Fostering innovation in Thunder Bay
Innovation is thriving around Ontario, with great companies emerging all over the province. This guest blog is part of a monthly series featuring MaRS’s partners across Ontario and their up-and-coming companies.
The Northwestern Ontario Innovation Centre (NWOIC) acts as a pivotal player in growing Northwestern Ontario’s innovation capacity by offering support to innovative entrepreneurs, businesses and community projects in the region of Northwestern Ontario. Located at the Centre for Change in Thunder Bay, ON, the NWOIC prides itself on creating links, engaging entrepreneurs, supporting management, training people, accessing markets, developing and implementing business plans, sourcing financing and building success.
The NWOIC recently announced its first annual survey results, which gauge the economic impact the non-profit organization has had on the Thunder Bay region. In the past year, the NWOIC assisted innovative companies in creating 48 full-time positions and 22 internships, with a combined annual payroll of more than $7.3 million. The NWOIC’s client companies have shown considerable growth potential: 59% of these home-grown Northwestern Ontario firms expect to hire new employees and, on average, the companies project increasing revenues by 85% this coming year. These companies were granted nine patents in the past year and launched 31 new products.
The NWOIC supports its clients in obtaining their goals by offering a variety of programs for startups and small and medium enterprises, and inviting them to become part of its network. The following is a list of a select few NWOIC programs that help cultivate talented people and ideas in the region.
Advance is an early-stage assistance program that provides funding to innovators—both those within firms and entrepreneurs—giving them opportunities to explore their concepts or ideas further with minimal risk. The Advance Program is often used as a precursor to other funding avenues, allowing innovators to prove market potential or proof of concept in order to attract additional capital to further the idea through to the next step of product development. Prototyping, primary market research, technical feasibility analysis and product enhancement analysis are also acceptable activities.
Within the realm of funding there has traditionally been a shortage of funds available for commercializing a product or idea. The Next Level grant is an opportunity for entrepreneurs to develop a launch strategy to obtain market traction. Typical activities include e-commerce, digital marketing, hiring of an executive-in-residence, sales training, brand development or attending industry trade shows to obtain the connections required to expedite revenue growth.
Venture Vault Shared Development Space
With this newly minted space, entrepreneurs can initiate their businesses in a low-cost manner and immerse themselves with others who share their commitment to developing ideas. By providing this shared space, the NWOIC is supporting Thunder Bay–based firms through an ecosystem that offers easy access to business mentorship and provides a leg up over other startups, making the firms more competitive in the global marketplace over the long term. The NWOIC is breaking down the boundaries to becoming an entrepreneur, as beginning a business venture has traditionally been done in isolation and has been considered high risk. By providing access to funding, advisors, market intelligence and more, the NWOIC aims to lower the risk for entrepreneurs, allowing them to develop knowledge-based businesses that create wealth in the North.
Some of the NWOIC’s client companies include Arcori, Flightop.com and Meaglow, as described below:
Arcori is a property management and social housing software startup that integrates the input from front-line workers for managers to tap into on-demand data to navigate strategic options for growth. Arcori has received funding, educational workshops, market intelligence data, connections to key partners, assistance in rebranding the company and strategic advice, all helping to drive the company forward. The company expanded from two to 11 employees this year and is anticipating a 250% increase in sales.
The NWOIC’s first incubator client, Flightop.com creates mobile airline ticket agent software. This startup has accessed the NWOIC’s business mentors and obtained funding to commercialize its products.
According to Flightop.com founder Paul Gibson, “The team at the Innovation Centre has been great. In two months I would have never imagined breaking even on my SaaS business, and next month we are anticipating being cash positive and bringing in at least one other full-time employee.”
The company’s first suite of products, Aviador, includes a ticket agent, crew time and training tracking, as well as a safety management system to help startup and small regional carriers become more competitive.
Meaglow is a nitride semiconductor manufacturer that is developing novel materials with the company’s low-temperature growth process. The firm’s technology allows for the development of new nitride-based materials that can be incorporated into LEDs, laser diodes, smartphones and medical, industrial and military applications to create next-generation devices that are brighter, more efficient, more durable and less costly to produce. The world is also catching on as the company has been featured on the front cover of Compound Semiconductor and Semiconductor Today, among several other publications.