Right from the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, Canadian small businesses had little choice but to suddenly become quick learners in innovation. They launched e-commerce sites, new products, services, and delivery models, all while switching to some form of remote work or else entirely reconfiguring their workplaces—and in just a matter of months. If small businesses were going to persevere and survive in the face of unpredictable conditions, innovation was going to be a big part of the reason why.
Now that we’re emerging on the pandemic’s other side, how can small businesses, which proved so capable at adapting, channel their experiences with innovation onward into the future?
First, as the pandemic taught us, we need to dispense with thinking of innovation purely in technological terms. There’s no doubt that e-commerce, AI, and other web and logistics-based tools played a major part in companies being able to pivot successfully, but it also helps to understand innovation in less flashy but equally creative and meaningful ways, from simple processes for brainstorming new products and services, to creating a better work environment and more leadership opportunities for employees. It could even be as simple as opportunities for mentorship, as a means of instilling a more flexible and innovation-friendly mindset among small business entrepreneurs.
Whatever the initiative or goal, innovation usually demands time, research, the opportunity to test and experiment with prototypes, and finally the financial resources to support implementation. Fortunately, there are a number of government, private, and academic programs available to Canadian small businesses in the arenas of innovation and research.
Small business owners have a unique experience that goes a long way in helping them to become trailblazers. Take Kirk Simpson, the co-founder of Wave, a Toronto-based company that offers online accounting and payment solutions. As a longtime small business owner himself, Simpson was often overwhelmed with the amount of payroll and accounting that he had to do—with few programs to help.
Frustrated with the lack of services available, Simpson set out to create his own company that automates tax prep, specifically aimed at businesses with less than 10 employees. With support from BDC Capital—the national development bank owned by the Canadian government that serves small and medium-sized businesses—Simpson developed a tool that currently serves over four million customers. In addition to its original accounting offerings including tax preparation, Wave now also offers credit card processing and payroll support.
BDC Capital, which has arms in both business advising and small business loans, provides entrepreneurs with the resources and educational tools to innovate—as well as funding investment rounds. It also offers educational programs to support businesse growth and performance, while its Canada Digital Adoption Program is targeted toward helping outfit businesses with the technology that can help them reach more customers.
“There’s an opportunity to build a global company in this sector from Canada,” Simpson said in an interview with the website for MaRs Discovery District. The success story of Simpson’s company is just another example of the daily innovations of small business owners, which can be channeled to create products and companies that are more efficient, forward-thinking, and agile. Funding for innovation allows businesses to adapt for the future and makes both small and large changes accessible—for the benefit of Canadian businesses writ large.
In 2017, the federal government launched the program Innovative Solutions Canada in order to partner with small businesses and facilitate “the early development, testing and validation of prototypes, as well as preparing a pathway to commercialization.” Largely technology focused, the program encourages entrepreneurs to pursue novel solutions to various sector-specific challenges. Proposals are accepted on a time sensitive basis, with selected applicants receiving up to $150,000 to develop a concept. Eligibility requirements include that the business have less than 500 employees and that 50% of its annual wages are paid to employees who spend the majority of their time in Canada.
The initiative falls under the umbrella of the federal agency Innovation Canada, which also has other programs tailored to a variety of needs, from funds for digital adoption and the commercialization of ideas, to helping start-ups connect with business incubators and accelerators to better leverage their intellectual property. It’s also worth checking out available programs at the provincial level wherever your business is based.
If it’s the case that your idea might have a broader effect in addressing various social, economic, and environmental problems, there are funds and other support available from Impact Canada.
When it comes to innovation, collaboration with experts and access to research can be just as valuable as direct financial support—if not more so. And much of the most cutting edge research currently happens within Canadian universities and research centers.
The concentrated research areas in academia are useful tools to private sector innovation, allowing small businesses to be at the forefront of new and exciting research and technology. While reaching out directly to professors within an area of interest directly and requesting a meeting is one way to achieve partnership with academic institutions, university-specific innovation centers make networking with academics more seamless. Partnerships between academic researchers and local businesses work to strengthen community and invite interdisciplinary solutions to small-business growth.
DMZ, based out of Toronto Metropolitan University (formerly Ryerson), is a classic incubator for tech startups hoping to grow a proof-of-concept into a fully realized product or service. Here much of the focus is on mentorship and strategic advice, from accessing capital and operations support to sourcing talent and connecting with global opportunities.
Many universities and college-based incubators like DMZ also offer free online courses geared toward the earlier stages of entrepreneurship, in addition to supporting more experienced small business owners. And in some cases, again like DMZ, their programs are open to businesses regardless of location, including out-of-province.
There is also the option of incubators that afford businesses the time, space, and resources to reach the highest reaches of their growth. MaRs Discovery District in Toronto, a non-profit incubator connecting talent with capital and future potential customers. With a focus on high-growth acceleration, MaRs boasts a full spectrum ecosystem, from specialized academics and researchers to partners from government and the investment community. The non-profits Invest Ottawa and Le Camp in Quebec City similarly provide mentorship and collaboration to companies that drive innovation—in turn creating jobs and bolstering the local economy. These incubators provide crucial support to a wide-range of companies and projects, providing a valuable alternative to public innovation support, which is often niche and dependent upon time-sensitive competitions.
Another route for small business innovation support is an organization like Mitacs—which focuses on supporting small businesses in Canada through financial funding and mentorship. “For a small company, doing research isn’t simple, especially in the light of the new economic reality. Projects and lab equipment are costly and it’s difficult to find and attract specialized talent. We understand what small businesses need to innovate,” their website states. Mitacs offers to fund up to 55% of the cost of a project, and also helps connect small businesses with post-secondary institutions and researchers to help solve innovation challenges. Funding starts at $15,000 and can go into the millions—enabling both large or small-scale projects to get off the ground.
Lastly, the private sector is another avenue to receiving innovation support in the form of mentorship, resources, and funding. Major tech companies, such as Google, have start-up initiatives that connect founders to a community and provide state-of-the-art resources. Google for Startups offers a free online hub that guides businesses in launching a new company or feature. In addition, the Google Startup accelerator program, which is open for applications, gives entrepreneurs access to industry-specific experts, provides mentorship from Google team members, training, and technical support.
Many other private businesses offer their expertise to businesses hoping to innovate and grow—such as the Microsoft Innovation Centre, which provides robust access to innovation news, educational tools, and certifications, and the BMW Startup Garage, dedicated to supporting businesses active in the automotive industry.
Whichever pathway to innovation a company chooses to pursue, successful entrepreneurs understand that the key to success is constant momentum: working to make the best possible product that reaches the largest number of people possible.
Advice and research for Canadian small businesses from our expert team