Seizing Opportunities Amidst COVID-19

In summer 2020, the Coast Capital Innovation Centre at the University of Victoria launched a women’s entrepreneurship pilot program – a first for the university and those on Vancouver Island. While women executives consistently outperform men and generate higher returns, women-led founded companies only receive 2.7 per cent of venture capital funding. These gender representation and funding challenges brought together five partners, the Coast Capital Innovation Centre, Vancouver Innovation, Advanced Technology and Entrepreneurship Council (VIATEC), Accelerate Okanagan, Purpose Five and Communitech, with investment from Canada’s Digital Technology Supercluster, to launch impactful programming. Women entrepreneurs learned from exceptional subject-matter experts and other ambitious women seizing opportunities during the pandemic. Over 15 entrepreneurial women from diverse backgrounds, sectors and places connected. Discover what four of these women-led ventures accomplished and where they are headed in their own words.

Maria Orrego, Nutsie: “Being part of the UVic summer pilot program helped me analyze and optimize my decisions for Nutsie in many different areas. Today, after one month of launching our e-commerce platform, we have not only been able to grow our customer base but also get to know our consumers’ wants and needs. In my opinion, this is one of the most important milestones to accomplish during the early stages of your business. By the end of this year, we are expecting to launch a customizable keto snack subscription box, and, in 2021, we are expecting to start preparing to launch our products on shelves. We are looking forward to continuing to develop new innovations as well as getting more and more people to know what Nutsie is and how we are revolutionizing the snack industry.”

Stephanie Willerth, Axolotl Biosciences: “The most rewarding part of participating in the UVic summer pilot program was meeting with like-minded women as we developed our businesses. Axolotl’s biggest accomplishment so far was incorporating during the pandemic and bringing on five full-time employees for summer. We are excited that our novel bioink is now being beta tested by users in both academia and industry. We are looking forward to expanding our product portfolio and selling our bioink. In particular, we are excited about being able to bring on a full-time business manager and digital content developer this fall.”

Sam Sahar, Solar Ventures: “The UVic summer pilot program helped me gain courage and confidence in my business. The ability to meet and talk to other women founders and hear their challenges and accomplishments have been extremely helpful. The webinars were very informative, and I am looking forward to participating in more webinars. With the knowledge gained, I am going to expand my business with more confidence.”

Karolina Papera Valente, VoxCell BioInnovation: “The UVic summer pilot program was great! In addition to providing incredible resources, especially in financial management, I connected with an amazing group of women! My biggest accomplishments were finalizing incorporation, preparing for the PlanIt competition and having my interview for W Venture all in the same week of my PhD defence!  I am most looking forward to moving from our first prototype printer model towards our re-designed model. In six to nine months, we will have our second prototype ready. In 12 months, we will be producing 3D printed parts for our collaborators in academia. In five years, we will have at least two different models of our printer with one focused on tissue engineering and a second model focused on mechanical engineering.”

Today, most of the women founders have graduated from the first W Venture cohort, a program that advances women entrepreneurs and their businesses through personalized matching with subject-matter experts and applied-learning workshops across five key areas: strategy, marketing, sales, community gatherings and finance and funding. They brought and shared strengths: an innovative, tech-enabled product or service, meaningful contributions to an entrepreneurial community and desire to grow their business. They highlight how women-led businesses are vital to growing the economy, especially during challenging times like COVID-19. They are closing both the entrepreneurial representation and funding gaps. These founders are inspirational women – with strong voices – making courageous firsts.

The Coast Capital Innovation Centre has been made possible through a partnership between the University of Victoria and the Coast Capital Federal Credit Union. Since 2016, Coast Capital has committed over $1.5 million to support entrepreneurs and innovators at UVic.


Written by Anneliese Sanghara and edited by Andrea Hayes