Innovation centre right on the money

December 29, 2010
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It’s so crazy, it just might work.

The brand-new Guelph Centre for Innovation was announced this month with a lofty goal from the chamber of commerce of creating 250 start-up companies in the next three years.

While your first reaction might be that someone has had too much rum and eggnog to make a declaration like that, think again.

What an attention-getting goal like that really does is declare to entrepreneurs they’ll be welcomed and encouraged in Guelph. It tells our professors and researchers with patents they’ll get help turning their ideas into products that could generate revenue and possibly create jobs.

Admittedly 250 new start-ups is an ambitious, if not a little overzealous, goal. One worry is setting that kind of goal means the new agency may feel pressure to approve projects that shouldn’t get funding just to reach their own target.

And we need to catch our breath despite the high talk over this announcement. Yes, Guelph was chosen as a centre for innovation—but so were 13 other Ontario communities. Places like North Bay, Waterloo, Niagara and Windsor can also claim they’re a centre for innovation, with their own pool of funding.

But spun any way, this is good for Guelph.

This isn’t just hype and blue-sky stuff. Cities like Pittsburgh were reborn by transforming themselves from old-school manufacturing centres to places of innovation where entrepreneurs and university inventors are matched with people who have the money to make things happen.

In Pittsburgh’s case, companies that once only existed in professor’s garages suddenly began employing staff and selling products.

“It gives people that carrot to take a risk,” former Pittsburgh mayor Tom Murphy likes to say.

The money involved so far in the Guelph Centre for Innovation—$866,000 to start—is not obscenely large and not a big risk for taxpayers. Remember our federal government just spent $3.1 billion on stimulus funding across Canada – with unclear results. Consider this innovation money stimulus funding of another kind.

The agency will provide some start-up cash and connect entrepreneurs with potential investors, put them in touch with advisers and offer possible partnerships with the university—in other words, nurture young businesses at their most vulnerable stage.

It’s all being supported by the city, the university and Guelph Chamber of Commerce, which is making some smart moves lately, including looking at finally moving its offices downtown.

This is the kind of thing governments need to do to give entrepreneurs and would-be business people a push into the marketplace. They’re taking risks on unproven start-ups most banks won’t give loans to—and that’s a good thing.

Even if most of the 250 start-ups the agency helps become complete flops, there will be some that succeed. If a handful of them become profitable companies employing small numbers of people, they can begin returning that investment to taxpayers.

The new agency appears to be part of a larger re-jigged plan for fostering innovation in Guelph. In September, the province killed off the Guelph Partnership for Innovation, a government-funded agency that helped agricultural technology companies bring their ideas and products to the market.

While the province kept a similar agency in place one town over—Waterloo’s Communitech—it looks like the Guelph Partnership for Innovation wasn’t working the way the government wanted it to.

Waterloo, meanwhile, with its university partnerships and legions of entrepreneurs born from companies such as Research in Motion or Open Text, has had a lot of success fostering a technology hub that Guelph should admire.

In Ontario, we can’t offer cheap labour that competes against China or Mexico. And we can’t rely on a constant influx of immigrants to power our economy. But we can innovate. This is a step in the right direction.

Greg Mercer is a Guelph-based writer. His column appears Wednesdays. He can be reached at greg_mercer@hotmail.com, and past columns can be read at gregmercer.ca

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