A simplified support system for entrepreneurs and companies

Northern Alberta Business Incubator - A sustainable system for an easy access to reliable business support and opportunities for entrepreneurs and companies

This white paper is intended to provide thoughts around some of the ways to simplify our business support system and to make it self-evolving, self-sustaining, and dependable. 

The current era signifies rapid evolution of technologies, shrinking lifespan of products and services, rapidly changing and growing needs of consumers, low barriers to market entry, fierce global competition and thus warrants the need for a support system that is self-evolving and conducive for the growth and evolution of companies. Based on my 12+ years of association with the Edmonton region’s innovation-entrepreneurship support system, I learned that our support system is vast, diverse, and rich, but it needs to be simplified to augment its ease-of-use and dependability. 

A simplified system should enable inventors, innovators, entrepreneurs, and companies to easily leverage support and resources when needed and to rapidly build, launch, continuously improve or morph their products and services in accordance with the rapidly evolving and growing needs of users/consumers locally and internationally. It will require a concerted effort from each member of our business support system including funding and business support organizations, business incubators, business professional service companies, investors, experts, all levels of governments, and post-secondary institutions to reorganize the current support system into the proposed system or something even better.

Opportunity – Our unique and lasting competitive advantage

When I compare our support system with that of the world-renowned Silicon Valley, I believe that we have all that is required to build a thriving ecosystem like Silicon Valley. We have knowledge sources (post-secondary institutions, state-of-the-art R&D centres, advanced tech companies), knowledge resources (experts, seasoned entrepreneurs, mentors), knowledge force (skilled and adaptable human-resource), inventors, innovators, entrepreneurs, and access to substantial (but untapped) funds. We have unique and diverse ‘enablers’, e.g., ACAMP, AHS-centralized healthcare system, Amii, C-FER, Google DeepMinds, Innotech, Industry Sandbox and AI Computing (ISAIC), the Leduc Food Processing Development Centre as well as abundant high-quality diverse raw materials. Our region has produced many successful companies that have launched out of Edmonton ranging from large corporations (Telus, Stantec, PCL, Boston Pizza, The Brick, Champion Petfoods, etc.) to agile SMEs and leading startups (Bioware, Jobber, Showbie, Granify, ScopeAR, Yardstick, Quantiam Technologies, Entos Pharmaceuticals, Hepion Pharmaceuticals, Intellimedia, Metabolomic Technologies Inc., UmayCare, Nanoprecise Sci Corp, NanoSpeed Diagnostics, Alta ML, Clinisys EMR, Tier6, Stream ML, SmileSonica, Wilson Analytical, Jacek Chocolate Couture and many more).

Our region is also attractive in terms of affordable high-quality of living, a plethora of attractions and activities, a welcoming and supportive community to live a fulfilling life, ideal conditions to achieve work-life balance, an efficient healthcare system, quality education systems to fulfill career aspirations, and a lower business tax-rate to help businesses grow sustainably. In addition, our products seem to have a higher perceived value and buyers’ trust in international markets. While doing an MBA at the University of Alberta (2008-10), as part of a course work, our group built a business plan for the export of cattle germplasm to China. Our research revealed that the Chinese government gave subsidies and rapid approval for the import of Canadian cattle germplasm. Comments about rapid approval of Canadian products in foreign countries were also shared by others.

The above cited and many more of our competitive advantages could easily qualify our region to imprint an indelible mark on the global map as the builder and supplier of advanced-tech, high quality innovative products and services for the current as well as future needs of global markets. 

So, what are our ‘solvable’ challenges?

Our vast and rich business support system seems like a convoluted maze that is time and cost prohibitive for inventors, innovators, entrepreneurs, and companies to navigate. Further, the frequent shifts in the system makes it challenging for them to find support, tools, and resources when needed, and perhaps distracts them. For some, the distractions may be causing delays or derailment of their product development, commercialization, growth, and expansion.

