Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Knights in shining armour for entrepreneurs?

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Next week, a grand new plan for the Manitoba Venture Challenge will be introduced at an event hosted by a new entity called Innovate Manitoba.

It's the product of a lot of discussion among a lot of folks who understand the importance of fostering innovation in the Manitoba economy -- something that has caused hand-wringing over the years.

Various versions of the Venture Challenge have existed over time as a forum for promising new enterprises to present their business concepts to potential investors or strategic partners.

And while it's generally agreed it's a useful forum, it needs to exist in a richer environment of opportunities for it to be truly effective.

Marshall Ring, who runs BCC (Biomedical Commercialization Canada), talks about how a "culture of commercialization" is emerging in the city.

For economic development to reliably take place in Manitoba -- whose economy depends on the organic growth of small startups -- it's crucial for the economy to be refreshed with new technological innovations that can become commercially viable enterprises.

But it's a tricky process.

It's been discussed in this space for a long time that, as important as it is for there to exist the right culture, there also has to be investment capital to germinate that culture.

After entrepreneurs exhaust the resources of friends, family and loved ones, there are few places to turn for growth capital in Manitoba.

Since the demise of the labour-sponsored venture capital funds -- GrowthWorks and Golden Opportunities are still nominally active -- various efforts to put funds together have been attempted.

Harry Ethans is leading a new angel investor group -- dubbed the Manitoba Knights -- that is loosely connected to BCC.

Gary Brownstone, general manager of the Eureka Project, is in the midst of trying to put together a $30-million fund with local investors as well as some support from Israeli interests.

"We have been talking to business leaders for some time now saying we have a real local need," Brownstone said.

He's looking for about 12 local partners to commit $2.5 million each.

"I'd say we're pretty close to handshake agreements from half that number, so we're getting there," he said.

Brownstone has been impressed with lessons Manitoba can learn from the Israeli model.

Part of it is the importance of working together. "Like Israel, Manitoba is a small market with limited resources," he said. "Instead of duplicating and cannibalizing programs, we have to work together."

Brownstone's fund would work to fill the void in financings of between $300,000 and $5 million. One of the features of the fund will be to marry professional management with the portfolio companies at the earliest possible opportunity.

Brownstone sees some role for an expanded incubator in the way the new fund would operate.

In that spirit of working together, Brownstone is in regular communication with Jan Lederman.

The corporate lawyer at Thompson Dorfman Sweatman has assumed the role of executive chairwoman of the Manitoba Innovation Council, a two-year-old group appointed by the premier to advise on innovation policy.

She said the council submitted a strategic action plan earlier this year.

Part of it is the creation of Innovate Manitoba, a non-profit group that will manage the Venture Challenge as well as an ambitious program of boot camps for budding enterprises and a large event every fall for pre-commercial, idea-driven innovations that are right off the lab bench or out of the basement studio.

Lederman is rounding up an impressive group of blue-chip corporate sponsors for Innovate Manitoba.

Underlying much of the thinking on how to inculcate an innovation culture in Manitoba is that it ought to be led by the private sector.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 15, 2012 B5

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About Martin Cash

Martin Cash joined the Free Press in 1987 as the paper’s business columnist.

He has spent two decades chronicling the city’s business affairs.

Martin won a citation of merit from the National Newspaper Awards in 2001 for his coverage of the strike and subsequent multi-million-dollar union settlement at the Versatile tractor plant. He has also received honours and awards for his work on agriculture and technology development in Manitoba.

Martin has written a coffee-table book about the commercial and industrial make-up of the city, called Winnipeg: A Prairie Portrait.

Martin Cash on Twitter: @martycash


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