Entrepreneurship

Halifax’s Springboard program turns academics into entrepreneurs

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Originally published on June 27, 2017 as a Guest Column in The Globe and Mail: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/small-business/sb-growth/halifaxs-springboard-program-transforms-academics-into-entrepreneurs/article35296361/

There’s an old saying that you can accomplish anything you want – so long as you don’t care who takes the credit.

This is not just a powerful insight into human nature. It may also be the clue to solving Canada’s innovation problem.

The consensus is that Canadians are great at coming up with new ideas, but we’re not so good at commercializing them. That’s the hard part: turning new insights into products and services that people want to buy, and then building smart, well-financed companies to profitably bring those products to market.

In Atlantic Canada, however, a below-the-radar not-for-profit is finding commercialization success by helping other people turn college and university research into winning businesses. The secret to Springboard Atlantic’s winning record: it serves as a catalyst, bringing business resources and commercialization expertise to bear on ideas coming out of 19 Atlantic-region postsecondary institutions. As a government-funded community builder, Springboard CEO Chris Mathis doesn’t seek credit; he only wants results.

“These universities create IP [intellectual property] on a daily basis,” says Mathis, himself a mechanical engineer turned entrepreneur. “We help these educational institutions decide which ideas can best be commercialized, and then help them connect with the people and partnerships that can bring them to fruition.”

Take the case of Fredericton-based Eigen Innovations, an internet-of-things (IoT) company that helps manufacturers reduce defects and boost productivity through machine learning and data analytics. The company was founded on thermal-vision analysis algorithms developed by Dr. Rickey Dubay, a mechanical engineering professor at the University of New Brunswick (now Eigen’s chief scientific officer) and one of his grad students, Scott Everett (now CEO).

“Eigen’s IP was initially supported by funds within the business office at University of New Brunswick, as well as Springboard,” Mathis says. “Now they have more than a dozen employees, and major customers working with their technology.”

In fact, Eigen has raised more than $1-million in venture capital, and it’s now embedding its technology with Tier One automotive manufacturers and industrial equipment suppliers. The company won awards from industry leaders such as Cisco and Dell, and it has been named one of the 100 top influencers in the industrial Internet of Things.

Starting a business is never easy, and bringing them out of university labs is a special type of hell. There’s no easy road. Researchers are often driven by curiosity rather than market need, and even when they develop a commercial idea, many would rather simply publish their results than turn them into a business.

Most colleges and universities have technology-transfer officers, but their efforts are often frustrated by isolation within the halls of academe and a lack of business contacts. According to Mathis, a group of Atlantic universities saw these problems 12 years ago, and created Springboard to develop and share commercialization best practices. “They realized they should work together to build up their research, industry engagement and commercialization capacity,” says Mathis says.

Funded by the universities, colleges and the federal government’s Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA), Springboard has a staff of five but serves clients directly and through a network of institutional industry liaison and technology transfer officers. Its role is to help on-campus commercialization and develop better relationships with faculty members, to sharpen their own abilities to analyze IP and evaluate market potential. In practice, Springboard also helps the network explore the process of commercialization with their academic colleagues, to determine their interest in partnering with industry, licensing or venturing into business themselves.

Most crucially, Springboard’s network serves as a matchmaker between academics and business, opening doors to help them find the companies, business leaders, consultants or investors that can guide them to market success. “There are multiple points where research discovery can lead to social and economic benefits, or go by the wayside,” Mathis says. “We try to show them what’s working well, and what isn’t. We end up with communities in the region that interact.”

The results speak for themselves. Springboard has been a catalyst in supporting the development of numerous Atlantic companies with global growth potential and impacts, from helping a Halifax firm that creates screens to protect pilots from exposure to lasers, to research in St. John’s that drew on Newfoundland’s population data to develop a technique for evaluating who should be screened for hereditary genetic heart issues. Mathis says Atlantic Canada is starting to develop global leadership in specific niches– not just ocean sciences and aquaculture, but sustainable energy, smart grid technologies and cybersecurity.

