Colleges WINN big

The creation of a $100-million program to promote western innovation is good news for Alberta entrepreneurs, as well as the Red Deer College Centre for Innovation in Manufacturing and the Olds College Centre for Innovation.

The creation of a $100-million program to promote western innovation is good news for Alberta entrepreneurs, as well as the Red Deer College Centre for Innovation in Manufacturing and the Olds College Centre for Innovation.

The federal government announced last Friday that it will provide small and medium-sized businesses with funding to commercialize products, processes and services. Specifically, the Western Innovation (WINN) initiative will help cover the cost of such things as product testing and technology demonstrations, equipment purchases and installation, regulatory approval, marketing and intellectual property protection.

Much of this work falls right into the wheelhouses of the Red Deer College and Olds College centres for innovation — where staff and students regularly assist individuals and organizations in bringing their ideas to market.

“It’s going to help Red Deer College, and there are other spin-offs too,” said Eric Kokko, director of the Red Deer College centre.

One of those spin-offs will be more applied learning opportunities for students.

“There’s nothing better than for students to work on real projects.”

Abimbola Abiola, director of applied research and lead scientist at the Olds College Centre for Innovation, agreed that WINN will benefit his college and the students there. But he also thinks the funding will help push innovations to market.

“This is needed, and it is going to benefit people in this region of the province.”

Abiola said the road from innovation to market is sometimes called the “valley of death,” with the latter stages of this journey particularly difficult.

“Often, that is where a lot of good ideas tend to die.”

Toby Williams, director of entrepreneurship and international development at Olds College, agreed.

“I think there’s a real gap in access to capital just right around commercialization, because the typical places where businesses go to get funding — like a bank, for example — are not interested.”

WINN will provide up to $100 million in repayable assistance to Western Canadian businesses with fewer than 500 employees over the next five years. They can apply for up to $3.5 million, but must obtain an equal amount from private sector sources.

Abiola said a high level of financial support is critical for many innovations. The existing Alberta Innovation Voucher Program, which provides opportunity assessment funding of up to $15,000 and product development funding of up to $50,000, is sometimes inadequate, he suggested.

“I have one partner that has spent over $1.5 million of their own money, and the product is still just before commercialization.”

Kokko said the Alberta Innovation Voucher Program has provided many businesses with the means to assess their innovations and decide if it’s worthwhile to proceed. The WINN program, he said, is a great addition.

“Anything that can help is going to drive out innovation, and innovation in Alberta is really important — primarily because we’ve got so much going on and the only solution to things like labour shortages and skilled labour shortages is to have innovations implemented, productivity increased, etc., etc.”

The Red Deer College Centre for Innovation in Manufacturing can be a valuable partner for anyone seeking to push an innovation forward.

“We have design engineering, and design and fabrication expertise, and a lot of these companies don’t,” said Kokko.

The college can also manage projects and find the resources needed to move them forward.

Williams and Abiola said the Olds College Centre for Innovation can also provide a broad range of supports to clients. They listed product testing, certification, efficiency validation or improvement, intellectual property protection and market analysis as among the areas the centre can help with.

Not surprisingly, many of the projects the Red Deer College centre is asked to assist with are energy related. But Kokko estimates that about half are related to other industries, such as agriculture and even medical.

“We’re working with the University of Alberta on everything from orthodontics with cleft palate devices, to audiologists with hearing devices.”

Abiola said Olds College’s product mix is also diverse, with environment, energy, agriculture and health all covered.

Additional information about the new WINN program can be found online at www.wd-deo.gc.ca.

hrichards@bprda.wpengine.com

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