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North Forge tackles kids' literacy

Company offers funding, support to help develop innovative programs

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 21/11/2017 (924 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Jeff Ryzner, the CEO of North Forge Technology Exchange, is a nationally recognized business mentor who’s great at giving useful advice to all sorts of young entrepreneurs.

One of the things he always advises startups is to stop talking from within the confines of the company and listen to what the market is saying.

North Forge CEO Jeff Ryzner is getting proactive about literacy issues in the early grades.


North Forge CEO Jeff Ryzner is getting proactive about literacy issues in the early grades.

Ryzner was taken aback recently when he had occasion to learn that Manitoba ranks last or near last in the country in literacy and numeracy levels for 15-year-olds and that many per-schoolers in the province — as high as 77 per cent in some communities — are not ready for the Grade 1 curriculum.

The father of a couple of young children, Ryzner got it in his head that there’s got to be something that could be done to help change that trend, something that may require an approach that has eluded the subject-matter experts.

Ryzner, who has helped North Forge become a successful broad-based community economic development agency over past few years, has now taken the lead on one of the most ambitious projects the organization — and maybe the province — has ever attempted.

It’s an open call for innovation to improve early childhood literacy and numeracy in Manitoba.

Anyone can participate and winning entries will receive funding and support to pilot the project.

"I work with brilliant innovators every day, " Ryzner said. "I’m convinced we will come up with some great ideas."

A web portal, set up at wearethesolution.ca, makes it clear they’re not looking for multimillion dollar solutions — it doesn’t have to have anything to do with technology and it probably won’t work if it means teachers are going to have to learn how to operate some new software.

The ideas that are selected will be funded and supported all the way through to a field test.

North Forge has rounded up a large and enthusiastic collection of private-sector partners. It’s not a government project, but provincial officials are keen to help and are prepared to provide plenty of support efforts.

"We will rely on the generosity of our private-sector partners," Ryzner said. "And to date they have really stepped up."

Wawanesa Insurance is one of the private-sector players that’s pumped about getting involved. The Winnipeg insurance company, along with other companies including National Leasing, Friesens, TDS Law and ID Fusion, will provide cash and other support as needed.

Al McLeod, Wawanesa’s vice-president of research and innovation, said the idea of an open innovation challenge is not new — but the commitment to follow some of the ideas through to implementation is very exciting.

"It’s not just the ideas, but also making them real. It is just the coolest thing," McLeod said. "When we heard about the challenge many of us agreed we could not think of a better way to support community than this."

Economic development and technology innovation is what North Forge typically does.

But Joelle Foster, who runs Futurpreneur Canada and sits on the North Forge board, said there is significant buy-in from the board to take this step outside the company’s own box.

"And we have incredible sponsors," she said. "This is a chance to hear from the people with the good idea who do not know who to share it with."

Rob Santos is the province’s senior assistant deputy minister for Health Child Manitoba and its expert on early childhood education. He said there is plenty of scientific research out there regarding the cradle to career mandate the province has assumed but no universal system that can reach the families.

Santos said his department’s participation in this project speaks to its recognition that it does not have all the answers.

"This is something government can’t do on its own," Santos said. "I think it’s awesome to try to harness the entire talent of the province. Some of the greatest breakthroughs — and we need some in this area — may come from anywhere, a young person up North, it may come from a granny, it could come from a teacher."

The process is just getting underway — submissions will begin to be accepted starting this Friday — but there’s already a buzz about the possibility of using this template to attack other social challenges in the province.

Even before the results are in, just about everyone, including Ryzner, McLeod, Santos and Ian Wishart, Minister of Education and Training, are talking about their desire to take the same approach to other problems.

"Every time we go to a school or school division we always find someone coming up with some innovative way to reach out to the students," Wishart said. "This idea of the tech think tank applied to social innovation could be used to address other issues."

While it’s too early to know just how doable the proposals end up being, Ryzner said no one has voiced concerns that they’ve taken on something that just might be too difficult to crack.

"No one has said that to us yet," Ryzner said. "That could be because most of the people we have engaged to date did not really know how bad the situation (with early childhood education) really was."

On Thursday, an information and Q&A session will be held at the North Forge Event Centre at SmartPark at the University of Manitoba for interested parties.

And to help acclimatize people may never have participated in idea generating sessions, the Winnipeg company inVision Edge will hold a guided "ideation" session on Dec. 1 with a subject matter expert and a technology entrepreneur to help people come up with new solutions or refine ones they already have.

Depending on whether or not there is a clear winner that’s headed in the right direction, North Forge and its partners will help scale it across the province.

"From a selfish economic development perspective, I hope we launch a new ed-tech company that will take the solution across the country," Ryzner said.


Martin Cash

Martin Cash

Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.

Read full biography


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