By Peter Henderson
Canada’s Waterloo region is investing in a key component of successful innovation and business management: cluster-enabled collaboration. In the area sometimes referred to as Silicon Valley North, local businesses, post-secondary and research institutions, accelerators, and like-minded groups are collectively strengthening a multifaceted, interconnected platform for businesses to reach goals through networking, idea sharing, problem solving and opportunity discovery.
Food and beverage processors, agri-businesses, distributors and suppliers to the industry are benefiting from this collaborative culture by engaging with one another, and connecting with academia to generate solutions to industry challenges and opportunities. Manufacturers are co-developing new technologies, organizations are assisting and advocating for new investment, and businesses across the region are benefiting. Academia is also exploring new program opportunities to train food and beverage processor workforces.
Barbara Fennessy, executive dean of Entrepreneurship and Applied Research the Conestoga College Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning, is responsible for the newly formed Southwestern Ontario Food Innovation and Technology Collaborative, an organization leveraging partnerships to eliminate barriers to business growth and success. Fennessy explains the cyclical nature of collaboration in the region: “[Companies] identify concerns, opportunities to innovate, and we see how we can pull together to help them by bringing institutions and great teams to the table.”
Together with businesses, it is the University of Guelph, University of Waterloo, Wilfred Laurier University, and Conestoga College, along with local accelerator centres and other key ecosystem players that bring together that strong knowledge base and the right team. They are creating a new intelligence base though collaboration. “Often, a business knows what its problems are, but sometimes the solutions are different from what they imagined,” says Fennessy. “This is the whole point of bringing skilled people together and engaging in processes of innovation to provide solutions.”
The aforementioned institutions, along with the Southwestern Ontario Food Innovation and Technology Collaborative, also work closely with Canada’s Technology Triangle Inc. (CTT). CTT is a not-for-profit organization that leverages key partnerships to advance and promote business in the region through new investments and international connectivity to foster global business collaboration and innovation sharing efforts.
The CTT has a close partnership with Communitech, Waterloo’s innovation commercialization hub, with whom they facilitate what are called Collision Days. These are business to business networking events during which companies and investors connect in Waterloo to explore collaboration opportunities. “We are trying to bring the community closer together by seeing what happens organically when you put these people in the same room,” says Jason Kipfer, a senior business development officer with the CTT.
Like the Southwestern Ontario Food Innovation and Technology Collaborative, the CTT seeks to identify issues within local industries and source solutions to problems. Through a community effort, the CTT has connected local businesses and universities with international cluster development agencies, enabling the exchange of best practices, innovation sharing and new research. CTT with its partners have developed such a relationship with Food Valley and Brainport Development, both from the Netherlands. Food Valley especially is a global leader in connecting knowledge and developing new innovation and sustainability for the agri-food sector.
As Fennessy explains, the connections facilitated between the Southwestern Ontario Food Innovation and Technology Collaborative, the CTT, other local partners and international interests, produce collaboration beneficial at both an individual business and collective level. “At an individual level, it allows businesses to address issues they are having, or opportunities to do something new, like enhance productivity, reduce waste, or expand into new markets,” she says. “At a collaborative level, it represents the opportunity to create a strong cluster with better resources to serve that cluster.”
Regional initiatives to improve business efficiency, productivity, management, innovation, growth and competitiveness are derived as a result of open conversations and new projects stimulated when these groups get together. By collaborating, players in the innovation ecosystem dismantle silos that present barriers to business success. Collaboration, therefore, is a key ingredient to maintaining a competitive industry, business growth, and business prosperity.
Peter Henderson is a director on the board of the Agri-food Management Institute (AMI), a non-profit organization that promotes new ways of thinking about business management. He is also the founder and managing director of Ideovation, a Toronto-based growth strategy services company. The Ingredients for Success column will provide insights, tips and tools to help food and beverage processors improve best management practices. For more information contact Henderson at [email protected]
This article appeared in the print issue:January/February 2014 edition, Rethinking Innovation section