In early 2019, Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED) faced a major challenge.

As the federal government department responsible for boosting investment and using innovation to build an efficient and competitive marketplace for Canadian businesses, ISED was tasked with trying to build a bridge across an ever-widening divide. 

On one side were small and mid-sized Canadian businesses in need of government information and support; on the other side, thousands of government programs and services designed to help those businesses. But there was no unified or accessible way to get that help where it was needed.

Luckily, the folks at ISED were able to devise a solution—you’re actually carrying it in your pocket.

“The idea was to create a native mobile app that would be an umbrella of programs and services that were directly valuable to small- and medium-size enterprises (SMEs) in Canada,” says Mary Griffin, manager of the Canada Business App. “We had to bridge the gap—not just by leveraging technology, but through people and processes to support that technology. And smartphones were a great conduit for that idea.”

We really pride ourselves on putting our money where our mouth is when we say the app is designed from the ground up with small and mid-sized businesses in mind.

Making a smartphone app was hardly groundbreaking in 2019, but what made the Canada Business App different from others was that its content wouldn’t be limited to a single government department or subject. Rather than connect the user to Canadian government information regarding, say, the weather or border services, the new app would be an all-in-one resource with one goal: Connecting Canadians to what they need in a simple, accessible and easy-to-understand way.

“We were excited about the opportunity and eager to get started,” says Griffin. “The app was very much a trailblazing project within the federal government itself.”

Bringing it to market

One of the biggest hurdles ISED had to overcome was convincing stakeholders that they could produce a useful app in record time and with a modest budget, then iterate and refine it after it hit the market. 

Leadership was the key to their success. “The right leadership at the top, believing in the process and removing obstacles, was critical to meeting our aggressive timelines and getting the first version out there,” says Griffin. 

The speed of their work was startling. ISED conceived the idea of the Canada Business App in January 2019, started development in February, and released the first version of the app to the public by June—all within four months.

Making the app into a major hit

The release of the Canada Business App in the summer of 2019 was accompanied by very little fanfare. “We honestly weren’t sure if the smartphone approach was going to be something Canadians wanted,” recalls Griffin. “So, we just wanted to test the waters to see how much pickup it would get—no promotion at all aside from simple word-of-mouth.”

As it turned out, there was no need to worry. They soon discovered that Canadian entrepreneurs have a strong appetite for mobile apps, especially if those apps connect them to services vital to the prosperity of their business. In the first 12 months, the app was downloaded more than 25,000 times by Canadian SMEs, surpassing all ISED’s expectations and signaled a promising future for this kind of communication between the public and the private sectors. 

When the COVID-19 pandemic started to shut down large sectors of the economy in March 2020, the app’s download rate skyrocketed as thousands more Canadians turned to their government for help. This called for quick action at ISED.

“We had to pivot quickly to be able to serve those businesses with COVID-19 relief-related information, programs and services,” says Griffin. “These were being released on a monthly and even weekly basis, so the app was forced to evolve rapidly to keep up—both with the users’ needs and all the offerings that were being made available.”

The flood of new users also meant that Griffin and her team were able to collect far more user feedback and stories. This wealth of data enabled them to iterate and improve the app even more quickly than they had originally hoped: Version 2.0 launched in September 2020 to an enthusiastic public response. To date, more than 35,000 Canadians have relied on it for information and support and the app now hosts over 15,000 Canadian government program and services, with new content changing daily.

The future of helping Canadian business

Even with an end to the COVID-19 pandemic becoming increasingly real and promising, the road to economic recovery is likely to be long. The team at ISED is hoping to do its part by building even more functionality into the Canadian Business App to make it a truly all-in-one resource for every Canadian entrepreneur.

“The app already changes its offerings by location based on the smartphone GPS, if the user gives permission,” says Griffin. “This helps cut down on the noise and helps connect users to the programs available to them without a lot of distraction. And it got us thinking about how our smartphones act more and more as personal assistants and how the app already has inherent technology to help users accomplish all kinds of tasks beyond one-way information download.” 

Those tasks could range from in-app email and calendar management to being able to perform complex procedures, like filing articles of incorporation. 

According to Griffin, “To incorporate today, you’d be sent to the official government website to file the correct forms. But soon, you might be able to do it just by answering a few questions in the app itself since it already knows so much about your business.” 

And the more transactions and filings the user performs, the easier they’ll become as all the data that would otherwise be scattered across different government departments will be collected in a single, easily accessible spot. 

To help the Canada Business App evolve toward this ideal, Griffin urges Canadian entrepreneurs to try it out. “We really pride ourselves on putting our money where our mouth is when we say the app is designed from the ground up with small and mid-sized businesses in mind,” she says. “It puts thousands of programs and services from all levels of government, Federal, Provincial, Territorial and Municipal at your fingertips. It really is an effective way to check out what’s out there that could help you and your business to start up, scale up and access those new markets.”

The relationship between EDC and ISED

Export Development Canada (EDC) and ISED joined forces in 2018 to raise awareness for ISED’s mission to help Canadian businesses navigate the services available to them through the federal government and crown corporations. With the outbreak of COVID-19, their connection grew stronger when the need for robust channels of communication between government, crown corporations and the public grew more urgent.

EDC is proud to partner with ISED to fulfill its ongoing mandate to use innovation to build a better marketplace for all Canadians and their businesses.