Catching up With Cultivator

December 18, 2020

Incubators help people bring innovative ideas to fruition by giving them the support and resources they need to scale their business. “Typically, you see incubators that are focused on technology like software or hardware solutions. Think about things like Spotify or wearable technology pieces like an Apple Watch,” says Jordan McFarlen, Cultivator Manager.

The tech industry is unique because companies are able to grow so rapidly. Unlike small businesses, tech companies can potentially serve the entire world with their service, opposed to having a brick and mortar store in one community. With this higher potential for growth comes greater risk. Founders (the title for tech CEOs) turn to an incubator for mentorshipーmuch like attending a school for growing businessesーto learn how to mediate this risk and increase their odds of success.

This idea of “high growth-high risk” was what clicked in my head during my conversation with McFarlen. It’s the component that sets a tech company like Shopifyーa point-of-sales systemーapart from the small business it’s used in. Opening a flower shop, for example, is a very calculated risk and one that’s been executed successfully many times before. Finding a new technology based solution for the computer aided design of flower arrangements is much like reinventing the wheel.

Creative solutions to relevant problems like workplace safety and medical imaging are improving our lives every day. These specific solutions can be scaled globally and adopted by the masses.

Incubators are usually funded by universities, governments or investment funds. Saskatchewan’s own Cultivator is unique for a number of reasons. “As a community builder, it made sense for Conexus Credit Union to lead this initiative,” says McFarlen. Conexus Credit Union is a cooperative financial institution in Saskatchewan. As a cooperative, the credit union is focused on its members and not returning profits to shareholders as is the model for other financial institutions. Conexus studied incubators all over the world and found that the recipe for success was building an ecosystem that includes both an incubator/accelerator and venture capital.

“A tech ecosystem can’t exist without both. Founders need the support of programming and mentors to get their ideas off the ground and venture capitalists need strong, promising companies to invest in,” says Mary Weimer, Chief of Member Experience at Conexus. She works closely with McFarlen on Cultivator matters.

Companies get access to tools and other support as well as a physical space to work from in Cultivator in the new Conexus building on College Ave. Cultivator’s three levels of programming are Start, Grow and Scale. Programming for a company still in the building stage will look different from a company looking to expand into the global market.

Limbus AI is working through the Grow program. Dr. Joshua Giambattista is a cancer survivor who works as a radiation oncologist at the Allan Blair Cancer Centre at Regina’s Pasqua Hospital. Technologically, the cancer treatment centres are not as advanced as they could be and Dr. Giambattista saw this as an opportunity. He and his brother founded Limbus AI, a software that uses artificial intelligence to generate drawings used in the planning of radiation therapy. This technology drastically cuts down the time it takes for doctors to generate drawings and eliminates the risk of human error. As a result, the quality of treatment for cancer patients has been improved.

Access to capital is one of the biggest challenges for tech startups. Cultivator and the Conexus Venture Capital Fund have attracted the attention of investors from across Canada. One benefit of COVID-19, is that access to investors is easier than ever. It used to be very common for founders and investors to travel for pitches. This is now all done via Zoom making the barrier for entry much lower.

Short for agricultural technology, AgTech is a leading industry in western Canada. Saskatchewan’s Precision.AI builds artificially intelligent drones that detect and spray pests in crop fields with extreme accuracy. Just recently, the company received $20 million in funding to continue developing technology that will eliminate chemical residue in our food supply and reduce the use of pesticides by up to 95 percent, according to Protein Industries Canada.

From January 2019 to September 2020, a total of 50 companies have completed Cultivator programming (15 of which have female founders) with a total combined revenue of $7.5 million.

Spothot is another company to watch for in Cultivator’s Grow program. Co-founded by siblings, Landon and Karissa Fahlman, the app allows restaurants to better advertise their special offers and table capacity in real-time. App users are looking to know where the hot place to be is on a Friday night. McFarlen points out that COVID-19 has impacted how consumers interact with restaurants and bars. “People want to know less about which place is busy, but which place is not busy,” he explains. Now, Spothot is doing the opposite and advertising which places are “not hot” and their safety measures.

