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.