Made in Vancouver: Moments of Discovery

#1: Social Media 

Facebook vs. Cancer 

We asked our community and pulled a list of the most messed-up things people have said or done that they thought were being helpful. Just about everyone has told someone they have breast cancer/brain cancer/whatever and that person says to them, ‘Oh yeah, I had an aunt/uncle/spouse/dog who had that. They died.’ It’s terrible, but people are really just trying to connect.” That’s Yael Cohen, 26, founder of a campaign that raises awareness (and eyebrows for its blunt name). “ ‘Fuck cancer’ is something you hear on oncology wards, in hospitals-it’s the sentiment you hear from patients and caregivers,” says the Vancouver native. When her mom was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009, Cohen made her an expletive-blazoned T-shirt to articulate her grief and anger. Response was massive: “It was visceral, emotional. People wanted so badly to talk about it, to hear her story and tell theirs or hug her or high-five her.” It spawned a movement pushing early detection (90 percent of cancers are treatable in Stage 1) and community involvement (“The support group is archaic; nobody wants to wait until 7 p.m. on a Wednesday to go to a church basement, so we’ve looked at technology-whether it’s Facebook or Twitter or a parking app or a sex app-to alter that code to benefit people”). The wired generation is Cohen’s primary target, and they’re listening-the group’s Cancer Talk video had 55 million views in its first week, and celebrity endorsements come from Ke$ha and Perez Hilton. Next up: sharing the model: heart disease, poverty, who knows? “We need to be the meta-leader who has an idea and gives it away to the community. Giving it away is often the most powerful thing you can do. Our generation gets that.” 


#2: Retail

Call of the Wild

Four Varsity Outdoor Club members were sitting in the rain on Mount Baker back in 1971, wet and frustrated they’d had to drive all the way to Seattle’s Recreation Equipment just to buy mountaineering gear. “We didn’t really enjoy smuggling stuff across the border,” recalls Roland Burton, 71, one of those originals. “And sometimes there were problems-let’s say, in simple terms, the exchange policy was not great. So one guy-our resident socialist, Jim Byers-said, ‘We should start a co-op so we don’t have to go down to the States.’ ” Eventually 13 people bought shares ($5 then and still) to form Mountain Equipment Co-op. Byers ran it out of the Dominion Building, says Burton (Member #2), “and when we had spare merchandise we were storing it in my mom’s basement. So the procedure was if you wanted to buy a sleeping bag we could give you a pretty good price, but he probably wouldn’t be able to show you the product first.” MEC has grown substantially since those meagre beginnings-in 2011, its 40th year, it cleared $261 million in sales, with 3.3 million members. While the business is a roaring success, the founders hew to their original utopian vision. “They introduced yoga mats, which don’t look very outdoorsy to me,” says Burton. “Some people say, ‘We do an 80 percent markup on yoga mats but only a 50 percent markup on wet weather gear. So we’ll make money selling yoga mats and it will subsidize the real mountain gear and that should be okay.’ But it’s not quite okay because we lose the mountain gear-it all gets buried in yoga mats.” Continue reading…

#3: Health 

The Transporters

In 2010, Dustin Spratt and Dr. Derek Gunning of New Westminster’s Royal Columbian Hospital got the call that changed their lives. Sister hospital Surrey Memorial had a boy, 14, in cardiac arrest. His body temperature at 17ºC, he needed a machine to extract, warm, oxygenate, and replace his blood. The problem? Surrey didn’t have one. In 20 minutes, the team was in a commandeered taxi, lugging a tangle of boxes, tubes, and wires jury-rigged to a stretcher. “We went in, warmed the boy up, managed safe transport back to Royal Columbian, and he survived and is doing well,” says Spratt, 51. Since then, he and colleagues have refined-with help from stretcher manufacturer Ferno, which is commercializing their invention-their Extra-Corporeal Life Support response system. Demand is growing (10 calls from the dozen hospitals they service through the Fraser Health Authority last year, and every province is seeking their input), especially among a new population of patients: where calls were traditionally for the elderly (cardiac arrest) and very young (infections), they’re seeing more 18-to-24-year-olds in respiratory crisis (H1N1). In the long term? “We’re using this equipment for ECLS transports and retrievals,” says Spratt, “but what else is out there that normally we wouldn’t even think about going out to try to save? The sky’s the limit.”


#4: Architecture 

New Kid on the Block

Eleven years ago, architect Michael Green was talking to a friend about the global need for affordable housing when a light bulb went on. “Climate change is on a collision course with solutions for shelter-unless we change our ways of building in cities.” Erecting toy towers with his son, he was hit with a way forward. He called up buddy Eric Karsh of Equilibrium Consulting. Surely somebody out there was already using large timber panels (rather than 2x4s, or concrete) to construct tall buildings? No. And with that was born the notion of wooden skyscrapers-a shorthand that took him this year onto the TED stage and around the world. He does other work-he’s building the new Ronald McDonald House locally, jousting to reboot the VAG, and pitching a holocaust museum in Ottawa-but it’s wood that has redefined him, and may yet redefine his profession. “Architecture has been tinkering with additive solutions to build more sustainably. We add a solar panel, a green roof, and say we’re helping. But they’re not nearly up to the scale of the problem.” The local lumber industry loves how so-called mass timber panels take wood beyond residential construction, and there’s interest from Australia and New Zealand, Germany, and Scandinavia. In Canada, Green’s work dovetails with upcoming changes to the building code. In 2015 it will lift the height of wooden buildings using this form of construction. “It turns out our job is more important than just the buildings we get paid to build.” Continue reading…

