- The Canadian government has readied a number of support programs to assist Canadian businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- COVID-19 aside, the main challenges for Canadian entrepreneurs have typically been the acquisition of customers, capital, and talent.
- Businesses need to reach out to government for help in navigating various support programs.
For the government programs to be effective at delivering support to businesses, businesses and entrepreneurs need to reach out to government agencies and ask questions regarding the programs offered as well as provide feedback. There are a variety of specialized programs available catering to different needs, and by collaborating with the government, tailored supports to businesses can be provided.
What are the main challenges entrepreneurs are currently facing during COVID-19 and what supports do they need now as the crisis progresses?
It is of course an extraordinary time for Canadians and Canadian business owners. It has been over 100 years since we have seen a pandemic like this, and a lot has changed during that time. For myself, I joined the federal government just over a year ago having previously owned two businesses, and like a lot of us I have experienced a lot of change during this time. One of the comments that I would like to make is on how the federal government has really been responding to business and rapidly pivoting in our services and offerings.
Businesses need a lot of support, and we recognize that, and that support is going to continue to be needed. One of the best tools that I have seen come out of Innovation Canada, which was actually launched in 2019, is what is called our Business Benefits Finder. It is a self-serve website that you can go to and the URL is really easy to remember: it is innovation.canada.ca. What happens is any business of any size can go there, take two minutes answering questions like location and sector, and you will receive a tailored list of programs and services that are going to fit your current situation: innovation about funding, for example, or export, or if you need expert advice. That will be provided to you in a curated form. Since COVID-19, one of the things that we have done brilliantly inside of Innovation Canada is to pivot that platform to list over 150 COVID-19 specific supports to date, and that list is being continuously updated as new programs are made available.
What are some of the most persistent challenges that you would say Canadian entrepreneurs face?
Most businesses we speak with—both pre-COVID and during COVID-19—continue to be constrained by three things: the need for customers, the need for capital to both sustain them during the pandemic and help them to grow, and access to talent. I have already mentioned our digital platform—that really should be the first-stop shop from the perspective of government on what programs are available to assist with any of those three things because we do build our programs for business around those needs.
“Most businesses we speak with—both pre-COVID and during COVID-19—continue to be constrained by three things: the need for customers, the need for capital to both sustain them during the pandemic and help them to grow, and access to talent.”
The other part that I would say is that it is great, you go to a platform and you get a list of programs but then you may still have questions. In fact, you almost certainly will still have questions.
Inside of Innovation Canada we offer multiple levels of service, the digital platform being one of them, and of course, also needing to speak with somebody to get a little bit more in-depth advice on some of those suggested programs. We have Innovation Advisors strategically placed across Canada, in all the major centres, who are able to offer advice on the over 1,000 support programs that we offer to assist each of these areas of customers, capital, and talent.
One of the endemic challenges for Canadian entrepreneurs is growing beyond Canada’s borders. What can we do about that?
I do not know if there is a quick answer. Certainly, we need to be thinking about this more quickly now with the impacts of COVID-19. It has been discussed before but historically, Canada is absolutely superb at starting companies, we are a nation of entrepreneurs. Where we have more challenges is really at scaling them. Part of that is just the fact that you start a business in a Canadian market, which from the the global perspective is relatively small. It is around 2% of the global market, especially when you compare it to selling into the United States or selling into Europe. We need to shift our mindset to really be thinking about how we can go global and export faster.
“Canada is absolutely superb at starting companies, we are a nation of entrepreneurs. Where we have more challenges is really at scaling them.”
From the government’s perspective, we recognize that as a challenge and we offer assistance programs to help accelerate that. For example, our Trade Commissioner Service is amazing. We have Trade Commissioners in over 150 countries around the world who are able to make those kinds of connections for businesses, so that is just one example. The other program that I would really like to talk about is the program that was just launched nationally last year, in 2019, called Accelerated Growth Service (AGS)—that is the program that I helped to deliver. That is really about government now rolling up our sleeves to give high-growth businesses one advisor in order to be able to access all of government.
