As we crossed the country listening to pitches from Canadian entrepreneurs who were competing in the Canadian Export Challenge, some themes emerged. And then one of them came into clear focus: All five of our regional finalists are from companies with a social purpose.
The competition criteria included having a “fully baked” product, market traction, a management team with the ability to scale and a sound global strategy. Corporate social responsibility wasn’t in the criteria, but across the country, the judges seemed to gravitate to businesses that would make the biggest impact on society while still being focused on growth.
And the winners have something else in common: They’re all pushing the boundaries of innovation and they’ve all created new markets for themselves.
At Startup Canada, our goal with the Canadian Export Challenge was to grow entrepreneurial ambition and export readiness. We are a non-profit which is very purpose-driven, and it was exciting to see the passion this program generated among the participants. Although we get lots of positive feedback, in my time at Startup Canada, I’ve never seen such enthusiasm in the unsolicited testimonials we received from this group.
To show their export-readiness, we asked each company to come up with one key tip for going global. Below is a description of each regional winner’s company along with their tips.
Hybrid Power Solutions
Hybrid Power Solutions Inc. has designed and built a fuel-free portable generator for the industrial market. The product is attractive to mining, military, construction and rail, and the company has quickly penetrated these markets as well as targeting American transit operators, including New York Transit. So far, the company has seen a 10-fold revenue increase year after year, says CEO Francois Byrne. His key tip for going global? Build a network and use it. As Byrne says: “Someone always knows someone who could be an ideal client outside of Canada. Pick a hotspot with plenty of potential clients and suggest you drop by while you’re in their area. Dropping by seems more informal than a meeting and the answer will more likely be a ‘yes’.”
SucSeed produces hydroponic grow kits that let users grow produce year-round without soil or sunlight. And customers can do so for just 30 cents a day. The company, which started as a student volunteer project through ENACTUS and broke even after just seven months, worked with botanists and engineers to come up with its kits. Through a local non-profit called Choices for Youth, they employ at-risk and homeless youth in an effort to help them build life skills. The company has been running trial projects in Haiti and India and has had interest from the U.S., Jamaica, Greenland and Romania. Founder Emily Bland’s key tip for going global? There’s strength in partnerships and there’s no reason you should have to go this alone. “We’ve accessed advice from Export Development Canada and NLO, the Newfoundland and Labrador Organization of Women Entrepreneurs. Both have been invaluable.”
UMay Care was founded by optometrists and offers a product — UMay Rest — that combines thermal therapy with thermal meditation to help reduce and reset the effects of screen time. The average person spends 10 hours 39 minutes a day in front of a screen according to CEO Sharmin Habib. This leads to dry eye, not to mention negative effects on sleep, stress and overall mental health. While UMay Care isn’t selling internationally yet, the company plans to target North America, Europe and Asia. Habib’s tip for going global? She said UMay has learned that spending time out of the office and directly with customers has been key to understanding their needs and discovering challenges they may not have otherwise discovered.
Ananda Devices was inspired by founder Margaret Magdesian’s mother, who suffered from frequent neurological pain. The company produces microchips to grow human tissue on a chip, making effective drug discovery two times faster and five times more cost-effective. One of the product’s biggest advantages is that it can eliminate the use of animals for drug research. So far, the products have been used by Harvard University, a university in Singapore and by L’Oreal Paris, to name a few. Her key tip for going global: take part in as many relevant international conferences and competitions as you can and always contact the Trade Commissioner Service in your specific target market.
Orbitless Drives has innovated electric gear motors, tools that are part of the electrification of everything from bikes and vehicles to medical devices and robotics. Orbitless is the first fundamental new gearbox technology in generations and the company is currently developing a product for a sunroof application for an international tier-one customer. So far, the company sells in Europe, China and the U.S., says CEO Robert Eisses. His key tip for going global: Research and find target markets that are most likely to want your product. Orbitless identified Germany, Switzerland and Austria as epicentres of gear design and industrial automation. He also always focuses on the “core value” Orbitless can provide to the market.
Other tips I collected from entrepreneurs during the competition include seeking global research and development collaborations, participating in global accelerators, personally visiting your target market and networking by joining the startup community in that market.
Some entrepreneurs also spoke highly about leveraging domestic opportunities such as those they encountered through the Canadian Export Challenge and the Trade Commissioner Service or through incubator programs at the National Research Council. One of the entrepreneurs was certified as a woman-led company and through that program she got her products into Sephora’s global supply chain, proving it’s often about partnerships.
The 2018 Canadian Exporter Challenge is a joint effort of Startup Canada, Export Development Canada, UPS and the Trade Commissioner Service. The overall winner will be chosen today in Ottawa – check back on our website to find out who it will be!