Accelerating Radical Doers: RADIUS Ventures at Simon Fraser University

By Sarah Trent

This is the second in a three-part series featuring Local Economy Fellow Donovan Woollard and his work with RADIUS Ventures. Below is a mini case study of RADIUS Ventures, the social venture accelerator he directs. In part one, learn about Donovan’s journey to Localism and how his passion for environmentalism and his skills in business aligned toward supporting a new way of doing business. The third installment features four RADIUS businesses whose success and impact Donovan is especially proud of. May 21 at noon (PT), meet Donovan along with Fellows Kelly Ramirez and D’Artagnan Scorza in our webinar, Identifying & Leveraging Partnerships Through Backbone Organizations.

RADIUS, an innovation hub and venture accelerator at Simon Fraser University’s Beedie School of Business, combines experienced business advisors, a university setting, support from Canada’s largest credit union (Vancity), and a number of other partners to “support the journey of the radical doer,” says Donovan Woollard, who directs the accelerator.

“We’ve got all these places where we work with them,” he adds, “starting on the personal side and then gradually digging more and more into the project and the venture.”

RADIUS – which stands for RADical Ideas, Useful to Society – is about creating a space for people to explore transforming their social and environmental interests into innovation for social and environmental good, Donovan says. That includes a wide range of people from switched-on undergrads and pre-entrepreneurs to venture capital-ready companies. “It’s about how we build a space with content, experts, and tools – but a lot of it is the space itself. A lot of people are finding new connections and deepening their understanding of themselves by throwing themselves into it. I know for a fact that when we do our surveys next week with our cohort, that the number-one value people are going to come back with is the peer-based learning. The opportunity to be part of a group of likeminded impact entrepreneurs will be on top.”

The Model

While based at a university, the program operates mostly outside of the credit-based academic context. RADIUS Ventures – the social venture accelerator Donovan directs – is the largest part of the three-pronged approach to catalyze the emergence of a healthy, sustainable economy in Vancouver and beyond.

RADIUS Edu supports impact entrepreneurship and innovation courses and curriculum at SFU and just launched its first Fellowship program aimed at emerging social change leaders. The Fellowship focus is on “younger doers,” Donovan says, including “pre-entrepreneurs or folks that are switched on by an idea but are still figuring out what the work is. They might go down an entrepreneurial path, where I will continue to work with them, or they may go into a nonprofit sector or government or maybe into the corporate sector.”

RADIUS Lab focuses on systems and collaborates with the community to understand tough problems and generate impactful interventions.

RADIUS Ventures operates two accelerator programs using a cohort model that includes peer-based learning, group sessions, individual mentoring, access to co-working space, and more.

  • The Trampoline Accelerator is a seven to 10-week program for early-stage entrepreneurs. Focused on business model validation, Donovan says the time is spent going back to the “trinity” we focused on in part one of this series. “Is there a viable market? Is there a real purpose that’s beneficial to the world? And will it make your heart sing if you have to do it for the rest of your life?” Donovan says, “if the answer to all three is yes, then you’re off to the races.”
  • The Slingshot Accelerator, RADIUS’s flagship program, is a six-month program working with ventures that have already generated revenue, usually $50-200k per year, and are looking to get out of the bootstrapping phase and become investor-ready, market-ready, or both.

Both accelerators operate with a cohort model, convening the cohort regularly to cover topics that include tool-focused work such as design methods and user testing, personal development and leadership training, and technical skills like finance, business model validation, and cost accounting.

RADIUS also offers co-working space, one-on-one mentoring with a pool of experienced entrepreneurs and technical experts, and hosts public events that bring together the broader ecosystem and showcase the work of their cohorts.

Not Your Traditional Accelerator

Impact-focused accelerators are relatively new and therefore unproven. More common are models that lend themselves to software and tech-based companies: “you bring them in, work with them for six months, take them down to Silicon Valley and get them funded and away they go,” Donovan says. The focus in these classic models is on the next round of investment – which also means that the accelerator’s revenue can come directly from the ventures or investors themselves.

When working with multiple-bottom-line companies, this funding model doesn’t work as well. The social ventures RADIUS hope to accelerate want to be successful financially but also make impact. “If we were trying to cover our budget directly from the ventures we work with,” Donovan says, “then we would be working with very different ventures. They’d be more mature, more high-growth, and probably lower impact.”

Instead, Donovan knows that defining a business’s purpose around impact rather than just profit requires a change in the landscape: new solutions, new paradigms, new ways of supporting entrepreneurs.

“If you’re trying to be transformative, you have to look for those places where the mainstream infrastructure isn’t already serving,” he says. “So in many cases that means looking at those ventures that, while they’re going to continue to do fairly well financially, they also have a very significant return on social and environmental metrics. That’s the place where we have to find new delivery models, new funding models, and be willing to take different sorts of risks.”

He compares this to impact investing: “If you say you want to transform the world by where you put your dollars, but then you put them all into the same ethical mutual fund that everyone else is using, then congratulations, you’ve now successfully done very, very little.”

Funding and Partnerships

Since the traditional model of funding an accelerator through the ventures or investors themselves doesn’t work with the way RADIUS wants to select entrepreneurs, an ecosystem of partnerships plays a critical role in how RADIUS is funded and operates. These partnerships include:

Simon Fraser University: Aiming to be Canada’s “most engaged university,” SFU provides some support and frequently cites RADIUS among the exciting, innovative things happening at the university.

Vancity Credit Union: Canada’s largest credit union with $22 billion in assets, Vancity reinvests a large portion of its profits back into the community. “Vancity sees RADIUS’s role as an organization that helps social ventures become more mature contributors to the economy. On the one hand, Vancity is creating future loyal members and loan clients – but also members of a diverse and sustainable local economy where they’ll continue to thrive,” Donovan says. “We take a lot of pride that Vancity sees RADIUS as a part of the future that they’re building.”

J.W. McConnell Family Foundation: Canada’s largest community foundation, they are building a national network of university-based innovation hubs, of which RADIUS is part.

MaRS Centre for Impact Investing: Earlier this year, RADIUS announced a partnership with Toronto-based MaRS to create a new national investment fund for ventures committed to tackling social and environmental challenges.

Royal Bank of Canada: The largest bank in Canada funded RADIUS’s most recent project, announced last month: the country’s first aboriginal accelerator launching First Nations entrepreneurs.

What’s Possible Now

“Allowing people that are essentially accidental entrepreneurs to get access to hard business skills and business language opens up so many doors,” Donovan says. “I remember when I went through this, from being a tree-sitting activist to going to business school. Having the language and the confidence that this instills in you gives you a much greater ability to participate in the conversation and be creative.”

“I remember in our first cohort we did a session on cost accounting and breakeven analysis,” he says. “People’s response was that this was weird black magic – that I was exposing them to MBA tricks, not MBA tools. Like they were being brought inside a secret society and being given the tools to tear it down from the inside. All of that work is really, really beneficial.”

“There’s still more work to be done,” Donovan concedes, “particularly around access to capital, although we’re playing a big role in addressing that problem just by getting these ventures investment-ready and bringing them to the attention of people who are willing to take a risk on investing in them.”


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