Scott Phillips

Scaling up Starfish Medical

Category : | Posted : Dec 16, 2020

Scaling up Starfish Medical: Leadership insights from Scott Phillips

In our final episode of 2020, we speak with Scott Phillips president of Victoria-based Starfish Medical — one of Canada’s leading medical device design service providers. Scott shares some stories from their 21 years in business, outlining how they moved from one growth plateau to another, how his leadership role evolved and the significance that operational systems had in their success.

He speaks about how the recognition of Starfish in their industry resulted in a contract to manufacture 7,500 units of the Winnipeg Ventilator 2.0, a made in Canada ICU ventilator and explains a few other ways in which the pandemic is impacting Starfish.

In business, as you grow, there’s just an endless parade of moments that you had some critical skill and behavior that got you to be successful at that stage, which is exactly the thing that will prevent you from getting to the next stage. And I’ve gone through probably 8 or 10 of those plateaus over time. I’ve kind of had to re-invent myself in relation to the company over time.

Paul: Dave Monahan. How are you, sir?  


Dave: I’m good, how are you?  


Paul: I’m good and this is Paul Holmes. And joining us today, we have Scott Phillips, who is the founder and CEO of Starfish, Canada’s leading medical device design service provider with manufacturing services in Victoria and Toronto. How are you today, Scott?  


Scott: Great, thanks. Thanks for inviting me on your podcast. 


Paul: It’s a pleasure to have you, and I think probably the best place to start is, tell us a little bit about Starfish Medical. Sure. 


Scott: So Starfish is based here in Victoria. We’ve got about 140 staff, give or take, we don’t actually measure that very regularly. We’ve been going for 21 years. It has been 21 years since I moved out of the spare bedroom as a bootstrapped Starfish which is where a lot of bootstrapped companies tend to be. And so we design products for medical device companies, and it’s a mix of larger corporates with the names that you might know, and smaller startups which are all over North America and they’re typically trying to make something that needs to be the best thing in the world that has to be very well positioned in its market to be able to be impactful and adopted and fits the Emerson models and has inertial property and a regulatory path and etcetera. So in some sense, we’re almost like a business consultancy, but mostly what we end up charging for as a service is our product development and regulatory services to help companies have the right product on the market to become valuable. 


Paul: Your degree is actually in engineering and physics. 


Scott: That’s right. 


Paul: Not a medical guy or anything like that so tell us… 


Scott: Or business. 


Paul: Or business…Tell us how you got involved and how this thing began 21 years ago out of a one-bedroom apartment.  


Scott: Sure, yeah it was actually a two bedroom apartment but we had a baby, the baby was sleeping in the living room so that I could use the second bedroom as an office. 


Paul: I know that story most people I know know that story. 


Dave: That’s my story.  


Scott: Yeah, so I was always kind of entrepreneurial as a kid. And, I started a picture framing company in my parent’s basement when I was 12, and I got into…I had a house painting franchise and then during university, I was actually mostly doing co-op terms. Engineering is one of those things that they don’t actually teach how to be an engineer at university, they teach you the analytical skills that underlie the practice of engineering, but you got to actually go learn it in the field, so I had to go do that for a while. And so my early career was actually first as an employee and then as a contractor, and then seeking out more small contracts that I could basically be responsible for, and then the company just completely organically drew from that foundation. And somehow we survived the early years of figuring how to be in business and how it is that people owe us money but still have to pay payroll and all those sorts of problems that entrepreneurs get into. And also figure out what kind of offering to our customers and what sort of claims you can make work that we could fulfill… 


Dave: That’s great, not a lot of companies make it to the size your at and the longevity and success, and I imagine, at least in my experience so far, there’s been a couple of sort of distinct stages. Does anything come to mind in terms of that and keys to hurdling those? 


Scott: I can spend all afternoon talking about those insights. 


Dave: That’s why you’re here. 


Paul: Welcome to part 1 of 11. 


