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New fund to get startups to market

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THE federal government chose the lobby of the initial SmartPark building at the University of Manitoba to launch a $100-million fund to help Western Canadian businesses bring innovative new technologies to market.

Called the Western Innovation (WINN) Initiative, it will make interest-free loans available to help companies bridge the final stage of commercialization of a product that's just about ready for market.

Minister of State for Western Economic Diversification Michelle Rempel, a former employee of the U of M technology transfer office, said she met with more than 150 stakeholders in the innovation sector across Western Canada in the past two months and got a similar message from everyone.

"When we asked people how can we overcome the barriers that exist, I heard over and over again that small and medium-sized business owners need better access to risk capital," she said.

A broad spectrum of the Winnipeg innovation community was on hand for the announcement and it was widely heralded as a welcome addition.

The money will be in the form of repayable loans on a five-year term targeted at innovative new technologies that are no more than three years away from being ready for market.

"It's not going to be the panacea, but it will be good," said Jan Lederman, the executive director of Innovate Manitoba. "It's money that's not there now. Many small businesses don't need all that much to get them over the top."

Chris Johnson, one of the founders of the entrepreneurial organization called Ramp-Up Manitoba, was enthusiastic about the new fund. He is a driving force behind at least three different digital-technology businesses that will be applying for the loans.

He said the ability for a startup to get at as much debt financing as possible -- before real sales begin and the valuation of a company goes up dramatically -- is critical for any entrepreneur. That kind of funding will also help leverage access to funding from other sources.

"You need money to get money," Johnson said. "De-risking is critical."

Noah Decter-Jackson, CEO of Complex Games Inc., said, "The biggest challenge for emerging businesses is the funding gap just prior to commercialization. WINN can help to bridge that gap."

Rempel said the plan is to have two intakes per year, the first one starting Nov. 9 to Dec. 8. To be eligible for the loans of up to $3.5 million, a company has to be based in Western Canada, in business for at least a year and have fewer than 500 employees.

martin.cash@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 26, 2013 B6

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