Feature Interview: Chris Cowper Smith on Knowing your Purpose and Avoiding Incentivized Distractions

Chris Cowper Smith

The Emera ideaHUB is the region’s deep tech space to create on the Dalhousie Campus, situated in the Engineering building with state-of the-art equipment and resources available for ventures with an operational prototype that are designing their way to manufacturing and customer pilots. Our Director, Erin O’Keefe Graham, sat down with the experts who make the 2-year Residency experience happen. Today’s feature is about Venture Coach Chris Cowper Smith, the experienced founder and CEO of Spring Loaded a patent-protected knee brace; he is currently Executive Chair of Mable health, and Chair for the Halifax Chamber of Commerce.   

Tell me about what makes the Venture Coach role interesting.

I’ve been a Venture Coach for more than a year now. I see it as a great opportunity to work with founders from idea stage through to commercialization. It’s rewarding to support and witness founders growing their entrepreneurial drive, problem solving skills, and the ability to overcome huge challenges as they work to bring something new and useful to the world. It’s a very collaborative process, and one we design to help founders make progress faster, for example, by helping them see blind spots, new opportunities, and risks, and where we can share our own mistakes and entrepreneurial journey as a reference point for founders to learn from.

Thinking back to your time as founder of Spring Loaded, what intrigued you the most about starting a deep tech venture?

For me it was all about a purpose and what we wanted to accomplish. How it happened, or that it was deep tech, was secondary for me. It started based on problems of knee pain and mobility, and we set out to help people walk again. From there, we identified the tools, techniques, and people we needed to adopt and hire to best solve the problem.

What do you think is the toughest lesson of being a founder?

It can be lonely, and that comes with interesting challenges. Consider this: if you’re onto something big, you will get a lot of attention, for example, excitement through media, awards, and competitions. The ecosystem sometimes rewards founders for their storytelling (or pitching), but that can quickly lead you astray. Awards and media coverage don’t build a business, but you can have both a long time before you have a viable business model.

So many things can take you off course – even VC or grant money that incentivizes certain behaviours or business models based on the mandate of their LPs or backers. It can be a lot of ‘go faster or spend more money in this area’ – whether that’s right for your industry, or your business, or not. We need to make sure the right foundation is there for new businesses so that getting validation and support from any source accelerates focused growth without jeopardizing strong fundamentals.

Your venture was in biomedical engineering. What is most exciting to you today about this space?

I’ve become re-energized and excited about the rapid advancement of additive manufacturing. We’ve all heard for years that it’s going to be promising. Now it feels like we’re at the precipice of this. There are so many new product categories and innovations that just weren’t possible or cost-effective using traditional techniques. In the near term, I think we’re going to see a proliferation of innovative new products built with additive manufacturing techniques that weren’t possible or cost-effective to manufacture in the past. Spring Loaded is a good example of a company that transformed from a traditional manufacturing company to one that now utilizes 3D shape capture and printing techniques. That transformation drove down hidden costs for the company while simultaneously enabling new intellectual property development and enhanced product quality.

Can you tell me about a time when you had to make a tough decision about your product? How did you get to resolution?

We raised our seed round based on early customer traction, then moved to set up in-house manufacturing that could support larger sales volumes and the production of what we thought was a commercially viable product. We knew investors wanted more sales the second they had a taste of them, and setting up manufacturing was likely going to delay that. As a result, we aggressively launched an Indiegogo campaign to capture pre-sales, with the idea that we could start shipping as soon as our manufacturing plant was ready to roll. On paper, it all sounded great, and our pre-sales campaign was a success, capturing over $300k in pre-sales in one month.

What we didn’t allow enough time for was the conversion from small-scale production – of what was really a late-stage prototype – to scalable production of a commercially viable product. But there is a lot of work that needs to happen in that phase, and a number of things happened as a result. We were late to deliver, what we delivered was of inconsistent quality, and customer complaints started to come in. We spent hours on the phone with upset customers, hours repairing defective product, and many sleepless nights worrying about the impact on our brand and investor support. It all started to turn into a negative feedback cycle that could have quickly tanked the company.

The difficult decision was halting production after we started and taking time to better prepare both our product and manufacturing plant for growth. That decision resulted in more short-term pain on most fronts, but if we hadn’t done it, the company would have died within the first year of production. In hindsight, I would have resisted the early temptation (and tangible investor pressure) for more sales and re-anchored myself in our purpose to help people walk again, ensuring our product, manufacturing, and quality systems were better established before going to market and before trying to show quarter over quarter sales growth. Managing these types of competing demands is one of the hardest parts of being a founder. However, in this case, slowing down a bit would have helped us later speed up, allowing us to generate better financial returns while simultaneously helping more patients.

What excites you most about innovation or entrepreneurship in this ecosystem today?

When I started 12 years ago, the start-up ecosystem in Halifax was still fairly undeveloped. Today, there is more talent and support in the region than ever. As a result, I think we’re going to see stronger businesses being created, especially as experienced founders (successful or not) look for their next venture opportunity. Those new ventures will benefit from decades of combined experience, lessons learned, and accomplish bigger things, faster. I can see it already in the residents at the IdeaHub and in the companies that are starting to mature.