Scott: Part 1 of 11. Yes, it will be a whole series. We will have a huge following by the time we are done. Yeah, oh my gosh I don’t even know where to start. I think in business, as you grow, there’s just an endless parade of moments that you had some critical skill and behavior that got you to be successful at that stage, which is exactly the thing that will prevent you from getting to the next stage. And I’ve gone through probably 8 or 10 of those plateaus over time. I’ve kind of had to re-invent myself in relation to the company over time. 


Probably the first one is when you go to engineering school, the whole…I say the system of values is all based around how smart you are and how hard a problem you can solve, that’s what engineering school… maybe even school as well, that’s what they measure, you get rewarded with marks for being able to resolve more difficult questions as well. And actually, when you first graduate and you start working in the field, you realize that not everything has an answer. And I know this all sounds totally obvious, but it’s still an education for an engineer, if you realize that sometimes you’re just going to butt your head against a problem for months or years, or maybe you should just not solve that problem at all, you should solve a different problem or rethink your whole approach to that. And then there comes this spot where fundamentally, you have to solve somebody’s business problem really even in engineering. As a staff engineer in a company, at some point you’re essentially working on a business problem, you have to take a broader view and discretion comes up about what problems that we’re solving in what way and how much and how much you should spend on them, and so on right. And how do you communicate those risks. So over time, you essentially start to take a view of yourself as a bit of a risk manager that you’re essentially continually assessing how should you think about the overall business risk and the technical risk of a program or a product in relation to the discoveries that you’re making and the insights you’re coming to…anyway I could go on.  


And then after while you start to realize that as an individual, you can’t actually… It’s just that you have to make that transition to being a leader of other people, and it’s really more about the work and team accomplish and how do they feel about it, and what can you do to help them have more confidence in themselves and what they can achieve and see them not as how they present, but how they would be if they had a lot more confidence and capability and how can you get them there. That’s just an example of three, and there’s a bunch of other ones. 


Dave: Tune in next time for step 4 to 9. 


Paul: There’s a lot of study and a lot of science behind business growth patterns and hitting those plateaus and a lot of logical places where businesses grow to a certain size and some really obvious changes sort of need to start happening. And then I think as businesses grow to a certain size, it becomes less textbook and more just figuring out as you go along. So if you were to give one piece of advice to an entrepreneur that is maybe hitting their very first growth hurdle, if you will, they’ve reached a certain capacity, they realized they got to make some changes they aren’t sure what to do. What advice would you give them? 


Scott: My single best advice for them would be to get an advisory board. Because the thing is, when you’re inside a box and that’s your world, that’s all you see, and you need someone to tell you, “hey, that’s a box, you can get out of it if you want.” And you just can’t see that. You’re never going to be able to see that or maybe you will but it’ll take a long time. And in terms of rules of thumb for how to build the right advisory board is people who… They’re aspirational, maybe they’ve achieved what you want to achieve in your space or an adjacent space, probably they’re in the later half of their career, they’d be more inclined to be helping the next generation come on and more likely and plus they would have a lot more experience, and plus they’ll be able to say, “you know what, more technical skill is not what you need right now, what you need is a more rounded team or what you now need is to focus on your marketing or your culture is not going to get you to where you want to go. Your leadership team is wrong.” All these different things that you can focus on as a business. How do you know which one to focus on? 


Paul: Sometimes you’re so deep in your own business and your own market and your own science, I guess in your guys’s case, that you don’t get that outside picture, right? 


Scott: That’s right. And there’s a lot of things in business leadership that have to do with having the right kind of person in the right kind of role. Figuring out what people’s sort of secret superpower is, and then get them to do that, right.  


Dave: Right. 


Scott: And then stop focusing all of your energy on fixing their problems and give them a job that their problems are not a problem. 


Dave: I think that cost comes back to the strength becomes the weakness. And you often see people get…what’s the word? Elevated up in their company out of their sweet spot. 


