attributes to grow a more diverse economy. The choice was clear; rue the past, or honour your roots and move forward with confidence and creativity.
“We knew there was a lot more potential for tech and innovation,” Klukas says.
But it wasn’t until Klukas met Dave Baar at an economic conference that the ingredients of a special sauce started to bubble. Not long after that encounter, Kammersgard serendipitously phoned Klukas to pitch a business development idea. Kammersgard met Baar, which eventually led to introductions with Hagen and Segal. A shared passion for innovation and entrepreneurship, balanced by diverse skills and experience, created instant synergy. CRAAG was formed. And after some back-of-the-napkin, blue-sky brainstorming with Klukas, they launched NexStream.“
It’s a unique partnership. CRAAG manages the contest — it’s their money. And we do the PR, so there’s minimal bureaucracy,” says Klukas, as the next round of NexStream, version 2.0, was about to go live at the end of 2020. “We’re looking to solve problems not only locally but also globally.”
Keith Ippel is founder of Spring Activator, a certified B Corporation incubator, accelerator and advisory firm that consults in 40 countries to help communities grow entrepreneurial economies. He has been watching NexStream and the developing Campbell River story carefully and is helping develop a parallel investor challenge, aimed at accredited and non-accredited investors in the Campbell River area.“
Spring works on a global stage and with communities around the world. For a city of less than 100,000, Campbell River is one of the fastest changing communities I’ve seen,” Ippel says. He calls the relationship between Rose Klukas and CRAAG “Campbell River’s catalytic moment.”
According to Ippel, the truism that defines some of the world’s most successful brands like Apple (“People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it,” said Simon Sinek, in a now famous 2009 TED Talk on leadership) can apply to communities in economic transition.“
The members of CRAAG have been there and done that. The NexStream challenge is a way to provide stories and role models and go from launch to growth,” says Ippel, over the phone from his Vancouver office. “The key is collaboration, honouring and recognizing your strengths but also being willing to look beyond the horizon.”
That’s an important distinction. NexStream, which announced its first winners last fall, could have taken a parochial approach and restricted the contest to participants with bricks and mortar, or some other connection to the regional economy, but instead CRAAG and the city opened it to the world — literally.“
When we set this up, we vowed to stay autonomous of government. We haven’t asked for a toonie or loonie because then you become tied to bureaucracy and red tape,” Kammersgard says. “That’s anathema to me.”
To help focus the NexStream aspirants, CRAAG established three loosely defined challenges — energy, food security and wildlife monitoring — along with a fourth wildcard challenge. First edition winner Mark Rabin, CEO of Portable Electric (a Vancouver-based company that makes small, portable and rechargeable electric generators) is a discerning and experienced entrepreneur. He says the energy challenge was a natural fit for his company, but he had reservations.
“I was skeptical at first,” says Rabin, adding that there are plenty of incubator programs and contests that don’t live up to the hype. “But I quickly realized that this was real and genuine.”
Besides the $75,000 cash prize and personal development and coaching, Rabin says he’s leveraging CRAAG’s collective technical know-how to develop multi-port capability for Portable Electric’s generators to enable recharging from multiple renewable sources.“
Solar when the sun shines; wind when the wind blows,” Rabin says.
CRAAG has also taken an equity stake in Portable Electric, and Rabin now has weekly virtual meetings with the group’s members. “It’s easy to start a tech company in B.C but it’s not easy to grow it. What’s missing is access to capital for scaling up,” Rabin says. “I think it’s absolutely phenomenal what they’re doing in Campbell River. It’s forward thinking, it’s smart money and they’re in our backyard.”
CRAAG didn’t have to look further than their own backyard for the other NexStream winner — Brandon Pirie, owner of Wild Isle Ferments, a one-man start-up that is set to launch a retail line of fermented seafood sauces. Pirie is the first to admit that he was as green as seaweed when it comes to business when he jumped into NexStream.
He grew up working alongside his two brothers and father at Walcan Seafood, their family-owned seafood processing plant overlooking Discovery Passage on Quadra Island’s west shore. Pirie went on to earn his Red Seal chef’s certification, apprenticing at high-end kitchens in Vancouver, before burning out on the restaurant scene and returning to Quadra Island several years ago with his wife. He took up a new trade —electrician — while experimenting with fermented seafood sauces, mostly sharing them with friends at potlucks. Private enterprise wasn’t even a distant thought, until Hagen urged him to put his hat in the NexStream ring.
“I had no idea what NexStream was, but I submitted my proposal and they loved it,” Pirie says.
After being named a finalist, CRAAG invited him to move onto the next round, a half year process of idea sharpening and business plan development. Pirie’s initial inspiration was to design and manufacture a residential fermenting appliance that would be marketed as a boutique kitchen accessory, like a bread machine. However, in discussions with CRAAG members, the idea pivoted to building a commercial-sized fermenter and packaging and retailing his own fish and seafood sauces under the Wild Isle Ferments brand. It was a natural pivot — Walcan produces a steady supply of seafood by-product that can be easily redirected to Wild Isle’s fermenting process.
“It started to build momentum and when I was announced as a winner, it seemed foolish not to take advantage of it,” says Pirie.
The $50,000 cash prize was timely, given that he recently became a new father and had quit wiring plugs and light switches for a living. But even more valuable was the business coaching and crash course in start-ups delivered by people who “have been there and done that.”
Kammersgard says Pirie rose above the crowd for a simple reason: “He is willing to learn and was committed to making progress toward goals. We had a lot of entrants with good ideas, but everything was ‘yeah but.’ They were defensive.”
Pirie’s start-up is a passion project for Hagen. As Wild Isle Ferments moves from concept to product launch, Hagen is helping the young entrepreneur to leverage local expertise and skills. It has taken on life in ways Pirie never imagined. Cris Fletcher at Genesis G2 CNC is helping design and manufacture the commercial fermenting equipment, while eclectic Quadra Island-raised and now Toronto-based academic, artist and author Adrian McKerracher is adding his creative flair to graphic design for the packaging. The journey of Wild Isle fits perfectly with Hagen’s idea of an entrepreneurial story woven together through collaboration, community and creativity, with an eye to the big picture — repurposing a waste stream from a fish plant into a healthy food product and, hopefully, making Pirie a successful entrepreneur along the way.
Rose Klukas and CRAAG barely had time to celebrate round one of NexStream last fall, before launching the next iteration — NexStream 2.0. Four challenges — emergency preparedness and health care, sustainable resources, food security, and the popular wild card challenge attracted nearly 50 initial submissions. So far, 20 applicants have survived into phase three, following a rigorous screening process by CRAAG members that included assessing the problem, solution, market opportunity, market strategy and impact of each idea.“
We had entries from as far away as India and Vietnam. There are businesses at different stages in their trajectory, which we believe is important to attracting talent outside of urban centres,” Hagen says. “NexStream is gaining momentum and people are hearing about it.”
And as this locally grown tech group gains momentum, so too does Campbell River. Chainsaws and fishing nets are still part of Campbell River’s narrative, but this city, next to sea and forest is charting a unique course as it evolves into a surprising hub of innovation and ideation.