Written by Jen Brignall-Strong
What does a cleaner, “greener” future look like?
While some might envision fields of solar panels and wind farms, the businesses in Innovation Factory’s inaugural i.d.e.a Fund cohort have other things in mind—like more efficient, digitized livestock processes, a workforce of construction drones in the sky and even crickets in space.
This diverse group of early-stage technology companies is focused on sustainability with a wide array of ground-breaking projects, all supported by the i.d.e.a. Fund, a southwestern Ontario-focused initiative that helps clean innovation firms unlock their potential and access the capital and mentoring needed to commercialize innovative technologies.
The program fosters inclusion and diversity, with a focus on a green economic recovery. Supported by a $10-million Government of Canada investment through the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario (FedDev Ontario), the i.d.e.a. Fund is being delivered by six regional innovation centres (RICs): Innovation Guelph, Haltech, Innovate Niagara, WEtech Alliance, Tech Alliance of Southwestern Ontario and Innovation Factory.
Through the program, each RIC is able to distribute a maximum of $30,000 in matching seed funding to select innovative businesses in various sectors including medtech, agritech, social enterprise, advanced manufacturing and more.
“Canada will be positioned for a successful future with the exciting new solutions developed by entrepreneurs through the i.d.e.a. Fund. Supports such as mentoring, resources, and the access to capital will enable entrepreneurs to continue to grow,” says the Honourable Filomena Tassi, Minister responsible for the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario. “The Government of Canada, through this support, is encouraging innovation, creating good jobs, and growing our economy, all of which lead to healthy and prosperous future for Canada.”
Shannon Graszat, the i.d.e.a. Fund Program Manager for Innovation Factory, says it’s been satisfying to see the various projects come to fruition since the launch of the program in May 2022.
“The first cohort has been really interesting to work with,” says Graszat. “It’s been great to give these companies the opportunity they might not have had without this funding. To see them leverage this program to finish off their product and get into the market or take steps they might not have had the chance to and catapult their businesses into different opportunities for success, has been really exciting for us.”
One of those funding recipients is Bug Mars, a biotechnology research company that specializes in smart, scalable and automated insect farming. The business was founded in early 2021 amid the COVID-19 pandemic, when environmental and supply chain issues were highlighted.
Bug Mars uses technology to improve supply reliability, meeting growing demand for sustainable protein sources and reducing ecological impact. Through the i.d.e.a Fund support, the business is scaling its AI climate solutions and regenerative agriculture practices, creating vertical insect farms in repurposed shipping containers which house edible insect protein (crickets or other bugs) to feed livestock.
“These vertical insect farms are placed directly on site at livestock rearing facilities, which has an enormous impact on how many trucks are currently transporting feed,” says Bug Mars CEO, Natalie Duncan, adding that these structures will add resiliency to the supply chain and reduce the company’s environmental impact, contributing to a circular economy.
“i.d.e.a. Fund transformed Bug Mars into being able to get subsequent funding opportunities as well as push its product to the next level,” explains Graszat.
The funding enabled Bug Mars to create its prototype and test it with a farm, which then opened up access to another cleantech funding program at Innovation Guelph.
“The company also entered several competitions and were a finalist for sending its project into space,” adds Graszat. “Bug Mars is now a part of the MaRS Cleantech initiative as well. It’s really nice to see the company’s growth since the project started and where its at now.”
i.d.e.a Fund participants also benefit from one-on-one business coaching with specialized mentors from various business sectors, providing invaluable guidance to entrepreneurs like Duncan. “Mentorship through the i.d.e.a Fund has helped Bug Mars identify our target market, expand our own network and make new connections for follow-on funding,” shares Duncan.
Graszat says by the time the first cohort wraps up at the end of February, each i.d.e.a Fund recipient will have received over 20 hours of mentorship
There are nine mentors in total, including Mark Elliot, an entrepreneur with over 25 years of sales experience who has worked with Innovation Factory on a variety of peer-to-peer groups and other programs, including a sales boot camp.
“Our main expertise is B2B sales for start-ups and growing companies, so that’s the area that we’ve been able to help the most with these companies,” says Elliot. “It’s a real range of things we’ve been working on with these organizations,” he continues.
“For some companies, we’ve provided planning sessions around getting ready for their first sales hire. We’ve worked with a few of the other companies to provide feedback on their B2B sales targets and processes.
We’ve also helped another company refine its pricing and actually meet with some potential customers.”
Elliot has also provided assistance with marketing to i.d.e.a. Fund recipient, StrongBó Agritech, which offers livestock farmers cutting-edge technology for collecting and analyzing live data through its BovineHub automated weighing systems.
He says it’s been rewarding to see companies, like StrongBó, grow in such a short period of time, noting that the funding has allowed them to get their product to market faster, while the mentorship component has assisted them with developing more efficient business practices.
“The funding available to support them reaching these milestones and help them commercialize their products has been fantastic,” says Elliot. “These businesses are also getting linked into great organizations that are active in their communities that also have other resources and expertise to get them on the right path.”
StrongBó’s projects have advanced thanks to the mentoring and support of the i.d.e.a. Fund, says Eimear Neilan, Marketing Manager for StrongBó. “We are fortunate to have benefited from the project’s guidance and help in areas like marketing,” shares Neilan. “It was crucial for StrongBó to establish a relationship with someone who has extensive expertise and experience in order to exchange advice, provide assistance and serve as a sounding board for ideas.”
As the companies in Innovation Factory’s first cohort enter the final phases of their respective projects, Graszat says she’s excited to see what the future holds for them but is also eager to discover what innovative ideas will be brought forward when a new cohort begins this spring.
“We had such a great mix of projects with this first group,” she says. “We’re looking forward to the second cohort and seeing what new and exciting projects come through there as well.” In addition to Bug Mars and StrongBó, Innovation Factory’s first cohort also includes 18 other businesses across a variety of sectors: Enhanced Medical Nutrition, Women’s Global Health Innovations, Aposys Technologies Inc., Argentum, Skygauge Robotics, Ecosystem Informatics Inc., AP Renewables, Rally Video, Aiimsense, Noxware, ServicePath, ImaginAble Solutions, EarthOne, Oombo, Aerialytic, A.I. VALI Inc., MoxyPatch and Hydrogen Works.
Companies must have their i.d.e.a. Fund projects completed by February 28, 2023, after which a celebration event to unveil the completed projects from all the Regional Innovation Centres will take place. Applications for the second cohort of funding recipients will begin in March 2023.
To discover more about the i.d.e.a Fund, visit https://innovationfactory.ca/idea-fund/.