Scott: And a lot of entrepreneurs, the entrepreneurial impulse is a little bit of a starter impulse, right? And to some extent it maybe even be a bad imagination. You just can’t think about risks very well. But as you go along in your company, the skills that are really required to be successful consistently, and not screw up your projects and not lose money, those are more consistency kind of behaviors, right? So and those are probably people that you didn’t even respect that much, they’re just not that exciting but it turned out excitement is not what you build companies on. You need a spark of it but you need a whole lot of follow-through. And so there’s that sort of somehow recognizing you need to have some yinyang in your company and how those people learn to respect each other. 


Paul: So if you’re a little bit unhinged, then you’re going to have more success. 


Scott: Just a little unhinged, just the right amount. But also wise enough to recognize that is actually hard to do. 


Dave: Find lots of hinges.  


Paul: So your company was an amazing success story already in Victoria, and then a couple of years ago, there was an acquisition, and I want to ask you about that, but one of the things that I want to just preamble that with is…And I’ve had this conversation with Dan Gunn from Viatec. We actually had this exact conversation on a previous podcast. We get these amazing startups in Victoria and than they get bought out, or they get merged and then they may be a shell of the former selves and not always, obviously, right. Sometimes they’ll continue to be grown even though they’ve been acquired and that sort of thing. So in the case of Starfish Medical, you guys actually went the other way around and acquired a competitor out of Toronto, so maybe you can tell us a little bit about how that came about and this is a trend now in Victoria that you’re setting.  


Scott: Companies have different purposes, right? Starfish is a wholly owned company. I own the company and we don’t have any investors who are saying, “hey, when am I going to get my money back?” And a lot of companies are just not in that situation, right? If you raise 3 or 5 million to do your startup, and when you raise that capital, essentially the deal was some time in the next five years, you’re going get… if things work out, you’re going to get five or 10 times your money back. So if that’s the case, your founding story is that you’re going to sell, and that’s okay.  


And one of the things that I talk about in some of my speeches is critical massive of industries. What is it going to take to have critical mass of medical technology in Canada, for example…Let alone Victoria, just say in Vancouver, it tends to get critical mass in a metropolitan area. And there’s verging on critical mass in Vancouver now, where you have enough talent that if you start a company, you can attract R & D people. But more importantly, you can attract strategic marketing people, and product management and strategic finance people have credibility in the space, and maybe a next generation CEO who’s got enough credibility to raise the big capital, you’re going to need. And when you do start a company and maybe it gets sold, maybe it moves away, you train all those people, do they stay in the industry? That’s kind of an interesting question about critical mass in a sector right, for Victoria particularly I think that’s interesting. And I think Victoria has a critical mass in certain areas of software startups, that technology start-ups where if your company moves away, chances are you’ll be able to get another job in the same space. So in Starfish’s case, we attract people from all the world. We have to convince them to move. And they typically say, “well, what about my husband? He’s got a job in the space too, where’s he going to find a job? And what if it doesn’t work out with Starfish, where else am I going to find a job? Those are the kind of problems you have. And we basically have to say, “there’s a few companies, but honestly, there’s not that many in our sector,” so it can be a challenge. 


Another thing I think is interesting is sometimes companies spawn other companies, or sometimes when a company is special enough and it gets acquired, then they just keep it here. So there was an interesting example, Aspreva Pharma was here, they got acquired became Biopharma. Biopharma mostly shutdown the local operation but a lot of those people just jumped over to the next startup and that company is now worth hundreds of millions of dollars. So in fact, there is against all odds there’s actually been a succession of really successful pharma companies based out of Victoria, which is extremely specialized. 


Paul: We see that in some industries in technology too, I think of gaming that came up actually in our call with Dan. 


Scott: Gaming is a great example. If you have a game company here, you convince a hotshot analytics person to move here from wherever, and then your game company gets sold and they want to move it somewhere, and that person’s got kids in school and they want to move, they’re going to find another gaming company, they can join. So factually, it’s always two steps forward, one step back, but every step you’re building a little more until you get to the spot where you become kind of a center, the city specializes in certain things. 


Paul: Do you feel like Victoria is going hit that critical mass in your sector? 