The most common issue in the ecosystem that I have observed over the years is the lack of awareness or up-to-date knowledge about business support programs, various strengths, and success stories of our region. For example, many in our ecosystem might be surprised if I share that Professor David Cheriton, one of the first four angel investors in Google, lived in Edmonton. The issue could be attributed to multiple factors such as: frequent shifts in the system as stated before; a lack of single source for information and opportunities, existing and new strengths of the ecosystem; locally developed products and services; new and short-lived programs and services; erratic changes in programs and services and also their names; high turnover rate of employees inside the support system and resulting loss of connections and trust between end users and support organizations; and creation, attrition,  consolidation-dissociation, renaming of support organizations. 

The cited issues could be easily resolved by simplifying the system and making it dependable. And when done, it should take no time or effort to transform our region into a thriving innovation-entrepreneurship ecosystem of global dimension.

Proposed support system

The proposed system comprises three ‘Centrals’ namely, the Gathering Central, Support Central and the Funding Central. These ‘Centrals’ must rest on ‘stable’ and ‘simplified’ pillars to accelerate the creation/growth/retention/attraction of companies, employment, human resource retention and attraction, investment growth and attraction, greater alignment between educational institutions and industry, and the growth of a diversified economy.

The guiding principles used for creating the proposed system were: a connected and informed community that can be a potent catalyst for building a self-growing and evolving entrepreneurial ecosystem; a simplified funding system (similar to the student loan system) that can empower founders to make timely decisions and access money when needed; a centralized mechanism to collect and access data or archive and share knowledge that can be a strong driver for building a community’s trust in the system, adjusting business services/funding requirements/educational curriculum/R&D capabilities to the evolving needs of companies, and for building and communicating global competitiveness of our region.

Gathering Central: Just like trading posts and gathering places in the past elicited creation of trades and industries, the Gathering Central can be a potent catalyst and a major driver to build a strong, connected, informed, and thriving ecosystem. The Gathering Central can be in the form of a single or a few permanent venue(s) at strategic location(s) in and around Edmonton with facilities for ecosystem members to socialize, host/attend events, trade shows, award functions, learning sessions, workshops, TED Talks, business conferences, seminars, access training/mentoring/coaching, etc. One of the venues can be a main centre to establish galleries showcasing impactful technologies, products, services; Edmonton innovations and success stories; renowned and growing companies; licensing opportunities for IP and technologies; partnership opportunities for companies; sale or purchase of companies, etc., and to host flagship events and annual awards. Such a facility could become an attraction for our community at large and for visitors, investors, and trade missions.

The Gathering Central can be utilized to collect a variety of data (e.g., partnerships/collaborations) and as a common source for content creation for social media and press. A few revenue streams (EXCEPT PARKING FEES) can be implemented to sustain the Central’s operation and activities, e.g., facility and equipment rentals, various memberships, event tickets, advertising display rentals, food court, and fee for data and content access.

The Gathering Central may likely build: a culture of innovation-entrepreneurship; a connected ecosystem; greater awareness about resources and local strengths; trust-based and lasting relationships among ecosystem members which may enable companies to build their local customer base – likely a strong success factor for expanding customer reach nationally and internationally; B2B opportunities, spin-off companies and collaborative projects; increased confidence level of investors, effective retention and attraction of human resource and companies.

Support Central: This Central can enable companies to access right-help-at-right-time. The Central can be utilized to connect companies with business consultants, business professional services, prototype development and testing centres, manufacturers, etc. 

The Central can be made sustainable via multiple revenue streams, e.g., fee for data access, and membership fee for companies and other ecosystem members and stakeholders.

The Central can be a source to monitor company needs, supply and demand for services, technology trends, new/emerging requirements of companies, etc. It can enable efficient utilization of business programs and R&D facilities as well as data-driven decision making to refine and create programs and to upgrade ecosystem facilities.

