Network Knowledge: What to know when starting a tech-based business
April 21st, 2021
The Atlantic Region has seen a steady rise of technology-based business and startups since the early 2000s. With high profile exits such as New Brunswick’s Radian6 and Q1 Labs, and St-John’s based, Verafin, national and international audiences asking the question: ‘what’s the secret sauce in Atlantic Canada?’
Although Springboard isn’t in the ‘sauce’ business, we are a well-kept secret for many.
Acting behind the scenes to help support the research and development necessary for our regions innovation economy (which crosses every industry) to thrive, is Springboard Atlantic, a pan-Atlantic network of teams across 19 post-secondary Atlantic Canadian institutions (14 universities and 5 colleges, to be exact!), driving the engagement between business, academia and government.
Our network members consist of more than 45 Industry Engagement Professionals (IEPs) who share a common goal to strengthen Canada’s industries through innovation.
2021 is a special year for our organization, as we celebrate 15 years in operation. As part of our 15-year anniversary celebration, we reflected on the value a network like Springboard brings, and one major theme that arose was the valuable expertise our members provide to businesses, post-secondary faculty, and researchers in their mission to solve real-world challenges.
To kick off our “15 Years of SB” we asked our network members what advice they’d give to a business or start-up that’s looking to innovate in Atlantic Canada and here’s 15 things they had to say:
1. SOCIALIZE YOUR IDEA EARLY (WITHOUT SPILLING THE BEANS)
“It’s never too soon to have a conversation. No idea is too crazy to be discussed and you never know what can come out of a quick discussion.” – Katrin Sommerfeld, Acadia University’s Office of Industry & Community Engagement.
Of course, consider intellectual property (IP) when taking this advice, but it’s good to have some reality-check conversations to see if your idea has legs.
Innovation doesn’t have to happen in isolation. Your local innovation ecosystem is ripe with resources ready to help you grow your business. From incubators and accelerators, government agencies and programs, industry associations, and other entrepreneurs. Of course, we’re bias, but post-secondary institutions are also a great place to start, as they’re used to starting from the idea-stage.
2. CAPITALIZE ON RESOURCES DESIGNED FOR YOUR CURRENT NEEDS
There’s an added benefit that comes with being a student or faculty entrepreneur, for example. There’s access to pools of capital that are not available once you leave your post-secondary institution, as well as specialized on-campus advisors and facilities like entrepreneurship centres and sandboxes, which are designed for idea-stage businesses.
“Contact the tech transfer office early on so they can help you map a path towards commercialization for your research outcomes.” – Kara Strickland, Memorial University’s Technology Transfer and Commercialization Office.
Whether you are exploring an idea, just starting up, trying to develop new innovative products or services, growing your team, scaling up, etc. Seek out resources that align to your current need.
3. LEVERAGE YOUR MONEY TO GET MORE MONEY
New entrepreneurs are often seen burning through their startup capital during the early stages, investing in ‘immediate’ or ‘critical’ steps such as prototyping, testing, and market research. Stop and take a minute to consider how you may be able to leverage your money to access programs that give you a longer financial runway, so you can tackle more critical steps without going back to the honey pot.
“Inquire before you spend your own money. You do not want to have to shut down your idea in the 11th hour because you’ve spent your money when additional government funds could’ve been secured. Inquire about financial assistance programs that might be available to you.” – Wayne Quilty, College of the North Atlantic’s Industry & Community Engagement.
4. PATENTING ISN’T THE ONLY OPTION
Technology based companies risk losing a significant chunk of startup capital through costly legal fees and IP costs to protect their invention, but oftentimes there are simpler, more cost-effective ways to protect your ideas.
“Know your options. Patenting is not always the answer. Some of the most successful products and commercialization projects have been for products that were not patentable per say.” – Leigh Huestis, Acadia University’s Office of Industry & Community Engagement.
5. SEEK OUT ADVICE
“It can be advantageous to get early guidance on an IP strategy and connect into the local ecosystem for help in navigating funding opportunities, programing, incubator supports, and resources most pertinent to your business goals” – Michelle Gurrola-Gal, Dalhousie University’s Office of Commercialization & Industry Engagement.
It’s easier than you think to find advice and guidance for your business. There are non-profit resources at your disposal that are focused on supporting economic growth. Often if they can’t help you, they may know 2-3 others who could. Additionally, many fee-for-service organizations will still meet with you and provide initial guidance, free of charge.
6. DON’T TRY TO BE AN EXPERT IN EVERYTHING
As a founder, you may have the core expertise behind your venture, but you may not be the right person to successfully lead additional operations such as sales or marketing. It’s also possible you may not have the time to do it all, even if you have the skills. It’s important to recognize and fill those gaps before they become canyons.
For early-stage businesses, if you’re a founder with a scientific background, you may want to look for a co-founder who can help translate the technical into business language and manage the day-to-day operations.
Another option is to “find a mentor whose skillset will match your particular challenge to help you work ‘on’ your business while you are still working ‘in’ your business,”- Clarissa Harris LeBreton, The Oasis Entrepreneurship Centre, NBCC.