Scott: Not really, honestly. It may because we’ll encourage companies to do that, and we’ll spin companies out. We’re just right now spinning a company out in dental robotics, but we’re probably not going to put it in Victoria because there’s just not enough dental robotics people to hire Victoria, and that company wants to be a billion dollar story if it’s successful. So I think you got to be put it somewhere where you have the capacity to hire the right people. Unfortunately, I’d love to have it in Victoria but it would actually harm the company’s chances of survival and success if we centered it here. 


Dave: Does the shift with covid, people are working from home, working from anywhere is becoming more of a norm, does that sort of reduce that issue? 


Scott: It may. Honestly, I think in a start-up and in a company like ours, team trust and everybody seeing each other the kind of work ethic they’re bringing to the story and the things that they can rapidly learn from each other is… It’s kind of hard to do that in a decentralized model. I’m not really a fan of that. I think there should be a central team, it’s okay if there’s some people that are outside of that, there’s certainly examples of companies that are growing rapidly with that model, but I’m more interested in what happens after they have their first cultural crisis, or they have to downsize, or they have a big morale problem of some kind then what happens? What happens when you hire junior people and they need to be inspired by people and learn the work ethic and how to carry themselves in this context and all that. I’m skeptical about that certainly in our company, I’m a big fan of people being back together again, as soon as we can pull that off. We’re sort of famous for our culture and it still feels pretty great, but I could feel the edge is coming off on it. 


Dave: For sure. You mentioned every company’s got a purpose in a different path, and I’m not sure if… I don’t think you touched on it really specifically in your answer there, where do you see Starfish going? 


Scott: Actually just maybe I’m bit of a nationalist, I don’t understand why with our cost advantage, why there’s not a lot more professional services firms serving the world, particularly serving the US market from here. Literally, you have maybe a 30 or 40% cost advantage, maybe more depending on the market and the sector you’re selling it to, and so I just never made sense. So I thought we should be able to do that, and that I just want to set up and accomplish that and maybe through that get other people inspired to do something similar. So in some sense, maybe Starfish at is a bit more of a mission-driven company. Partly, I just wanted us to make a company that would be focussed on what I love to do and go find more people like me and get them to do what they love to do, and so they could be passionate, inspired about whatever just spread some of that inspiration. So it’s very specifically not aimed at getting it to a certain value and then selling and so on. But we’re all mortal. And I’m in my mid-50s now. 


Dave: You’re working on that?  


Scott: I’m working on mortality. 


Paul: Just a few more inventions.  


Dave: That’s the mission. 


Scott: So I don’t know, maybe when I’m 70 and I expect over the next number of years, I’ll find myself less operationally involved day-to-day, more focused on the spin-off companies and the partnerships that we do and being an industry personality and so on. What’s the long-term I couldn’t tell you exactly. All I can say is I get calls roughly once a week from somebody who really wants to buy us or more likely they are going to broker us to get sold which I really don’t take much interest in. As an entrepreneur, I just love to do this. If it was about money, I would have found a way to exit ten years ago and retire because I already had enough money to live the frugal lifestyle that I like. And for the rest of my life that’s not what it’s about. And here I am still being all bold and aggressive and buying things and starting big companies and having dreams of what we’re going to do next and getting people jazzed about the next generation and stuff.  


Dave: That’s great. I love that you spoke to that element of consistency in building, but you’re also talking about these spin-offs and seeing that in our relationship over the years you’ve been on the side entrepreneurial and latching these things on and doing a lot of different things, so how do you find a balance and what are the signals to you to do something versus I think a lot of people it can get away on them, so… 


Scott: Yeah, I think that isn’t a very interesting thing. So people have a certain idea what engineers are like, and usually the stereotype is engineers are plotting, analytical, execution-minded kind of people. But I tell you there’s just as much diversity of personality in engineering as there is an accounting or whatever. A bit ADD but I like designing systems, so I think every company at some measure, they say it’s the long shadow of the founder in some respects. It reflects the strengths and weaknesses and the quirks of the founder in certain regards. So for myself, I like being aspirational and having big dreams and visions, I like solving problems and analyzing things. And so Starfish is kind of a company that likes solving problems and analyzing things and coming up with big solutions and being aspirational.  


