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Todd Farrell, chief acceleration officer at the University of British Columbia. (UBC)
Todd Farrell, chief acceleration officer at the University of British Columbia. (UBC)

emerging roles

What on earth is a chief acceleration officer? Add to ...

As change has become a mantra in the business world, executive responsibilities and job titles are evolving quickly. An occasional series this summer will ask Canadians about how their roles are changing.

New Title: Chief Acceleration Officer

Who: Todd Farrell, CAO of the University of British Columbia, started in December, 2011

What’s your role?

The responsibility is to raise the profile and the activity level of entrepreneurship originating at the university. We’re trying to promote the creation, and accelerate the progression of, start-up companies coming out of research at UBC.

The university pays my salary to reach out to the community to find mentors with people with sector knowledge or who have been entrepreneurs in the past. We have an incubator that allows early-stage companies to come and sit down with advisers to see if there is a start-up potential in their concept and suggest steps they can take to get it off the ground. We play matchmaker and hope that will encourage them to progress and help them avoid pitfalls. We can also accelerate the startups by helping them network with potential customers and others in the industry who can validate the idea.

We’ve created a pool of risk capital for startups, with foundation capital provided by local entrereneurs. The target is $10-million to invest as seed capital in promising startups.

We also run events putting like-minded entrepreneurial talents together; teaming, for instance, a great marketing mind with a great programmer.

Where did the title come from?

This a role that just got created. Entreprenurial startups have always come out of UBC but the university never particularly encouraged the creation of companies in the way we’re doing now. This is a step the university has taken to say that entrepreneurship is important not only for providing career opportunities for our students but also for economic development to create a new generation of companies.

The position got its start outside the university where two or three local technology entrepreneurs looked at the university and decided there’s an opportunity for more to happen from the $570-million dollars a year in research at UBC.

How do you prepare for a job like this?

You don’t just walk into this one.To end up in a job like this you have to start by being an entrepreneur yourself.

Having worked for 12 years in venture capital and having the connections to be able to pick up a phone and ask “Would you be interested in meeting with a startup?” is critical. Having the experience yourself and knowing what it is to start and build a business is essential

I had a science and technology background at UBC. After graduating, I created a software company doing risk information programs for the insurance industry that was acquired by Thomson Reuters in 2000. I moved back to Vancouver and started working with venture capital funds and credit unions. I worked in venture capital in B.C. and have invested in three startups at UBC, and they were all successful.

I was investment manager at VanCity Community Capital when the investors came knocking. The two tech entrepreneurs who got support from deans at UBC in science and business asked if I’d be interested in taking on the role of helping launch companies and finding expertise and investors to promote startups. It was a way to continue my career progression; to not just be the investor but be more hands-on.

What’s your typical day like?

It’s all about networking. There are a lot of evening events trying to build connections with the local community, and meetings happen at non-traditional times when you have to meet angel investors and potential customers and the entrepreneurs when they have free time.

What have you learned so far in the role?

I’ve been amazed by the wealth of opportunities that exist if you start to look under rocks and encourage people to think about entrepreneurship. Offering office space at the university is a great way to meet entrepreneurs because they find you. And beyond that, there’s a growing demand for networking for startups. If you put on events, people will come out.

Why should other organizations have CAOs?

Many universities are starting to take the approach that it’s important to support acceleration of startups from research. There’s no one model. The university gets a share of the startup if they use research that was done at the university. This research is sponsored by UBC money, so if a start-up company is making use of research done at UBC, it is the property of the university, and it will be a shareholder and reap returns if the business is a success.

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