By Victoria Lennox from the road on the Startup Canada Tour (@vlennox)
As part of its Newfoundland & Labrador Tour, the Startup Canada Team visited the Genesis Centre, a business incubator for high-growth technology companies, which was recently awarded the Canadian Association of Business Incubator’s (CABI) 2011 Canadian Business Incubator of the Year Award. Keelin O’Leary, VP of the Centre, hosted the Tour and introduced Startup Canada to the diverse range of entrepreneurs within the Centre – from sustainable energy technologies to data protection software.
As with many other incubators, the Genesis Centre provides entrepreneurs with space, administrative support, mentorship, an advisory board, access to facilities at Memorial University, and provides them with an unparalleled network of entrepreneurs, investors and enterprise support professionals in St. John’s, NL.
O’Leary attributes much of the success of the Genesis Centre to a maturing tech community in St. John’s – a community that is invested and contributes actively to the entrepreneurs within the Centre – as well as to sustainable annual support from Memorial University.
One of the greatest challenges that incubators face is sourcing funding and resources to support the operating costs of running the facilities and its associated programming - programming which provides advanced and accelerated support to entrepreneurs. “Rather than putting the time toward helping entrepreneurs, for most business incubators, time is diverted to annually chasing funding for incubation”, said O’Leary. She suggests that support for incubators needs to be built into the budgets of municipalities and provinces, so that incubators – many of which are central to local entrepreneurial ecosystems – can focus on supporting entrepreneurs.
While having a mature, invested and engaged technology community is critical to creating a vibrant and effective incubator program, Ron Taylor, CEO of the Newfoundland & Labrador Association of Technology Industries (NATI) adds that it is also useful to have larger blue-chip organizations that can provide financial investment, industry mentorship and buyer networks to new entrepreneurs and start-ups.
Taylor also highlighted the importance of having incubators staffed with entrepreneurs and investors involved in all areas of the operations and governance of the incubator – from sitting on the Board and mentoring companies to running programming and making connections. All too often incubators are led and administered by individuals who have never been an entrepreneur or experienced working in a new and/or growing business. What is needed is to ensure that entrepreneurs are driving the process to add greater value to tenant entrepreneurs.
Business incubators in Canada are connected through CABI, an association that provides education, networking and convening opportunities to incubator staff across Canada. CABI, like most national associations in Canada is a fully volunteer-run organization, led by passionate enterprise champions. Without any staff or operating budget, CABI is unable to vocalize the challenges of the industry to policy markers. Consequently, no one is speaking on behalf of incubators in Canada. As a result, many incubators are focused on chasing annual funding, leaving little time for value-added programming, such that incubators become little more than bricks and mortar real estate plays.
How do you know if you are making an impact if you are not measuring it?
Currently, business incubator impact is demonstrated, for the most part, through anecdotal stories of successful clients. For instance, Rutter Technologies, which had its beginnings at the Genesis Centre, at one point employed more than 400 people and continues to be a successful Newfoundland company, which now feeds back into the Genesis Centre community.
CABI is pushing to encourage its members to measure their impact using the National Business Incubation Association’s (NBIA) free online assessment tool so that Incubators can begin to track and report on their impact. Currently, given capacity shortage issues faced by the majority of incubators in Canada, very few incubators track their impact. Nevertheless, tracking has the potential to enable incubators to create more effective programs and secure future funding.
Should CABI one day have the wherewithal to have a full-time staff member based in Ottawa to coordinate and advocate on behalf of the wider incubation community, this organization could also be the driving force in both promoting and implementing comparative impact measurement tools to enhance incubators in Canada – a census for Canadian incubators.