Ethan Sun: An entrepreneur of innovation
CEO of Vancouver company overcame many obstacles
Sometimes reaching a goal is just the beginning.
Ethan Sun may now be the president and CEO of his own company — Istuary Innovation Labs Inc — but his road to success has been an uphill journey.
Having received a bachelor’s degree in computer science at Peking University in 1996, Sun worked for China Telecom in Beijing for the next four years, first as a software designer, then as a project manager.
In 2000, Sun moved to Ontario and worked for companies such as Nortel Networks and Innovance Networks before relocating to San Francisco, and eventually Los Angeles, where he served for seven years at Ixia in software development.
Sun talked about his experiences starting up his first company at the Canadian Association of Business Incubation Leadership Summit in March 2015. He was 26, he said, and it ended in bankruptcy. Luckily, his next venture, Istuary Innovation Group, has been vastly more successful.
“When I was 36, this aching in my heart continued to grow, but it was not easy for me to take the risk again, because I had a family, a house and all these things I had to support,” Sun told China Daily.
“This pain actually tortured me for more than four years, until one day I realized that many people have the entrepreneurial spirit and the desire, but there are so many barriers. So, I thought, why not create an organization or process or some kind of a mechanism to help them overcome those barriers?” he said.
Sun had abundant management experience, technical experience, insight into the creation of technology, as well as how the market works. “So that’s the initiative of Istuary. I started by building an organization, a partnership for people like me,” he said.
As he looked around at the different models and types of incubators and business accelerators in operation, one drawback he found was that while the current models provided steady service, they were not profitable or even sustainable businesses themselves.
“So that’s been our model from day one,” he said. “We tried to combine the incubation, acceleration, and venture capital itself together as an enterprise. We’re trying to be sustainable, profitable and growing ourselves. It was a bold move, actually. A lot of my friends told me, ‘Don’t do it, it’s too risky’, but we were lucky.”
Istuary officially launched in June 2013, but the model had been in the works for quite some time. Sun explained its three-part system:
The first is an institute of innovative technology and talent called Istuary Innovation Labs. Second is Istuary Venture Capital, a capital accumulation and investment advisory firm. And lastly, is a social resource management consultancy, Istuary Consulting.
“We built Innovation Labs first,” he said. “It’s a gathering of technology professionals in the business partnership.”
“At first we had fewer than ten people based in Burnaby, BC. We didn’t have our first full-time employee until October 2013,” he added.
The mechanism got a warm welcome from the scientific and technical community. Istuary Innovation Labs now has more than 200 global partners with 70 employees at its headquarters in Vancouver, 10 in the US, and plans to open a second Canadian incubation hub in Toronto. The company is looking to expand to more than 150 partners in North America.
In addition they have six offices in China with 150 employees in Beijing, Guangzhou, Hangzhou, Nanjing, Ningbo, Shanghai and Shenzhen, with plans to add another five. As an overseas entrepreneur himself, Sun sees the potential of the Chinese market.
“This year, we’re starting a new branch, which is education for entrepreneurs and investors,” Sun said, “and with great support from Canada, the government, and the people around us, we’re growing really fast.”
“It’s a little bit nerve-racking for me,” he continued. “We are kind of being pushed by a lot of things, but because we are being so careful, we create a good return for the investor. The first two projects we did had an 18-to-20-fold return in the first year.”
Since then, Istuary has formed a number of specialized laboratories. There is currently about 1.5 billion Chinese yuan (C$313 million) of funds under its management, and Sun is building a 10 billion yuan (C$2 billion) industrial fund in his Chinese offices.
“We have encountered a lot of difficulties and setbacks,” Sun said. “With our first project there were some problems with intellectual property protection issues. We are still experiencing difficulties in many R&D projects. It’s very difficult if partners are not in the same city, let alone in a different country or region. Distance is a big obstacle. We are still learning and adjusting.”
“Another difficulty that is now more or less fully overcome is that in the early days, we had to focus a lot on team building and project management, as well as ensuring a steady source of funds. We mainly want to build a platform for entrepreneurial teams so that they don’t need to worry about those things.”
In the early days of a startup, financing takes a large amount of the management team’s time, so the Istuary Group model was designed to help entrepreneurs avoid this, but Sun said that “in the process of establishing this fund we encountered a lot of
43 resistance from many investors who thought: ‘ Why don’t we just invest directly into this project, rather than going through this fund?’ Many did not understand, and it made it more difficult.”
Sun mentioned that Istuary’s biggest challenge now is their search for talent, as the personnel requirements for their unique process and model are relatively high.
“Through continuous explanation and practice of our method, we now have not only our own effective investment group, but we have also established a wide range of financing partners,” Sun said.
With Istuary’s plans to expand bigger than ever in the coming years, Canada’s largest technology incubation platform aims to bring entrepreneurs an ever wider global access to talent, funding and markets.
It’s a gathering of technology professionals in the business partnership.”
Ethan Sun, president and CEO of Istuary Innovation Labs, Inc, speaks with a reporter at the company’s downtown Vancouver office. President and CEO, Istuary Innovation Labs Inc. (2013-present)
Education: Bachelor of Computer Science, Peking University (1991-1996)
Career: • Vice-president engineering, Wurldtech Security Technologies (2012-2013) • Software development director, Ixia (2008-2012) • Software development manager, Ixia (2006-2008) • Development lead, Ixia (2005-2006) • Software engineer, Cisco Systems (2004-2005) • Software designer, BTI Systems (2003-2004) • Software designer, Innovance Networks (20012003) • Software designer, Nortel Networks (2000-2001) • Software engineer, Syndesis Limited (2000) • Project/software manager, China Telecom (1996-2000)