So one of the things that I like to design is actual operating systems, and that’s I think been one of the secrets to the success at Starfish. We actually have really good operating systems, and there’s the paradoxical benefit of being in our sector is that we have to have a quality system in order to be able to work in our field. And so in our field is an ISO standard ISO 13485, which says you must have documents for defining what your products are and you have to have specs and if you want to change one, there’s a process to follow and you have to have detailed drawings and they have to be checked and on and on it goes. 


Paul: And presumably that’s because of the importance of the medical need, right. It’s very regulated… 


Scott: Although it’s built on ISO 9000 which was really just a sensible way to build companies that people invented forty or fifty years ago. And sort of a distilled wisdom of great companies, I think. You can design the most amazing system that will run a really, really great company that’s custom designed, custom tweaked for your purposes.  


And on top of that, we have all these operational systems of the annual plan which is aligned with core objectives, which is aligned with variable compensation, which is aligned with our reporting. What does our quarterly reporting rhythm look like which is aligned with our monthly dashboards and so on. You think of a company as a machine, and a machine has got to have all these feedback loops and everything’s optimized to work together to accomplish what you’re trying to achieve. And so I used to actually be suspicious systems because I thought all the energy would go into operating. But actually, what I’ve come to realize is that systems set you free, they allow you to put your energy where you have the most impact, and so you don’t have to be thinking about what happens in a regular way.  


Dave: Yeah. I think that’s the headline on the podcast there, “the systems set you free.”  


Paul: I was going through the blog before the call today and one of the posts (which if you’re not familiar with, you should go check it out they have interesting regular content on your blog). And on October 6 your article was Top 10 covid19 medical innovations and I thought it was great because it was very general knowledge, I understood it, I’m not a science guy, and it really underscored some of the major advancements in humanity, really in science over the last little while and it got me thinking about how well we would have done with this pandemic 100 years ago when we had the last pandemic, and what a difference science has made in the outcomes, even though we’re still suffering obviously terrible outcomes this time, how much worse would they have been if we didn’t have the advances in science. And so I thought that was really telling, and of course, you guys stepped up a little bit initially when covid-19 came along and produced made in Canada ventilator. Is there a bit of a story to tell there?  


Scott: Oh, there’s plenty of stories. So that actually interestingly enough, I’ll tie this back to the marketing in a second, but…So around March 20th-ish we had already sent our staff home or we  were about to. And I think Canada was already just starting to lockdown. We were contacted by a government funding agency based out of Ontario because we’re an Ontario company as well, and they said they had a ventilator they’d like us to look at. At the time, you may recall that all the borders were locking down and the governments were realizing, “oh my gosh, we got no ventilator supplier in Canada, what are we going to do?” And so these guys pointed us to a ventilator in Ontario, and so I said, “well, I tell you what, we’ll have somebody go over tomorrow and take a look.” And so we got some head over the next day to look at it, and after consideration realized that’s not a high enough quality ventilator for us to work on, it’s not going to be well-accepted in a hospital setting. So I asked if they had other projects they were talking to, and they said, “oh, there’s there’s this group out of Winnipeg that we just talked too.” “Okay great we’ll get a team over there to look at that one.” Even putting people on an airplane late March was dodgy you weren’t quite sure.  


At the time, we didn’t know what we know now. Was this thing going to become explosive, like the bubonic plague and be everywhere or what? So we sent group there, turned out to be an excellent ventilator. Actually, an older technology had been licensed off to a major multinational, and the expert was very much a leading figure in the space, and had the original technology still no valid IP we needed to worry about anymore, and we could just stand it up and make a new generation for that we could make for Canada. And so we got on board and within about two weeks after that, the federal government actually gave us a contract to make 7000 of them, and so we set to work. 


Paul: How quickly were you able to turn over? 


