Saskatchewan’s innovation ecosystem has seen unprecedented growth in recent years and become a major driver in the provincial economy and the global research and tech community. Innovative homegrown technology companies like Coconut Software, Precision Ai and 7Shifts and ground-breaking research facilities like VIDO-InterVac and Canadian Light Source have brought global attention and investment opportunities, generating real momentum throughout the ecosystem and province.
Building on this momentum, the University of Saskatchewan (USask) has created Opus, a new startup incubator and pre-accelerator program for the USask community that addresses the unique needs of academic founders and ensures a better pathway for mobilizing research-backed innovations out of the university and into the world.
“We looked around the ecosystem and said if we want to be the university the world needs, we could be filling a gap for aspiring founders and potential ventures and better preparing them,” said Alix Hayden, Director, Innovation Mobilization & Partnerships at USask.
Typically, research-backed innovations in an academic setting take longer to develop and mobilize into the marketplace than accelerating a digital tech company because of the nature of the research process. Designed as a pre-accelerator, Opus provides foundational support to better prepare academic founders for entry into the marketplace and provides an excellent complement and entry point to Saskatchewan’s vibrant incubator landscape with the Co.Labs accelerator in Saskatoon and Cultivator accelerator in Regina.
Opus future founders, or “incubees”, learn skills like intellectual property strategy, business modelling, funding strategies and how to pitch and are paired with mentors and coaches to help further develop their entrepreneurial mindset and introduce them to the innovation ecosystem and environment outside of an academic setting.
The goal is for future founders to develop the skills necessary to drive the commercialization of their own research to create opportunity in the province and make positive changes on a global scale.
“Opus is key to the success of USask founders and the evolution of campus-driven innovations. We’re excited to support them and work together to help founders commercialize their technologies, create jobs, and attract investment to the province,” said Kari Harvey, CEO of Innovation Saskatchewan.
Located at Innovation Saskatchewan’s research and tech park in Saskatoon in its Collider co-working space, Saskatchewan’s only research and tech co-working space, Opus incubees are fully immersed in the innovation ecosystem and able to develop relationships, build partnerships and collaborate while staying connected with the university.
“Having multiple innovation ecosystem supporters and players, and other scaling companies located together in a space is fantastic,” said Hayden. “We’re eager to have the incubees immersed in it.”
Opus officially launched at Collider in mid February and the response from the community has been overwhelmingly positive, due in large part to the added dimension Opus brings to the tightly woven Saskatchewan research community and tech sector.
“Opus brings different kinds of founders, potential ventures, and problems and solutions, and draws new people into our innovation ecosystem,” said Hayden. Diversifying the innovation ecosystem with new pathways will broaden the scope of Saskatchewan’s research community and tech sector, providing more opportunities for individuals, driving further growth for businesses and industries, and increasing impact on a global scale.
Opus’ June 2022 pilot program included three startups that are well outside the norm of traditional incubator programs: Dr. Michael Levin developing novel therapeutics for multiple sclerosis that prevent nerve cell death and progression of the disease; Dr. Kate Dadachova researching targeted treatments for bone cancer; and Dr. Robert Laprairie developing psilocybin-based drug formulation to treat depression and anxiety.
Though initially focused on deep tech and STEM-related innovations at the university, Opus plans to continue to extend its reach into other areas like social sciences and the arts. The university is fertile ground for research and innovation and the Opus team is excited to bring these new ideas into the first steps of fruition.
“The innovations taking place at the university are world-class technology and have the potential to make an impact globally,” said Jenelyn Santos Ong, Manager, Opus. “The ability to assist in getting to that potential and allowing founders to develop their innovation thoroughly while they’re at the university is really exciting.”