Funding Central: This Central’s model can be analogous to the tested model of federal and provincial post-secondary student-loan systems wherein the eligibility criteria can be based on stage, size, and type of companies, salary for founders (gap in the current system), as well as the background of entrepreneurs, innovators, and their team. Eligible applicants receive milestone and duration-based interest-free loans or line-of-credit, can apply for funding renewal(s) and new funding for new opportunities, and can request interest-deferral(s). The Central can be a source for government and industry grants for their focus areas (e.g., agritech, fintech, automation, and precision health), and for technologies with long commercialization cycles, heavy regulatory requirements, high-cost of product development and testing (e.g., medical devices and pharmaceuticals, satellites, and autonomous vehicles). The Central can be utilized for collecting economic impact data including export revenue. The Central activities can be funded through revenue streams, e.g., fee for data access and membership fee for investors and investment firms to access companies.

Through its revenue model, e.g., interest on loans and various revenue streams, the Funding Central can become a self-sustaining system and may not require repeated infusion of public money for the creation of new companies and for growing and supporting existing companies. Founders will be able to utilize funds when needed for their various business needs which may generate greater economic ripple effects, e.g., company growth and new investment attraction.

The proposed system can be further augmented by employing best practices, tactics, favorable IP and business policies, building and licensing of programs and services. This all looks very simple and intuitive but that is how it should appear to entrepreneurs, inventors, innovators, investors, employers, jobseekers, and opportunity-seekers from within and outside of Canada.

Rajesh Jaiswal is the Executive Director of the Northern Alberta Business Incubator, www.nabi.ca.

How Vancouver’s Victoria Drive transformed from sleepy neighbourhood to vibrant multicultural business hub

Victoria Drive Business Improvement Association - Welcome to Victoria drive in The Canadian Business Quarterly

In Canada, Vancouver has rapidly become the vibrant city that has been attracting global investments along with an exponentially increasing population base. Close in proximity to Asia, it has blossomed into a multicultural hub for all to experience. Along with the growing migration of people from all over the world, the social environment in Canada has increasingly become all the more multicultural. Vancouver in particular has become the Asian hub in North America. Along with the unique Asian cultural exposures, we are now blessed with the best of Asian cuisines that even surpass the quality of those in Asia. 

Victoria Drive business district, one of the 22 business improvement areas in Vancouver, extends from East 32nd Avenue to East 55th Avenue. It has been morphing into the bustling shopping street of predominantly a surprisingly big assortment of restaurants, mom and pop grocery stores, and health and beauty services that we see today. During the early 1970s, business activities along Victoria Drive were still sleepy and fragmented. Thanks to the increasing influx of immigrants that chose Vancouver as the place to settle, life began to take root as well. It has today flourished with throngs of shoppers, adding spice of life to a close-knit business and residential neighbourhood. With the pro-active support from City councillors and planners, in their refraining to implement pay parking meters along Victoria Drive, the businesses and residential community have continued to co-exist in beautiful harmony. Today, we see continuous changes with new eateries from many parts of the world popping up along Victoria Drive. It is now truly a global melting pot of cultures and experience. With the increasing number of foot traffic, it is becoming a “one stop” destination, now drawing in outside visitors that can experience the excellent cuisine and unique shops of all kinds.   

Jones Park, a long-time bucket list revitalization project, has recently been transformed into a very inviting public space with new picnic tables, a staging area, and playground additions. Just across from our neighbourhood fire hall and East 38th Avenue, it is very centrally located for the neighbourhood residents to exercise, relax and play. Jones Park is of great importance with many community events located there annually such as festivals and sports theme events. The future along Victoria Drive now looks ever so bright, exciting and welcoming for all to visit or reside.

Victoria Drive Business Improvement Association (VDBIA):  Our beginnings

With the advent of businesses springing up along Victoria Drive, a group of entrepreneurs had the foresight to see the need for a non-profit association to help organize and assist the then fragmented group of businesses. Around the beginning of this century, (2004) Victoria Drive Business Improvement Association (VDBIA) was formed. Its mandate then was simple: “just be there to assist businesses and commercial property owners with their challenges”. There had been a disconnect between the businesses and the neighbouring residences. With the “countryside” atmosphere along Victoria Drive, there was only sparse people traffic along the dusty sidewalks. This “status quo” life along Victoria Drive soon vaporized with the ever-increasing bubbling of life around this vast neighbourhood. Thankfully, the VDBIA directors and some volunteer neighbourhood enthusiasts were able to adapt to the continuing changes, and served the communities and businesses successfully.