Canada is always wrestling with its innovation gap. I think it’s because we don’t realize that successful innovation, while difficult, starts with fig a series of easy, practical steps. What can this discovery do? Who needs what it does? What will it cost to develop this product or solution? How much will the people who need it pay for it? No one academic, entrepreneur or hired consultant can answer all these questions. We need more catalysts like Springboard to explain the process, make introductions and help these solitudes find each other.

Fear, ignorance, walls and silos are the enemies of innovation – not a failure of research or business will. We’re all better off when governments stop trying to pick winners, and invest in community and humble catalysts instead.

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How entrepreneurs can be better leaders 

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Entrepreneurs aren’t always known for their people skills. And frankly, neither are engineers. So I felt somewhat challenged recently when I was invited to speak to students at the W Booth School of Engineering at McMaster University, which focuses on creating not just builders, but leaders.

Product-obsessed engineers and always-racing-somewhere entrepreneurs aren’t generally known for having the open, engaging and empowering management style that seems so critical in business today. Still, entrepreneurs thrive on change, so understanding people – and helping them grow  is just one more skill set we have to adopt. 

So I thanked Professor David Potter for his courage in handing me the microphone in front of his classroom of emerging minds, and tried to persuade them that leadership is much more than just getting things done. 

In recent years, I have spent more time  in my own company and with other organizations  helping people adapt their leadership approach to a world of constant, unpredictable change. And as I explained to these engineering students, addressing change succeeds or fails by understanding a concept you rarely learn in the classroom: context.

According to Oxford, “context is a frame of reference – a device you use to extract meaning from random or imperfect information. For me, “context” is the most important word in businessLeaders always need to understand the needs, concerns and demandsthat shape their actions and attitudes – as well as those factors affecting the people you do business with. Knowing all of these different motivations and frames of reference puts you in a position to find common ground and move ahead together.

Context is especially important in managing people. How can you help someone change their behaviour if you don’t take the time to understand why theyve been acting that way” in the first place?

Contextually speaking, see two stages thaentrepreneurs generally go through – andthe quantum leap they need to take to evolve their leadership style. I offer the following framework not just for entrepreneurs, but for those who work with them. 

  1.  The Island Leader: Many entrepreneurs isolate themselves when making decisions within their own businesses – for two fundamental reasons. The first is that entrepreneurs of my generation began their business journeys in a top-down age. Our bosses told us: Keep your head down, put one foot in front of the other, shut your mouth. And in 30 years, they’ll give you a gold watch.” It was an era when business success was created by followingnot standing out. Naturally, this early learning affects the way many entrepreneurs deal with people today – especially after fighting so hard to establish their own firms. 

    Secondly, who exactly are entrepreneurs leading when we launch our companies? Usually just a few true believers – and often, no one at all. So how can entrepreneurs become great leaders when we so often begin as islands unto ourselves? 

  2. The Treehouse Leader: As our companies growentrepreneurs hire other people to work “for” us. Having scant leadership experience, we tend to build our own treehouse on our business island and lob directions from above: “Do this, do that. No, that was yesterday – do this instead.” When you establish your own business, founded on your own personality and worldview, it’s not easy to open up and work more collaboratively.Entrepreneurs’ thick skin hides a lot of bruises. We have heard all the objections that come with trying to do things differently: “That’s a stupid idea. This will never work.” 

But a business model honed in the 20th century doesn’t fit any more. The island and the treehouse have to go. Entrepreneurs must open up and recognize that more heads are better than one.

Twenty years ago, the business world spun more slowly. With longer product lifecycles,you could build a viable business by coming up with one better idea every few yearsBut today’s customers demand constant innovation, customization, rapid prototyping. No leader can do all that alone.

Fortunately, entrepreneurs trying to up their game have natural allies: millennials. I can hear your startled protests, but I don’t see the new generation as entitled, cynical or smug. I associate millennials with communication and collaboration

They have grown up as Gen C, the connected generation. Through technology, they participate in any conversation, on any topic, anywhere in the world. They don’t accept Shut up and keep your head down.” We leaders must adapt. We must learn to converse instead of command.

Respectful conversation is hard – which is probably why our bosses avoided it. Conversing requires mutual respect. If you ask for an opinion, you must treat it with care, and explain why you agree or disagree. Offering a shrug – or no reaction at all – guarantees that conversation will continue without you. 