COVID-19 has also changed the way Cultivator interacts with the community. Before the pandemic hit, it was key to get people in the building, thriving off of each other’s energy in celebration of entrepreneurship.

Like the rest of the world, they have transitioned to virtual but are very careful to keep it engaging and entertaining. “Conexus serves the province and we just happen to have our headquarters in Regina, so we’ve always done a bit of a remote component,” says McFarlen. The common “Zoom fatigue” complaint is always in the back of his mind when planning virtual events. “We focus more on the production value to draw people in. Better visuals, shorter sessions, more breaks一it has to be entertaining.”

Cultivator is hosting its first virtual 24 Hour Startup event in February. “There were some Campbell Business students at the first one. It’s a cool chance to get a weekend experience into tech entrepreneurship.” He added that students are encouraged to participate this year and no tech experience is required.

The other thing McFarlen mentions is the importance of quality and relevancy in event hosting. COVID-19 has made it possible for Cultivator to leverage speakers that they normally wouldn’t be able to get. Without the hassle of travel, unique speakers can connect with Cultivator virtually. “We’re playing around with what the best time is一we do a lot of experiments to validate this,” he explains.

Sharing content on social media is key to maintaining a presence in the outside world. “Our Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, website and newsletter are the main channels for us.” Internally, they use a communication tool called Slack. “If we can better serve the people already in our program, that word of mouth is really powerful for attracting new companies,” he says.

The pandemic hit just a few months before the new Conexus head office officially opened. COVID-19 restrictions limit the opportunity for large gatherings but those who choose to work safely on-location benefit from the forward thinking architecture of the building year round. “We think it’s the nicest incubator space in Canada and we can confidently say that,” McFarlen says after he describes the 3-story living wall in the lobby of the building.

The glass exterior and proximity to Wascana Lake promotes physical and mental well being among employees. Natural light makes for ideal working conditions and a refreshing atmosphere. There’s more than just nature contributing to the optimal performance of Cultivator’s teams, though. One room has nine 60 inch TV screens arranged in a three-by-three grid for presentations. “The Conexus side is really nice but I feel like Cultivator has some quirky different spaces,” says McFarlen, referring to the sunk-in lounge located in Cultivator's space.

From hearing about Cultivator’s virtual learnings, I gathered some ideas to take back to the Business Club. There is value in looking to community leaders for advice and guidance in these changing times. Four years ago, Jordan McFarlen was my grade nine homeroom teacher at Campbell Collegiate. It had only been three months when he told us he was offered his dream job at Conexus. He founded the business program in 2011 and led students in hands-on business education, facilitating opportunities for students to build practical skills and confidence. Now that I’m in grade 12, it’s hard to believe that preparation to launch Cultivator began just four years ago.

“Sometimes people assume that ‘oh, I didn’t take computer science,’ I don’t know anything about technology,” McFarlen explains. Many of the founders in Cultivator come from business backgrounds and this aspect is just as important as the tech side.

For any students pursuing post-secondary education, know that being a tech wizard is not a requirement to start a tech company. “We see a lot of technical people who are really creative, really innovate, but they lack the smarts on the business side,” says McFarlen. It can be helpful in the long run to have experience in business.

Making connections and exploring the industry puts us in a good position for future endeavours. Jordan points out that new tech companies create high paying job opportunities and the ability to grow. “By the time the group of Campbell Business students that exist today are finished university, there’s just going to be more and more,” he says.

An exciting prospect for Saskatchewan’s young entrepreneurs.

“These companies seem big and far away, but behind the website it’s actually just four people,” he reminds us. The best time to reach out to them is right now. If you think a company is doing something cool, send them a message and ask to pick their brain for 15 minutes.

Sarah Weimer
Vice-President, Campbell Business


Jordan McFarlen has been with Cultivator since its launch
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A common pre-pandemic occurrence for Cultivator.
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A shot from the first ever Sask Startup Summit in 2019.
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A panelist addresses a crowd at a Cultivator event.
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3-story living wall in Conexus headquarters.
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