Graham Truax, The Startup Whisperer from Innovation Island

There’s lots of hype around tech these days, but for Graham Truax of Innovation Island — a self-described optimistic pragmatist — the mid-Island tech scene is about staying real on the road to success. It’s an approach that’s getting results.

Graham Truax at the Shawnigan Lake Trestle. Photo by Jeffrey Bosdet.

Graham Truax has the energy and enthusiasm you’d expect from someone who has built a career in the tech sector and made more than one pitch to a skeptical angel or venture capitalist. However, though he exudes a certain hyperactivity necessary to take an idea along the tortuous journey from concept to commercialization, hype makes Truax cringe.

In some ways, it’s a surprising quality for someone who is executive director of Innovation Island, the non-profit tech incubator that serves Vancouver Island, north of the Malahat, and the Sunshine Coast, and belongs to the BC Acceleration Network, a group of 10 regional partners across the province.

You’d think that job number one for Truax would be hyping the virtues of launching a tech company in his jurisdiction, where real estate is relatively affordable, and you can step out your back door and jump on a bike, hike a riverside trail or stroll down to the docks to launch your sailboat for an afternoon of cruising while you ponder your next funding raise.

Well, the answer is yes and no, according to Truax. “I’m very excited about tech, but if I tried to tell people this is an easy place to do tech, I’d sound like an idiot,” says Truax with characteristic candor.

Therein lies the blunt duality of Truax’s hard wiring. An idealistic belief that, in a global sense, tech has almost unlimited possibilities, coupled with a realism that launching a tech startup in his little corner of Shangri-La takes next-level dedication and perseverance.

That said, Truax has good reason to be excited these days. In the past six years, Innovation Island has cultivated a diverse stable of tech businesses, including Qualicum-based virtual reality (VR) gaming company Cloudhead Games; Gibsons-based Hyperspectral Intelligence; and Duncan’s EIO Diagnostics, a 2019 Douglas 10-to-Watch winner, whose mastitis-screening technology is helping dairy farmers address a costly problem.

The Eternal Entrepreneur

On a quiet Monday, I meet Truax at his favourite espresso joint in Comox, the seaside community he moved to from West Vancouver 11 years ago with dreams of semi-retirement and days of skiing, sailing, bike riding and tinkering with home renovation projects. But once an entrepreneur, always an entrepreneur.

Truax is a college dropout who admits he never had much time for formal education. He started working high-paying jobs in grade 10, following opportunities that he says he found “fun and rewarding.” About his own business achievements, he is as humble as he is brutally honest about the challenges of entrepreneurship.

“I’m more of a grinder type and have done well with RBIs [runs batted in] over the longer haul,” says Truax, whose conversation is peppered with sporting metaphors. “I haven’t had any huge exits or bigger name projects, but I have done some interesting hired-gun work that has given me some amazing insights and connections.” 

The life of the semi-retired was giving Truax itchy feet; he admits he was getting bored. Fast forward to 2013. He was literally on his way to Vancouver to hustle financing for a new startup when a sudden health crisis in the family left no room for the stress of a new tech venture. It was time for another reboot.

Not long after decamping back to Comox to focus on family, he spotted an ad in the local newspaper: Nanaimo-based Innovation Island was looking for executives-in-residence. He joined in 2013, the year the organization started delivering Innovate BC’s Venture Acceleration Program (VAP). Being in the game of government program delivery didn’t sit comfortably with Truax, but he saw an opportunity to apply his entrepreneurial mindset to helping local startups succeed.

“I viewed it as a way to give something back,” Truax says. “And when I thought about being an executive-in-residence, I took it literally. Being an executive in the residence of a client company.”

Five years later, when then-executive-director Paris Gaudet resigned from her position, Truax assumed the dual roles of interim executive director and executive-in-residence.

No Bluffing

In a world full of ec-dev bluster and quite often bluff, Truax brings a breath of honest fresh air. Everyone is talking tech these days, Truax says. City councils and economic development officials often throw around the term “tech hub” as loosely as they would the announcement of a new dog walking park downtown.

That’s why he’s fond of putting the tech economy into sharp perspective, like he did this past April when he addressed the Nanaimo City Council, calling the position of smaller communities in the industry “fledgling and precarious.”

“While municipal leaders and decision makers would greatly prefer to have their respective communities become the next tech hub or ‘ecosystem,’ as a region we are arguably much stronger working together,” Truax said in his presentation on Innovation Island.

And who can blame anyone from wanting a piece of the tech pie? Globally, tech is a three trillion dollar industry. In Canada, tech accounts for 120 billion dollars in economic activity, and B.C. enjoys a 26 billion dollar slice of that. Vancouver, Victoria and Kelowna have fostered a critical mass of talent, capital, customers and great ideas that Truax says is necessary to create a tech ecosystem.

