Jeff and Julie Shirley at the 2021 SABEX awards. (Photo: Submitted)

From bee security to worldwide tech company: Meet the winner of USask-sponsored 2021 SABEX entrepreneurship award

Local companies, leaders and organizations were honoured this month as part of the 26th annual Saskatoon Achievement in Business Excellence (SABEX) Awards hosted by the Greater Saskatoon Chamber of Commerce.

This year’s winner of the entrepreneurship category, sponsored by the University of Saskatchewan (USask), was technology company Rivercity Innovations.

“I went in there thinking ‘not a chance’ for winning this one but, as luck would have it, that one time you don’t prepare a speech you get caught off guard,” said Chief Executive Officer of Rivercity Innovations and USask alumnus, Jeff Shirley. “It is an honour. We’re very humbled.”

According to USask Senior Strategist Julian Demkiw, the university strives to support and recognize local entrepreneurs because they are integral partners and producers in the innovation ecosystem.

“Finding out that the award recipient has strong ties to our university makes the win that much more exciting,” said Demkiw. “It’s USask’s goal to contribute to the ecosystem by not only being a go-to resource and partner but by creating a culture of entrepreneurship to help produce the leaders needed to drive innovation.”

‘Sold everything we had’

Shirley, a former teacher and information technology specialist, started his venture into entrepreneurship back in 2014 when he and his wife, Julie, both decided to quit their 9-to-5 jobs.

“We moved to a farm, built our own house using Kijiji to save money, and sold everything we had in the city to eliminate debt,” said Shirley, adding that they began working with bees on their new family farm and Julie’s separate business venture, Blue Heron Gardens.

This led to an idea: a box of bees in the middle of a field with no internet, no Bluetooth, no Wi-Fi — what do you do to help stop the beehive from being stolen?

“We had been playing around with some software and different options, and we ended up creating a solution,” he said. “When you’re building a business, you don’t know what’s going to happen. You get a few wrenches thrown at you. Some of them hit you in the head, you dodge a few others, but you never give up.” 

What started as a product to prevent the theft of beehives has since expanded into designing, building, and delivering sensors and data monitoring solutions to clients worldwide.

‘Home-grown graduates’

Rivercity Innovations currently employs a team consisting mostly of USask graduates from the Edwards School of Business and the USask College of Engineering. Along with Shirley, other members of their executive team are also USask alumni. This includes the company’s co-founder Lance Pitka and marketing manager Kamila Wyszomirski.

“Many of our city’s and province’s most successful entrepreneurs are home-grown graduates who met their future business partners, and nurtured their first big ideas, on the USask campus. Time and again, we hear how pivotal that experience was for them,” said Chief Executive Officer of the Greater Saskatoon Chamber of Commerce, Jason Aebig. “We are so lucky to have a major Canadian university, with a solid business school, thriving in our community.”

Shirley said he plans to continue to scout future employees from his alma mater.

“The team that we have built here right from USask has been amazing,” said Shirley. “I just loved the quality of the graduates coming out.”

Looking to start your own business?

Here are Jeff Shirley’s top 3 tips for new entrepreneurs:

  1. You have to be passionate about it — 120 per cent committed to what you want to do and prepared to go sometimes for years with a lot of hard hours and a lot of hard work. If you just want to make some money and you’re not really buying into what you’re selling, you’re not going to enjoy it. It’s not worth it.
  2. Look around you to other people who have done it, even if they haven’t succeeded, and go speak with them and learn from them. You’d be surprised when you ask for help, how many people are willing to shed some insight to help you. If you could save a mistake or make a path quicker, that’s a really good thing.
  3. Don’t ignore the resources that are out there. You have to dig a little bit to find them, but Saskatchewan has a lot of amazing resources for entrepreneurs. For example, there’s Co.Labs, Co.Launch, Innovation Saskatchewan, Business Development Bank of Canada, Export Development Canada, Women Entrepreneurs of Saskatchewan, etc. There are resources for everything. You just have to knock on those doors and open those doors, and the people behind them are incredibly helpful.
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