Founder Eric Peterson talks about the Tula Foundation:
My wife Christina Munck and I established the Tula Foundation at the end of 2001. The endowment for Tula came from the sale of Mitra, a company I started about a decade earlier in Waterloo, Ontario. Mitra was in the vanguard of the wave of change that took hospitals from light boxes and stacks of X-ray film to computer workstations and digital archives. The Mitra ethos, which married entrepreneurship and technology to a strong commitment to a social purpose, has carried forward into the Tula Foundation.
The Mitra pedigree gave Tula the know-how to build and operate charitable enterprises, rather than merely make donations in support of other organizations. The ingenuity and diverse skills of our staff and affiliates have allowed us tackle some very challenging applications in settings that would deter other organizations. We are patient and persistent, determined to succeed at tasks we set ourselves. And when we achieve success, we usually want to do more in the same vein, to build great programs for the long term.
This process of iteration has led to our three current areas of activity:
- TulaSalud addresses primary health systems and nursing in rural and indigenous regions of Guatemala. We’ve been able to harness technology and strong local leadership in an unlikely setting, and deliver great benefit to some of the most neglected communities in the Americas.
- The Hakai Institute is a set of interlocking programs in science, education and community leadership on the British Columbia coast, which over the life-span of the foundation has grown and ramified particularly since we established our ecological observatory on Calvert Island roughly halfway between Vancouver and Alaska in the spring of 2010. We have recently established a second observatory on Quadra Island at the northern most end of the Strait of Georgia.
- Hakai Media, which among other things publishes theHakai Magazine, an online publication that explores science, society, and the environment from a coastal perspective.
One of Mitra’s secrets was its ability to catalyze massive collaboration among diverse partners around a shared mission—that being to bring standards and interoperability to diagnostic imaging systems in hospitals. That tradition of collaboration has carried over into the Tula Foundation, where it is seen nowhere more strongly than in the Hakai Institute. There our own efforts are multiplied many times by our network of hundreds of collaborators from universities, government agencies, and First Nations.
I was born in Port Alberni on the west coast of Vancouver Island; both parents were born in B.C.; both sets of grandparents came to B.C. over a century ago; and one set of great grandparents arrived in Vancouver in 1888. So I am well and truly rooted in the province.
I attended local schools in Saanich, BC, the University of Victoria for two years, then the University of British Columbia to complete the final two years of the BSc and do an MSc. During these years other experiences proved to be at least as influential over my future career as my formal education.
First, in 1968 and 1969 I was a solo traveler though Central and South America. I spent considerable time in Guatemala during the very early stages of what was to be a thirty year civil war. That experience stimulated my life-long interest in Latin America and underlay my decision to start the TulaSalud program in Guatemala.
Second, during my schooling in BC, including summer breaks and for two full years following completion of my MSc, I worked as a laborer in various resource sector jobs in BC and Alberta, many of those jobs in trade unions (IWA, PPWC, CUPE). The BC work included time in sawmills, on a commercial fishing trawler working out of Prince Rupert, and an extended stint as a crew member in the steam plant and powerhouse at the pulp mill on Watson Island near Prince Rupert. In Alberta I worked at Fort McMurray during one of the early booms of the tar sands development. My work experiences in those years certainly reinforced the ties I felt to the BC North Coast and Central Coast.
I then completed a PhD at the University of Sussex in the UK, and I was a NATO postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University for two years. All my academic studies were in various branches of biology that had a strong mathematical component.
I became a research faculty member in neuroscience at McGill University in Montreal for a few years before leaving to pursue a career in the technology sector.
My work in the technology sector took place over the next fifteen years or so, mostly based in Waterloo, Ontario. All of the work could be characterized as industrial automation and system integration. My technical skills turned out to be very weak relative to my knack for project management then company leadership in this sector. Certainly my earlier work experience in industrial settings made me comfortable in this line of work.
In 1990 Larry Williamson and I founded Mitra Imaging, a developer of software and systems for managing diagnostic images and other clinical information in hospitals and health networks. At the time the medical application was for me just another problem in industrial automation, albeit one with an interesting scientific component and noble objectives that I could rally the company around. By 2001 Mitra had grown to the point that I was starting to feel out of my comfort zone so I reluctantly sold my interest. Mitra continues to thrive as the international R&D division of Agfa Health Care. I committed a portion of the proceeds of the Mitra transaction to the creation of the Tula Foundation with Christina Munck. Shortly after the creation of Tula we moved back to my home province of BC and we now divide our time between Quadra Island at the north end of the Strait of Georgia and Calvert Island on the BC Central Coast.
When we founded Tula, we brought to the table our interest and expertise in two fields: health care and the environment. We were drawn to regions that were poorly served, where we saw that our efforts could make a difference.
We saw plenty of non-profits in those fields whose mission was to advocate; to raise awareness; to lobby government, industry or the general public to do something about various pressing issues. But that was not our style. Rather than simply advocate, we wanted to get out into the field and launch tangible on-the-ground programs that produced measurable results.
Field programs are difficult and frustrating. They require commitment, specialized skills, complex logistics, a lot of money and a lot of time. I saw however that all my experience as an early-stage entrepreneur had given me the tools I needed to be successful in that arena.
Our Guiding Principles
Solid Science. Science is at the heart of everything we do.
Community Engagement. No program will be sustainable without the engagement of the communities in which we work.
Social Justice. Our work must by its very nature support social justice in the communities we serve.
Choosing Our Programs
Local & Global. We wanted to mix a commitment to our local community (British Columbia) with our responsibilities to the rest of the world.
Health Care & Environment. We chose to launch a global program focused on health care, and a local program focused on the environment.
Build on What We Know. We focused on regions fitting our criteria that we knew first hand:
- Guatemala for our international health program.
- The BC Central Coast for our environmental program.
Common Threads. Common threads run through the two programs:
- Profound challenges of transportation, isolation and lack of services
- Traditional territories of indigenous peoples
- Tension between the environment, culture and economic development
- Long history of conflict, discrimination and social injustice
How We Work
Hands-On. Tula has become a full-time, hands-on, volunteer mission for Christina Munck and myself.
Independent. The fact that we are self-funded allows us to:
- Work independently.
- Move quickly and decisively when required.
- Work iteratively, learning quickly from our mistakes.
- Be able to commit to the long term.
With Partners. Although we prize our independence, we succeed only through partnerships with:
- Local community leaders
- Local technical experts
- Educational institutions that serve the region
- Progressive elements within government agencies