More money for entrepreneurs

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St. Albert entrepreneurs will have access to more funding to help bring their ideas to life.

Deron Bilous, minister of Economic Development and Trade announced an injection of funds to the Enhanced Innovation Voucher and Small and Medium-sized Enterprises Support program, administered by Alberta Innovates – Technology Futures (AITF), last week.

The additional $5 million more than doubled the amount of money – previously funded at $4.1 million – available to help small innovative and technology-based businesses bring their products to market, and is part of the government’s “multi-pronged approach” to economic diversification.

The funds will increase the number of vouchers from 120, allocated this year, to 200 in future years and will increase the number of consultants available.

Dar Schwanbeck, managing director of the St. Albert-based Northern Alberta Business Incubator, regarded the additional funding as “very positive.”

The voucher program is one of the key tools used by NABI when working with technology-based companies.

The program provides financial support to entrepreneurs in the early stages of developing innovative ideas into commercial products by funding third parties, such as NABI, to conduct market feasibility assessments and assist in product development.

David Wiebe, president of Cerno Control Systems, is one of NABI’s virtual tenants that benefitted from AITF’s voucher program.

The AITF funding allowed Wiebe and his team to concentrate on the product itself – a heavy oil separation monitor that uses ultrasound – while learning about the market value of the idea, which is now in the prototype phase.

“When you’re a technology company your specialty is not in the legal or business areas. If you’re just limited to the technical issues that you’re trying to solve, that’s just not good enough to take the product to market properly,” he said.

Earl Finch, a St. Albert entrepreneur, successfully applied for a micro (early-advisory) voucher in 2014/15 so he could conduct a market assessment for his product – a disinfecting lotion that transforms toilet paper into flushable wipes – called Clean Ends.

But he hesitated to apply for the second-stage voucher needed to conduct further research and development on a motion dispenser he hopes to market to airports and other public institutions, because he did not feel that his health-related product had the backing of AITF.

“That’s where the system (breaks down). I’m hoping the injection of money fixes this, but the AITF is very convoluted. If they either don’t like your idea or, since we’re Alberta-based, it’s oil and gas and technology pretty much. Anything else falls out of their radar.”

He is unsure whether the injection of funds and the slowing oil and gas sector will better his odds of receiving a voucher.

“Technology is still heavy on their radar. We don’t fall into that category either. We’re a consumer product,” said Finch.

Schwanbeck indicated that despite the government’s intention of diversifying the economy, he does not predict the mix of tenants or businesses NABI supports to change drastically.

At any given time technology-based companies represent about 15 per cent of NABI’s tenancy, which typically sits at 100 businesses. Out of that number, 50 per cent are oil and gas related.

“I’m more inclined to support everything that comes along. At the end of the day it’s about the passion of the entrepreneur,” said Schwanbeck. “Passion is hard to create.”

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Michelle Ferguson