The present

Over a span of over ten years, dedicated volunteer directors and staff have nurtured Victoria Drive business improvement association (VDBIA) into maturity. Now, VDBIA has been hosting a variety of annual social and event activities that provide identity and cohesion in this process of placemaking. VDBIA presently serves as an essential conduit between businesses and the surrounding residential neighbourhood. Today’s Victoria Drive business strip is now alive with throngs of shoppers. A positive side effect is the attraction of people looking to settle in the neighbourhood that is safe and positive for their families. That is a positive for real estate values. 

Lest we forget, there is also another quintessential component in the Victoria Drive neighbourhood that has been making valuable contributions to safeguard our residents and businesses. South Vancouver community crime prevention society (SVCCPS/SVCPC) is a vital piece in the puzzle. With the support of the VDBIA, safety and positive family ambience has been greatly achieved. The SVCCPS like the VDBIA, is also a non-profit, community, oriented society driven by volunteers and staff. Centrally located at 5435 Victoria Drive, it has been very convenient for the public to access when help is needed. Its landlord, by the way, is the City of Vancouver. In the interest of the people’s safety and welfare, we hope the City will proactively support and allow SVCCPS to remain. The approachable volunteers provide the “boots on the ground” services for the public who may seek help.

Equally important to the Victoria Drive neighbourhood, is the South Vancouver Neighbourhood House, which offers extensive public services of almost every need. It is located near East 49th Avenue and has always been a safe haven, offering outreach programs for vulnerable children, youth and adults.

Now, VDBIA is also experiencing many challenges recently with the prevalent health risks during this COVID-19 pandemic. With the requirement for safe social distancing, VDBIA has adapted to alternate means of reaching out to the public. VDBIA, working with the SVCCPS, has been actively promoting healthy outlook education. The distribution of face masks to the business members was fast tracked with this goal of safe public interactions. The fruit of our efforts is positive as most people have abided by the face mask requirements as well as social distancing.

The future

The outlook can only look brighter and more exciting. VDBIA will continue to generate more life along Victoria Drive with added exciting social and cultural events and encouraging community participation. Connecting with the City councillors and planners frequently has so far prevented any missteps that will seriously hurt the harmonious relationship between the businesses and the residents. Thankfully, the South Vancouver crime community crime prevention society (SVCCPS/ SVCPC) and its dedicated volunteers have been providing the much necessary support and safeguards for our communities. 

VDBIA continues to have the active support from our Federal, Provincial and Municipal representatives. The future for businesses and residential communities will continue to look upbeat. VDBIA will carry on and always welcome new volunteer participations which will reward them with the proud satisfaction of achieving positive contributions to their community. Now, that is a marvellous and satisfying feeling! For the aspiring and energetic achievers looking to volunteer and do good for families, friends, and everyone else, VDBIA and SVCCPS welcome those seeking greater challenges with aspiration to become one of our volunteer directors. 

Final thoughts

It has been a long road since the creation of VDBIA. Pleasantly, Victoria Drive has blossomed and matured from a sleepy neighbourhood to the vibrant multicultural business hub which many visitors have come to experience. In addition, families have increasingly taken root around Victoria Drive with the comfort of feeling safer in part because of our frontline volunteers who regularly patrol the residential and business areas. So, do show appreciation with a smile, should you come across these friendly volunteers wearing jackets with yellow or blue stripes. They are volunteers representing VDBIA and SVCCPS. They also help lessen the busy workload of our Vancouver Police by being the eyes and ears on the ground. 

Come visit Victoria Drive to discover its potential. With the growing social events and the ever-changing ambience, you may miss the opportunity to be part of the wonderful experience. While here, visit VDBIA and SVCCPS should you need assistance. This place will lift-up your spirit with the personal customer service from our local shopkeepers who are very eager to help you.

Richard Lai sits on the Board of Directors and is Secretary of the Victoria Drive Business Improvement Association (VDBIA), www.victoriadrivebia.com.