Keeping the innovation in Innovation Guelph
By Paul Knowles
We’ve been highly innovative, well ahead of the curve.” The description seems quintessentially appropriate, since the “we” is Innovation Guelph, and the speaker is IG’s relatively new executive director, Anne Toner-Fung.

Toner-Fung, who came to Innovation Guelph just about a year ago, is very aware of the organization’s strengths – and of its challenges.

She reiterates that “We’re very good at innovating,” pointing to IG’s “RHYZE” program for female entrepreneurs, which was launched four years ago – well before most innovation centres had adopted that focus – and to IG’s work that stretched beyond start-ups to SMEs (Small and Medium Enterprises), also about four years ago.

“We’re not just dealing with
start-ups. We also have
programs that support
SMEs, that help them
get beyond plateaus, and
help them scale.”

But she’s surprisingly candid. “We suck at the communication piece.” Innovation Guelph has a great story to tell – in fact, dozens of great stories, perhaps hundreds – but lacks the capacity to tell them. “We’re awesome at coming up with ideas, at execution – and not as good at telling our story,” says Toner-Fung.

That’s because IG’s entire staff numbers six – six people serving about 200 clients a year, and running a variety of programs for would-be entrepreneurs, start-ups, and SMEs.

The most recent innovation is the creation of Reverse Collision Days. The first Guelph Reverse Collision Day event was inspired by serial entrepreneur Jim Estill, owner and CEO of Danby Appliances. In contrast to more traditional Collision Days, where entrepreneurs pitch to VCs, at a Reverse Collision Day, would-be entrepreneurs are invited to take a look “inside” a business – in the first instance, Danby – looking for new business opportunities in the company’s operations and supply needs.

Innovation Guelph, which has existed for six years, held its second Reverse Collision Day in November, at CGL Manufacturing, and there will be others, including a second at Danby, later this year.
Toner-Fung came to IG last January, after a career that including stints as an entrepreneur, an educator, a facilitator and in consultation. She says “Innovation Guelph is the culmination of all the things I’m interested in.”

The IG elevator pitch says “Innovation Guelph is building prosperity for community wellbeing by providing mentorship and business support programs and services to help innovative enterprises start, grow and thrive.” Toner-Fung adds that those “innovative enterprises” are both start-ups and SMEs.

“We’re not just dealing with start-ups,” she says. “We also have programs that support SMEs, that help them get beyond plateaus, and help them scale.”

And she points out that Innovation Guelph specializes in a few unique sectors: “agri-innovation, clean tech, information and communications technology, and advanced manufacturing”. And she further clarifies her description, adding that the ICT and advanced manufacturing companies they work with “often relate to clean tech or agri-innovation.”

IG’s acceleration programs all bear automotive-related brands that pre-date Toner-Fung – Speedway, Fast Lane, and Fuel Injection. The IG’s operation is funded by the federal and provincial governments, by corporate sponsors, by Ontario’s Trillium Foundation (women’s entrepreneurship programs) and in limited cases, by participant fees – although the executive director is quick to point out that, especially in the case of start-ups, fees are “negligible, or nothing.”

Toner-Fung believes that much can be accomplished simply by putting diverse business people together in the same room. She talks about “multi-sector cross-pollination,” and points with pride to a program that brings CEOs from businesses of wildly varied sizes to talk about what it means to be a CEO. Those events have attracted a capacity crowd, she says, and have seen the CEOs be “very raw, very honest, very open.”

Although her organization bears the name “Innovation Guelph”, it actually serves clients from a much larger catchment area, including occasionally as far away as Ottawa. That’s because, as one of 17 regional Innovation Centres in Ontario, Innovation Guelph serves almost any business from the clean tech or agri-innovation sector – especially appropriate because of IG’s proximity to the University of Guelph, a leader in those areas.

IG can also serve as a referral point for companies who might fit more appropriately in another Innovation Centre eco-system – such as Communitech, in Waterloo Region.

Unlike some traditional accelerator centres, IG is willing to work with companies at various stages of their development – until the business simply doesn’t need help. “We provide the scaffolding until they are a thriving, viable, sustainable business.”

At that point, she says with a smile, she hopes the successful businesses will return to help Innovation Guelph by mentoring or sponsoring the IG programs.
She wants IG to grow. “We turn people away – we’d like to not have to do that.”

And, bottom line, “We want to shake things up a little. We’re trying very hard to keep the ‘innovation’ in Innovation Guelph.”

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Publisher is Exchange Business Communication Inc.
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ISSN 0824-45
Copyright, 2017.