Scott: So that was the beginning of April, and by the late part of June, so it was just over two months almost… I guess we actually started before we had a contract, just because we thought we should start and if it all comes to nothing, we’ll just stop and we’ll have lost a few hundred thousand dollars, which seemed like the right trade-off under the circumstances. So within three months, we were able to have a ventilator that we submitted data and design details to the regulator, Health Canada for…. 


But of course, in the middle of all that, the anticipated giant death in the hallways scenario wasn’t really happening, so the quality expectation went up. So it actually took us until November to really make a higher quality one, if it had turned out to be super critical, we would have actually started making them in June or July. And we worked out of a partnership with a major contract manufacturing company called Celestica, and they have a major operation north of Toronto, and so that was the deal. So they’ve now been accepted by the government and were just getting ready to ship mass volumes of them starting this month. 


Dave: Wow. Awesome to hear about the background story there to see the news headline and put all those pieces together and quickly. Very cool. 


Scott: Let me relate that story back to marketing, if you like. 


Dave: Sure. 


Scott: Because you may wonder why is that if you’re not very well-known in Ontario, or we don’t even do a lot of work in Ontario, honestly, we do a lot of work in the US, why did those people think of you as the leading company in this space and give you a call? And I think it was essentially because of marketing. Actually what we started doing was running conferences in Vancouver originally, and then in Vancouver and Toronto to inspire the MedTech industry, and we don’t even try to measure how many prospects you get out of it. But it did allow us to create relationships or some of the leading entrepreneurs in the whole industry and bring them to Toronto and Vancouver to speak. And the whole premise was we’re going bring our voices you’ve never seen before, everybody’s seen all the stories in their own city, but they need to understand what world-class looks like in this space.  


So I think it was actually that sort of mission-driven, you call it marketing, but it really wasn’t built around how many customers we were going to get in Toronto and Vancouver it was really what can we do to inspire entrepreneurs in those places to go do things that actually produced the credibility that led to the government calling us to do this project. So that’s kind of interesting how these things circle back in unexpected ways. 


Dave: Very inspiring. It’s actually a little bit – it dwarfs in comparison but that’s kind of where this podcast has come from. We’re not exactly sure how this will pay off as a business venture, but let’s get people talking and sharing the stories particularly during a time like this. 


Scott: I can feel that in the sort of the style of questions, you’re not going angling in any sort of agenda. You want to cover the essence of entrepreneurship and… 


Dave: Yes, exactly. 


Paul: I gotcha questions are coming up after we break into our advertisement for that one.  


It is interesting though, on the marketing side, so many people think of marketing and they think of, I guess, traditional television and radio, web, click campaigns, social media campaigns, all that sort of stuff, and don’t often think about things like thought leadership and networking and the real genuine networking. 


Scott: Probably about eight years ago or so, I just felt like we need to be contributing more, we really had a lot of experience and knowledge, and we wanted to start writing about that and then start letting people know about it. And at the time, that was a little more unusual this sort of content marketing strategy and…but I read some stuff about it, and there’s all these marketing companies that specialized in talking engineers and writing their stuff, and that there’s no way that they’re going to get this right. We have to talk to a techie kind of audience using a lot of their buzzwords so they know that we’re them. And we’re not trying to tell a broad message to everybody, we’re trying to tell a very specific message, useful information to people that are target kind of people. And a number of people said, “there’s no way, engineers just can’t write that’s just how life is.” We sat down with about 10 engineers and said, “okay guys, we’re going to become writers, so everybody, tell me on what you’re going to write, I don’t care what you write, just write something you know about.” And then over time, we started writing. We actually targeted four original pieces a month. 


Dave: That’s a big target. 


Scott: In fact, to this day, eight years later, we’re still putting out four original pieces a month. We got smarter about it in terms of the right kind of messages, the right kind of media, who the people we should be writing for, how do we train somebody up into doing that and so on, but it’s carried on to this day. And that’s the sort of thing that we probably get 10,000 or so visitors a month to our very niche medical device tactical blogs, and they’re all people that we care about. And that’s kind of priceless in the eyes of Google, the search engines because that’s a long history of super credible audience coming to hear super credible content. 