Did the students get my message? I think they were delighted to be told that their preferred method of communication – frank, fearless and always on – will eventually win in the workplace. I just hope their bosses are fast learners.

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To become truly innovative, Canadians need to become better at thinking creatively

Attractive businesswoman in clean room with city view looking at whiteboard with colorful sketch. Creative and analytical thinking concept. 3D Rendering

Originally published on March 20, 2017 as a Guest Column in The Globe and Mail: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/small-business/sb-managing/ottawa-can-help-but-to-become-truly-innovative-canada-needs-to-embrace-entrepreneurship/article34348521/

With the federal government getting set to unveil its new innovation strategy in its March 22 budget, a scholarly article on “Canada’s Low-Innovation Equilibrium” has asked whether anything short of a crisis can jump-start our efforts to produce the better, smarter products and services we need to keep our economy growing.

The author is Peter Nicholson, one of our brainier Canadians: a physicist, computer-science prof, banker, former Nova Scotia MLA and policy adviser to former Prime Minister Paul Martin. In a highly readable article in the journal Canadian Public Policy, he points out that the business community’s generally downstream, “branch-plant” status has enabled Canadians to maintain a prosperous standard of living despite neglecting the necessary business of developing new products and services. That would explain why a century of policy efforts to stimulate innovation have failed.

But we may not be able to coast much longer. Pointing to “transformative” new technologies such as IT, biotech and nanotech, as well as the need for more and benign energy solutions, he publicly asks how long our business and political leaders can keep neglecting innovation.

I do not question Dr. Nicholson’s analysis. But he is an intellectual, firmly tied into our academic-government-corporate elite, and I believe he’s missing something. Innovation isn’t just corporate R&D flowing out of tax policy. Innovation is an attitude. It’s a way of looking at all aspects of life around us – problems, constraints, delights and discoveries – and wondering how you can use them to create new and better ideas, processes, products and services.

For most of us, business or individual, the greatest innovations will not spring from laboratory experiments or quantum computing. They come from finding new ways to do things better.

Case in point: two of the best-selling products coming out of the ABC-TV show Shark Tank are as humble as you can imagine. Consider “Scrub Daddy,” a smiley-faced scrubbing tool that changes its texture with the temperature of the water you wash with. Inventor Aaron Krause has now built a company around his silly sponge with a portfolio of innovative household products, many sourced from an inventive public.

The other breakthrough: the Simply Fit Board exercise board, developed by a mother and daughter team. The simply curved balance board lets you strengthen your core while doing basic twists and squats. The plastic, neon-coloured boards cost $9 (U.S.) to produce and sell for $40 at Amazon and Wal-mart, a profit margin that enticed investors Kevin O’Leary and Lori Greiner into a bidding war.

I’m not saying that big science and corporate R&D aren’t important. But as the politicians and economists argue over policies and incentives, Ottawa must acknowledge that individual Canadians and entrepreneurs have a huge role to play in boosting innovation. Let’s find creative ways to turn Canadians into more active, curious, creative thinkers and tinkerers. (Look at how the CBC’s Dragons’ Den, the precursor to Shark Tank, has stimulated entrepreneurial creativity.)

And let’s also remember that to become expert innovators, Canadians must do more than come up with good ideas. They must actively bring them to market – which means learning more about business models, market research, production, finance, selling and marketing. These skills must be taught in schools and inculcated throughout society. The federal government is not responsible for education, but it has many levers it can pull – such as workforce development and corporate incentives to better understand market need and product potential, and sponsorship of national pitch contests – to expose more Canadians to the fun and profit of entrepreneurship and creativity.

Bottom line: Innovation is about asking questions, defying social norms, creative thinking, understanding other people’s needs, brainstorming new business models, and learning to be flexible and resourceful when market testing shreds your dreams. These are all apolitical but essential life skills that we will need to prosper in an increasingly competitive world. Innovation is not just for ivory towers, but for kitchen tables, spare bedrooms and garages across the country.

Ken Tencer is chief executive officer of design-driven strategy firm Spyder Works Inc. and the co-author of two books on innovation, including the bestseller Cause a Disturbance. He holds the Institute of Corporate Directors certification (ICD.D). Follow him on Twitter at @90per centRule.

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