#5: Entertainment


Back in 1995, two troublemaker teens were spending their days driving their Spanish teacher at Point Grey nuts, and their nights working on a video spoof of Star Wars. The next project was to be a sendup of Reservoir Dogs until a piece of advice changed their lives-and the lives of anyone who’s ever laughed at a penis joke-forever. By 14, Evan Goldberg knew he’d become a writer. Best friend Seth Rogen was already performing at standup clubs around town. Then fellow comic Darryl Lennox told him to stop with the Seinfeld jokes and talk about himself instead. Which meant masturbation and every other teen boy obsession. The pair turned inward and wrote a script called Superbad, whose jokes Rogen would try out onstage some nights before he moved south in his Grade 11 year to star in the Judd Apatow series Freaks & Geeks. (Goldberg stayed here and taught aquatic fitness at the Y for a while.) A lot has happened in the interim (from 40-Year-Old Virgin to The Green Hornet), but one thing has never changed: they love their hometown, which explains why they locate so many of their pictures here. “It’s not the cheapest place,” say the pair from their Vancouver production office. “We have to convince the powers-that-be that this is best place to make a movie, which honestly may or may not be true. But we try to support Vancouver any way we can.” This summer they’ve been scouting for the upcoming The Interview (filming till Christmas) and the R-rated animated comedy Sausage Party. Why keep coming back when most people would do anything to increase their influence back in Hollywood? “Most people there are actually from small towns they worked hard to get out of, not awesome cities they work hard to get back to.”


#6: Health 

Magic Wand

In 1930, Sir Chandrasekhara Raman won a Nobel Prize for his discovery that sunlight, shone through a transparent material, scatters and changes wavelength. These days, so-called Raman scattering is put to more complex ends: identifying molecules, explosives, and counterfeit drugs, among others. Locally, it’s diagnosing skin cancer. Traditionally, a doctor eyeballed a spot then ordered a confirming biopsy. As populations and awareness grow, though, that’s caused a bottleneck, says Dr. Harvey Lui, 51, medical director of VGH’s Skin Care Centre and head of dermatology and skin science at UBC. “That’s where we’re looking to technology to say, Is there a way we can simplify the process, to make it more efficient and get skin cancer diagnosed more efficiently, cost-effectively, and accurately?” Working with the BC Cancer Agency, Lui and partners have invented a non-invasive detector and trademarked the Verisante Aura, which rates a lesion’s cancerous potential. Research has been promising: “When we compare this to other methods, the sensitivity is very high-we should be able to detect more than 90 percent of the cancers that exist if they really are there. That’s better than some of the other devices out there and seems to be better than an average doctor.” The one-second laser scan means fewer unnecessary biopsies (and scars) and faster diagnoses. Next? The detector has entered clinics across Canada and in Europe, and “I can foresee where if the technology, the scanners, the optical system improve, and prices go down, you might have these units in a health centre or a retail pharmacy as tools an average consumer could use.” Continue reading…

#7: Technology 

Oil Change

Before his death in 2008, Time magazine named Vancouver engineer Geoffrey Ballard a “hero of the planet” for his work on low-emission fuel-cell technology. “The internal combustion engine,” he predicted, “will be a curiosity to my grandchildren.” His company, Ballard Power Systems, stymied by the stubbornly high costs of producing needed hydrogen, eventually gave up on the dream, switching to more immediate commercial uses like power systems for forklifts and buses. (It now does brisk business in China.) Ballard sold the automotive division to the Automotive Fuel Cell Cooperation, an R&D consortium of Daimler AG and Ford sited on the company’s back lot in Burnaby. A Mercedes fuel-cell manufacturing plant just opened across the street. “We really are the cradle of fuel cell research,” says Andreas Truckenbrodt, 61, CEO of AFCC. “It started with Ballard in the mid ’80s. It attracted a whole cluster of small companies, universities, and other people with expertise” (including Truckenbrodt himself). Today, our unlikely homegrown empire accounts for a fifth of the world’s hydrogen/fuel-cell facilities and 58 percent of jobs in an industry pegged to exceed $8.5 billion in the next few years. Small-series fuel-cell vehicles already prowl streets in California and Germany; Canada might be online by 2017, but Truckenbrodt warns that while the technology has eco-benefits for all, business challenges remain sizable. “You can only make a new technology mainstream if it’s high volume and performs as well as what you have today. We have a lot of work to do.”


#8: Dating 

The Algo-rhythm Method

It took two weeks for Markus Frind to write the code for the world’s largest dating site. By the following Christmas he’d quit his day job; five years later, when PlentyOfFish was making $10 million annually, he started hiring. Early on, hundreds of competitors were popping up, most going for niche markets or delivering flashy/sexy platforms. But Frind’s interest in the middle of the road triumphed: today, 74 staffers manage romance for 60 million users. “We can’t steal market share from competitors anymore,” he says. “There’s nobody left to kill.” How, then, to grow? Recently, Frind was poring over his metrics and realized a small group of men were chasing away women by proposing sex right off the bat. This spring, he tweaked his software so that hookup language will get a message blocked. Men are also barred from contacting significantly younger women. The work-turning the salacious implications of online dating into just dating-continues with the mobile platform. Because Frind designed PlentyOfFish to be the safest, most “harmless” of dating sites, it’s become the one you aren’t embarrassed to use in public. Eighty-five percent of traffic now takes place on users’ cellphones. Which is good news for its founder. “You see three or four times as many messages being sent when people use the site on their phones. They check about 10 times a day.” Next up?