Dave: How did you… We’ve tried to encourage our techie guys to be marketers, and it’s been a challenge, right? We’ve got our day job and… 


Scott: Yeah…that’s interesting. Originally, we didn’t even pay them, it was like, it was just a pure we’re going to help support you to learn this new skill and we will publicize you and you’re going to raise your own profile and this will be good for you. And so try to encourage people to understand that this is something that was good for them that they should want. After a while, we kind of softened on that, we allocated a certain number of hours per blog that we would pay. But it’s still on the general frame, you’re not going off to do several days of research and writing up your findings, you’re writing about something you know about it.  


Actually it’s…one of the most interesting things that one of our fresh grad engineers really caught and gone to this. He started writing, he started writing fairly broadly. He wrote about sensors, he wrote about electrical engineering tactics, he wrote about…he wrote a blog about “what could you do with the standard set of sensors to make how wearable medical devices.” And that one actually got picked up by one of industry magazines, and then he started writing for the industry magazines quite a lot, and then we realized that over a course of two years, he actually published 57 original articles that in fact…One time we went to a conference and there was an entire wall pasted with a graphic of what you could do with five sensors to make a wearable medical device. That was with our name prominently emblazed on the bottom, and we had paid nothing for the profile. So it’s kind of remarkable, even somebody in their 20s can sort of find a voice and find a way to be credible in the sector, and adds a ton of value. 


Dave: We talked a little bit about your experience with Covid. It’s been an exceptional year in that sense. Anymore stories, low points, challenges. I guess I’d like to transition this to the future, what do you see in the next 12 months? 


Scott: Yeah, sure. You know of course, we’ve gone virtual. Not totally virtual, I’m actually in my office right now. But other than our manufacturing group, there’s not many engineers on site every day, they’re all mostly working from home. We were always removed from our clients, that’s one of the things when you’re running a consulting company like this out of Victoria, your clients are in places like Los Angeles and San Francisco and Cleveland and whatever Florida and Toronto. You get used to being very good at that. It’s been sort of a paradoxical advantage for us actually, that our competitors tend to be in places where there’s a lot more local market, and they just kind of get used to serving the local market. We’ve never had a local market, so you kind of learn how to be good enough to go get business out of the backyards over your competitors. So I always believed that that was a secret advantage that we had. And then I further tied our hands by saying “we’re not going to win on price, but we’re not the cheap Canadian alternative. We’re the best alternative for you.” So it just forced us to play a really in game.  


One thing we learned is we got into Covid was having remote staff added an extra element to it, but really it was a pretty familiar thing, it was these team meetings, we already have teams mixed between our two sites anyways, so now they’re just working from their homes, it’s actually just more of the same. We were already pretty good at it, and we became concerned what happens when our sales people can’t fly to visit with the clients? And then we started closing business for clients that we’d never even seen before. You’re talking about a startup company that’s risking what’s going to turn into several million dollars on us, and if we screw it up, that’s their one shot. And they’ve never even met us. So how do you create a relationship that’s life and death virtually. I’d say that’s… 


Dave: Maybe next time. 


Paul: Part of the answer of course is your reputation and stuff, but I think part of it is you also kind of just have to… 


Scott: The fact that they’d are willing to do that is interesting and I think that part will actually be durable. People have just learned new behaviors around how to work, how to buy, and I think that actually goes well for our Victoria-based tech startups, trying to sell to the world that these sort of remote behaviors, I think are a little bit more normal and so it’s not important that you’d be just down the road from them anymore, and so I’m hopeful that companies will really leverage that and remember that and be brave to go get business far away. 


Dave: Any sense of where the world’s going? 


Scott: Where is the world going? That’s interesting. My personal theory, I’ve got a couple of theories, so one is, I’ve been expecting rapid testing to emerge, and I’ve been expecting that it will focus more on infectious than on diagnostics. And that’s been an idea that’s been slow to arrive, that if you can test people every day, then you can catch people before they actually become infectious. You’re less concerned about whether they have the disease, then you are about whether they can transmit it. Because those tests are very cheap and fast. If you have to know whether they have it, that’s a slow, expensive test. So that’s one thing, I’m still expecting. 


