Alumni profile: Mik Kersten,
CEO, Tasktop Technologies
A UBC Computer Science alumnus ultra-successful spinoff company, Tasktop, has just received an investment injection of $100 million from Sumeru Equity Partners. CEO Mik Kersten shares his journey and inspiration with us.
“I was ten when we escaped from Poland and moved to Ottawa. I graduated from high school there, then hopped on my motorcycle to drive out to British Columbia to start my anthropology degree at UBC,” Kersten said.
He quickly became entranced with anthropology and evolution. “The theme of my cohort was ‘nature versus nurture.’ Through that, I came to realize how we are evolving and thinking, and that how so much of who we are today, actually has to do with technology.”
Kersten had already become interested in programming at a very young age. “I learned BASIC before I learned English, then became interested in the humanities,” he said. “But my interest in the potential of technology was rekindled when I saw Maria Klawe give a lecture. She inspired me. I switched to computer science immediately after.”
UBC Professor Dr. Gail Murphy taught Kersten his very first programming course and ended up being a co-founder of Tasktop. The duo also had guidance from UBC’s University Industry Liaison Office (UILO). They had collaborated on a new approach to thinking and measuring software delivery, now called ‘value stream management'.
What is Value Stream Management?
Value stream management is a lean business practice that helps an organization determine the value of software development and delivery efforts and resources. It also helps to improve the flow of value to the organization, while managing and monitoring the software delivery life cycle from end-to-end.
“I feel tremendous gratitude to Gail, her group, the UBC Computer Science department, and the UILO,” said Kersten.
The UBC University-Industry Liaison Office is actively engaged in the creation and development of UBC spin-off companies that are rooted in UBC research discoveries. Tasktop was launched with the help of the UILO, utilizing technology that Kersten created during his time at the University.
“The liaison office supported us in figuring out how to effectively structure our company from a commercialization point of view,” Kersten explained. “And because we are a UBC spinoff, there's a positive financial outcome for the university as well, which is great.”
Influenced by reading, but inspired by father
Kersten wasn’t always so convinced that more higher-learning was the way to go. “From an investment point of view, I had read some articles on how a Masters or PhD can be a terrible idea,” he said. “But my late father, who was a professor at Concordia kept pushing me. I didn’t really want an academic career but he convinced me that the world and technology was becoming so complex, and without deeper education and knowledge, I wouldn’t be able to really push boundaries in the way I had envisioned.”
Kersten decided to step away from industry and enroll in his PhD at UBC with Gail Murphy as his supervisor. He now firmly believes it was the best investment he ever made. It gave him the benefit of access to the knowledge in a university department and helped him launch a new market, plus build a start-up to leverage that market.
“When you’re passionate about what you do, and you have a place like UBC Computer Science behind you, and someone like Gail to help you push against the status quo, there’s no reason you can’t get your work on the world’s stage,” Kersten said.
Dr. Murphy helped Kersten and the team get the ‘Idea to Innovation’ grant that provided them with $120,000. “That's really how we got started. We also worked unpaid for a little while too, in order to get things off the ground. There was a lot of sweat equity involved in winning our first couple of customers.”
Author proceeds funding a UBC scholarship
Kersten also explained how he has brought things back full circle to the students. “I wrote a book that was published two and a half years ago called Project to Product: How to Survive and Thrive in the Age of Digital Disruption with the Flow Framework. It’s a bestseller on Amazon, and I am donating all the author proceeds from book sales to a new UBC CS scholarship. Creating this endowment is allowing us to give back to students, and I feel that is such an important thing to do. I had the $5,000 Rick Sample Memorial Scholarship during my undergrad at UBC, which was a huge deal for me. It really helped me finance my studies and enabled me to start my career.”
Kersten is passionate about hiring UBC computer science grads, and has a number of them working with him at the 200-employee company. With the recent investment injection of $100 million for Tasktop, he says he will likely be seeking even more UBC grads to hire. “The UBC Science co-op program is a fantastic way for us to draw students here and we would love to see more Masters and CS students join us on the mission of transforming how software is built.”
Kersten is very enthusiastic about what the hundred million investment says about the current Vancouver scene in tech. “I think the really exciting thing is that it demonstrates there is now more access to capital in the Vancouver tech ecosystem than previously,” said Kersten. “It will also help us continue to innovate in value stream management, accelerate product innovation and help Tasktop deliver on large digital transformations for some of the world's largest companies.”