Even though these cities register prominently on a national scale, in the global tech industry, Truax says they’re in a crowded field.

“There are 1,400 cities in the world with populations of 400,000 [roughly the population of Innovations Island’s region] or greater,” says Truax. “Guess what? They all want to be the next tech hub.”

Cutting Through the Noise

Truax loves data. That’s why he was reluctant to start talking up Innovation Island successes until he could back it with some solid data. Now he’s ready to start tooting its horn, ever so gently.

Through the Venture Acceleration Program, Innovation Island has helped its clients raise nearly $17 million in investments, generate more than $15 million in revenues and create 160 new tech jobs. Truax points out that these numbers refer only to Innovation Island’s small stable of startups and don’t reflect the overall tech scene in the region, which is considerably larger. (He is working with the Vancouver Island Economic Alliance to put together some accurate stats on the tech sector.)

The boilerplate mantra at Innovation Island is Build, Grow and Stay. So where does that leave his humble region north of the Malahat and along the Sunshine Coast? Lifestyle and affordability are definite assets, and that counts for something, says Truax. It’s a big reason why Cloudhead Games’ co-founder Denny Unger has persevered and prospered in Qualicum. Despite being a small fish in a large pool of virtual-reality pioneers based in a town that is the definition of obscure in the global context of gaming innovation, Unger stays because the lifestyle and family pros outweigh the cons.

But the challenges for Island and Sunshine Coast tech entrepreneurs are considerable. 

Truax calls the talent pool “nascent” (an inability to attract qualified employees is largely the reason Raphael van Lierop relocated his gaming design studio Hinterland from Cumberland to Vancouver). As for access to capital, Truax dubs it “severely limited” — shorthand for, it sucks.

None of Innovation Island’s current clients have secured traditional venture capital yet. Instead, they have bootstrapped, tapped friends and families and landed investments from angels or strategic investors, whether it’s gaming, AI or another tech niche. In terms of market, well, it’s small here on the Island and on the Sunshine Coast.

“My message to local politicians and city council is to focus on the things they can influence, like downtown homelessness, et cetera,” Truax says.

By doing that they’ll extend their realm of influence into areas that matter to entrepreneurs, namely quality of life and a favourable business climate, he says, tearing a page from Stephen R. Covey’s book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

Turning Heads

The exciting thing about tech is that in spite of the hurdles, it can be random and happen anywhere — and it is happening in Truax’s territory.

Take Gibsons-based Hyperspectral Intelligence, one of Innovation Island’s startup darlings, as a prime example. Founded by husband-and-wife academics Michelle Tappert and Derek Rogge, the company’s technology is turning heads in the mineral exploration world, using cloud-based data-processing software to quickly and accurately analyze drill core samples.

Hyperspectral is also expanding into other sectors, including medical pathology (analyzing biopsies) and materials analysis in many fields. But like any startup, the road has not been paved in gold — it’s taken hard work and sleep deprivation.

Tappert says her local Community Futures office urged her to reach out to Innovation Island’s VAP to help kickstart the company. She concedes that Hyperspectral had stagnated during a difficult previous 18 months. She applied to VAP, and in January 2017, Hyperspectral was accepted.

“I’m a recovering academic,” says Hyperspectral’s CEO Tappert, who holds a PhD. and two post docs in geological sciences.

“VAP is teaching me to step outside of that world and to see things from a business perspective. It’s a tricky thing to balance because I will always be a scientist at heart.”

She credits Truax for helping the rapidly growing company maintain its doubling of annual revenues year-over-year. When things are going well, Tappert says he pushes them to harness momentum and to do better, and when things are rough, he can “cut through the noise and help us refocus.”

“When we talk business, we talk about business, in general, or my business. [Graham] has never cycled through a list of successful exits, for which I am eternally grateful,” Tappert says. “The tech world is filled with people who are trying to force their importance onto you, but Graham has never acted like that type of person. This makes it very easy for me to work with him. He also seems to understand very keenly that the reality of running a tech company is nothing like how it is portrayed in popular culture.”

Beyond BS

For entrepreneurs like Truax, helping to give a great idea the necessary light, nutrients and water it needs to blossom is eternally gratifying — even if the long hours and sustained stress of a startup almost kills the entrepreneur, he says with a laugh.

“I’m going to throw a big party when we hit $100 million at Innovation Island,” Truax says. “We’re at $35 million now, so it’s not that far away. Where do good ideas come from? They come from the woodwork. Do they happen because of a bunch of bullshit? No.”

That’s Truax at his unfiltered best.

This article is from the August/September 2019 issue of Douglas.