They’re talking about vaccines starting to arrive by January, which is kind of interesting. Of course, there’s tens of thousands of cases that people that have had their therapies, don’t really know what’s going to happen with that. I’m sure there will be some negative effects that will emerge, especially when you would go that fast. Therapies are starting to arrive at the same time, so if it’s not that big a deal to catch Covid because you can get it an injection that will make it so it doesn’t really progress in your body, that will have a big effect as well. My personal prediction probably will be about like this until March or so probably June people…a lot of people would be feeling comfortable to get that together again, but not everybody, if you’ve got an immune compromised person in your household and so on, you’ll still be cautious. And then the vaccines will be more generally available in Canada, sort of by late summer or fall. That’s my personal prediction. You can play this back a year from now and see whether I got it right or not. 


Paul: Isn’t that incredible though? The fact that we or the world, humanity has managed to come up with a vaccine in nine months which the whole process would typically take you what, two years or whatever before? 


Scott: Normally. I think the record was yeah, two or three years before. I think it was a measles vaccine or a Ebola vaccine that didn’t take too long. It’s actually interesting, it’s a giant boost for the whole biotech industry. And I don’t think we’ve seen the last of the big insights that come from this. Literally, I think it was last week, there was a big announcement. There was an AI piece of software that’s developed now they can actually predict protein folding, it’s never been done before, all of a sudden, because that’s a lot of how these molecules interact right in your body proteins bumping into each other and latching onto each other and so on. You can predict proteins, now all of a sudden, you can be way faster of predicting what therapies might be effective in diagnostics and so on. So yes hang onto your hats because these innovations are going to actually keep coming and accelerating. 


Paul: Yeah, Covid has been awful, but it’s nice to think that at least within the scientific community that this has been a gamechanger in so many areas. 


Scott: Actually one of the biggest ones is really in getting people to agree to pay for remote doctor visits. That is not a technical problem, it hasn’t been a technical problem for 20 years, but it has been very poorly adopted because nobody would agree to pay doctors to see patients or moving, because they were so concerned about casual over-billing and fraud and so on, and it took sort of a situation like Covid to get people to cross that hump and then they can work backwards towards the fraud problem rather than butt their head into it forwards which they never seem to be able to do. 


Paul: Scott I want to end the podcast on a little bit of a different note than our usual ones. But I have a son who’s 15, he’s in grade 10 right now. And as long as I can remember when he was probably 9 or 10, he decided he wanted to become an engineer. And obviously, I wouldn’t want to neglect this opportunity to ask you, but perhaps for him and more generally, for young people pursuing in the STEM field, what’s a piece of advice that you would give them today in 2020 when they’re thinking ahead for their future? 


Scott: Yeah, that’s great, there’s a bunch of things. One is just to embrace it, right? Go make stuff, make things work, hack things apart, go get old microwaves and take them apart or whatever. I think engineers are kind of distinguished by liking to make things, make things happen, and just to get encouraged down that path. Experiment with software and with, you know, there’s so many incredible tools. There is a software thing called Scratch, it’s perfect for kids to learn how to build the code with visual-like tools. When I learned software, it was all basic, and it took a while to get those ideas of loops and so on. And projects and going in robot competitions, all that, but really, at the end of the day…If we’re trying to hire somebody, we would totally value anything tangible that they’ve made that they’ve proven, they’ve got…They’ve actually taken initiative. I could give you specific advice about what type of software is up and coming or whatever, I think it’s actually those things are going to change so rapid during his career that it’s not so much about that, it’s more about just getting in there and start doing stuff. 


Paul: That’s great, I love it. Thank you so much for that and thank you for joining us today on Island Thrive and wish you all the very best and hope your workforce stays safe and you don’t have to take too many airplanes before the vaccine is widely distributed and… Thank you, Dave, as well for jealousy. 


Scott: Great, thank you. It’s been a total pleasure talking to you guys today.  


Paul: Awesome, take care.  

Show notes

Starfish Medical


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