“We have Trade Commissioners in over 150 countries around the world who are able to make those kinds of connections for businesses.”
Some of the feedback that we have gotten over the years, from myself included as a past business owner where I had the same challenges, is government is big. We know that there are a lot of amazing programs: over 1,000 supports at the federal, provincial, and local levels. That is really hard for business to navigate, especially when you are in scale-up or growth mode. You just do not have time, if it is a question of applying for a government program versus getting your next customer, you are going to go for that next customer.
The challenge to government was really how can you actually make government more accessible to business. That led to the birth of Innovation Canada, this one-stop shop for innovation and entrepreneurship, and the launch of the AGS program. It is for high-growth companies to have access to somebody like myself who can be a champion for that business inside of government and do the heavy lifting of figuring out which are the programs that are really going to move the needle for this business, whether it is my colleagues at the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC) or the National Research Council of Canada Industrial Research Assistance Program (NRC IRAP) for a research and development (R&D) project, or working with the Trade Commissioner Service to help a business with exporting, rather than the business having to go and speak to each of those different parts of government.
AGS gives you that single point of contact, that one experienced business person who could understand your business holistically, take your business needs inside to government—let us do the heavy lifting of building the plan for you—and to figure out who you should be speaking to inside of government, and make those right contacts at the right time to help you to accelerate your growth.
What type of collaborations are needed between the public and the private sector to foster more innovation and to support entrepreneurs in the future economy?
More. Collaboration is going to be critical for all stages of business to be able to be more competitive. For example, and again, from the perspective of government, we have programs that are meant to foster that collaboration between the public sector, the private sector, and even our post-secondary institutions that are generating a lot of new knowledge for our economies.
One example of a program that is designed to foster this is our Innovation Superclusters Initiative. We have five clusters, geographically located all across the country. We have our Digital Technology one in British Columbia, we have our Protein Industries one in the Prairies, we have Next Generation Manufacturing in Ontario, we have an Artificial Intelligence (AI) one in Montreal, and we have our Ocean Supercluster in the Atlantic.
What I would like to emphasize to business is first of all, do not figure it out on your own. If you have questions, contact us. That is the first point. Secondly, just a reminder that these are national collaborative superclusters so they are meant to take input and find opportunities for businesses to work with each other and perhaps engage in projects and products that they might not have been able to do as efficiently or quickly on their own. Do keep that in mind that if you are an AI business and you are based in Manitoba, can you participate in the AI cluster in Montreal? Certainly, you can, and again, reach out to an Innovation Advisor to find out more about that, so that is one point.
“What I would like to emphasize to business is first of all, do not figure it out on your own.”
Some of our other collaborative programs might look at how a business that thinks it has a new technology or an innovation that could be helpful to government—because again, government is looking to be more responsive and we are increasingly becoming digital—sell inside of the government? Well, we have a program to actually foster that collaboration. It is called Innovative Solutions Canada, and that is one of our programs inside of Innovation Canada, where a business can actually respond to a challenge that is posed by government and then use that as a mechanism to become a first customer for government. There are lots and lots of programs that do this and again, please feel free to contact us to have a discussion about any of those.
If you had 30 seconds to pitch a person or a group with influence on Canada’s economy to improve Canada’s entrepreneurship ecosystem, who would you choose and what would you say?
For me as a business owner, the most powerful people in my businesses were my customers and I always took their feedback in order to serve them better. Now that I am working for government, every day I wake up and can tell you that all of my colleagues inside of AGS feel exactly the same way. We know that our customers are the entrepreneurs and the businesses that we serve, and it is their feedback that is absolutely critical to how we continue to improve and meet our commitment to engaging business at the speed of business. My pitch is actually to the business owners and the entrepreneurs: reach out to us, tell us what you need so we can support you.