Vancouver start-up’s successful COVID-19 transition aided by student wage subsidies

Four years ago, British Columbia high-school-student-turned-founder-and-chief-innovative-officer Mateo Pekic invented the core technology that would become Vancouver 3D printing company 3DQue. He wasn’t legally old enough to be an officer in a company. So, he reached out to Steph Sharp, a classmate’s mom and a veteran of the start-up landscape.

“When Mateo decided to commercialize his technology, he asked me to join him to run the company,” says Steph Sharp, CEO of 3DQue. “I really liked the technology and the positive social, environmental, and economic impact it could make. So, together, we founded 3DQue.”

“You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” – Wayne Gretzky

Things were running smoothly. 3DQue was earning a solid reputation in its industry. Then COVID-19 happened, and Steph and Mateo were met with a company-altering decision. They would have to decide whether to continue along servicing their existing clientele, or take a big risk and enter a new, unfamiliar landscape. They chose to take the shot.

They were approached by the federal government with an opportunity that would alter the fortunes of this young start-up—and even change how it classified itself. The federal government wanted 3DQue to manufacture personal protective equipment (PPE) and swabs.

“Pre-COVID, we catered to industrial clients who used our technology to manufacture everything from material science to medical and industrial applications,” says Steph. “At the time, I would not have defined our company as biotech, but things shifted, almost instantly once, the pandemic started.”

“In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.” – Albert Einstein

There were two big obstacles ahead for Steph and Mateo.

  1. How to ensure they were in compliance with the intricate industry regulations.
  2. How to scale up quickly in order to meet the demand for inventory without the financial resources to do so.

3DQue was introduced to LifeSciences BC (LSBC), a not-for-profit, non-government, industry association that supports and represents the life sciences community of British Columbia. LSBC did its part to guide 3DQue through the first major hurdle. LSBC, through its partnership with BioTalent Canada, helped 3DQue soar over the second one.

BioTalent Canada reached out and introduced 3DQue to the Student Work Placement Program (SWPP). SWPP is a wage subsidy program to increase the job-readiness of students registered in STEM, healthcare, business and all other programs at Canadian post-secondary institutions. The program covers the cost of a student’s salary by 75% up to a maximum of $7,500.

SWPP was the solution to 3DQue’s dilemma. Up until that point, Steph and Mateo were unsure if the company could realistically accept the government’s request. Through SWPP, 3DQue hired a diverse group of nine students in the fall—with plans to hire 10 more this winter.

“We’ve always focused on hiring the best people for the position and the right people for our company,” explains Steph. “We’re a gender-balanced team with members ranging from 16 to 58 years of age. And we’ve had representation from at least eight different countries and a wide range of ethnicities. Diversity is an important part of our hiring process.”

“You don’t build a business, you build people, then people build the business.” -Zig Ziglar

This particular set of SWPP participants were hired to solve challenges in technology, production, design, finance, marketing and supply chain. And they’ve impacted almost every aspect of the organization from R&D, to digital marketing, to the production of a weekly livestream, to the coordination of hiring and grants, to bookkeeping.

In just six short weeks 3DQue was able to develop and launch Quinly for Ender 3, the world’s first end-to-end automation upgrade for 3D printers that removes parts without human intervention. This accomplishment would have been impossible without the contribution from the SWPP students.

“These kids really hit the ground running, with many of our participants able to take on full roles within two to three weeks,” explains Steph. “Without SWPP, we could not have continued to develop our technology and produced PPE.”

The engineering students developed the hardware, the students in computer science worked with 3DQue’s senior developer to produce the software, the business students developed digital marketing materials and campaigns and helped with financial analysis and costing.

Steph would go on to share that half of the students have expressed an interest in returning to the company. She also said it plans to continue its burgeoning relationship with BioTalent Canada by hiring 10 more SWPP students in the winter.

So, what parting advice does she have for any SME that is on the fence about hiring students?

“Have clear goals and look for people with specific skills. Many of the students do side projects that can be very helpful getting them up to speed faster. A lot of our SWPP students are doing back-to-back co-op placements and I would suggest that’s a good thing to look for, as it can take a while for them to hit their stride and be productive.”

To apply for SWPP, or any other of BioTalent Canada’s wage subsidy programs, visit biotalent.ca/programs.