7. EXPAND YOUR DEFINITION OF TEAM
“The whole of your collective team is greater than the sum of its individual components. Maximizing the strengths of your peers, institutions and networks as opposed to working in a silo is very important to being successful in this space. Innovation is successful when you’ve built a network to support it.” – Alexa MacDonald, Dalhousie University’s Office of Commercialization & Industry Engagement.
And remember, your team isn’t just those whose salaries you pay, it’s your whole personal network of mentors, investors, partners, and other stakeholders you meet along the way. Utilize your network!
8. FIND THE RIGHT RELATIONSHIPS AMONGST THE CROWD
Networking and building ecosystem relationships is important for entrepreneurs, however it’s also important that you’re investing in relationships that bring real value or will in the near future. It’s good to work on identifying these helpful relationships early on, so as your business gains steam and builds a reputation that catches the eye of investors, advisors, and service providers, you’re able to quickly weed through the crowd and identify true strategic partners.
“As an innovator or entrepreneur, it’s up to you to push forward with those relationships that are the right fit for your needs, and politely decline those connections or resources that you don’t need right now.” – Margaret Palmeter, Director of Dalhousie University’s Emera ideaHUB.
9. REAL INNOVATION IS DRIVEN BY REAL CHALLENGES
“To drive innovation, you need to identify and know your customers and their challenges,” – Kara Strickland, Memorial University’s Technology Transfer and Commercialization Office.
Ask yourself, ‘is my business solving a real-world problem?’ If the answer is anything but ‘yes’, then it’s time to talk to your potential customers. Getting to the core of a challenge and the people who face it, is an important step in the development, prototyping and testing of your product or service. Also, making future customers aware and bought-in early on, could set you up for success when it’s time to start selling the finished product.
10. DO YOUR RESEARCH
And make sure the problem you are solving is, in fact, an actual problem your potential customers are facing. There could be solutions already on the market that you would need to compete with.
“Spend time doing market research and competitor analysis. Contrast what you find with your idea, focus on what differentiates you and what impact your innovation can bring to the market” – Sarah Conrod, Cape Breton University
11. FIND THAT FIRST CUSTOMER EARLY
Although there are lots of pitch competitions, government funders, and programs that can inject short-term capital into your startup and would keep you prototyping and testing for years on end, it’s not a good long-term strategy if scaling or exiting is eventually where you’d like to end up. Landing your first customer acts as a key milestone for larger investors and financers.
“Your technology doesn’t have to be perfect for you to seek out that first customer. Actually, bringing a potential customer into your technology development process earlier on could give you greater insights and ultimately a more relevant end-product.” – Morgan MacKinnon, Springboard Atlantic.
12. ADAPT YOUR LANGUAGE TO YOUR AUDIENCE
Take the technical down a notch when speaking with potential business partners. Business audiences likely won’t need or want to know the details of your proprietary process or see the 100s of data points showing the of outcomes from your latest trial. They want to know the outcomes and real-world applications for all your hard work.
Boiling down the language of a complex innovation or idea to its bare, easy to learn, essentials is a crucial element in the success of any technology-based startup. If not, potential business partners may leave the conversation thinking you’re very smart, but not ready for their investment.
And if that’s not one of your strengths, that’s okay! “Investing time into how to better communicate your idea to audiences you’re less familiar with, is an important and humbling process.” – Jennifer Lee, Springboard Atlantic
13. USE YOUR PITCH-TIME WISELY
When pitching your technology to potential business partners in any setting, remember that their time is valuable. Come prepared so you can land those all-important investment dollars.
That means doing your research ahead of time on what the specific investor will be looking for. Angels, venture capitalists, banks, they all have different criteria they’re using to evaluate your pitch.
One recommendation from our network was “invest time in customer discovery to validate, and potentially unearth other angles you can build into your pitch for different audiences.”- Sarah Conrod, Cape Breton University.
14. HAVE THE COURAGE TO COLLABORATE
Chances are most of your customers won’t end up being in Atlantic Canada, but going global takes resources, skills, and connections. Here are some words of wisdom from our network members:
“Become familiar with the local ecosystem who can support you finding customers outside of Atlantic Canada to truly grow.” – Matt Douglass, University of New Brunswick
Once you’re connected globally, you may also want to consider the scale of your business. “One of my favourite things about Atlantic Canada is that we are small, that means we collaborate to compete globally,” Margaret Palmeter, Dalhousie University, Emera IdeaHUB
15. CONSIDER ATLANTIC CANADA-
“Atlantic Canada is home to a rich ecosystem of technology-based companies. Locally grown companies, start-ups and scaleups alike relocate here to take advantage of the numerous supports and resources we have to offer. This is a friendly place to do business where government, academia, and industry work together – with a common goal of economic development and regional success.” – Margaret Palmeter, Director of Dalhousie University’s Emera ideaHUB.
If you now feel inspired to innovate and grow your business sand want to explore these ideas in more detail, please feel free to reach out to the Springboard Team!