Non-tech entrepreneurs call for more inclusive innovation ecosystem

It's challenging for innovative companies that aren't tech startups to access the funding and programming they need in Edmonton's innovation ecosystem, say two founders of non-digital businesses.

"There are so many new tech startups that are getting funding and so much that is being put into our province for innovation, but there just needs to be a bit more conversation about what innovation means," Nicole Sanchez, co-founder of Ruth, said on Taproot's Bloom podcast.

Ruth, which makes sustainable menstrual pads, decided in 2020 to pivot from its initial plan to use hemp, in part because of the cost. "It's a lot easier for a startup that has some sort of tech or digital thing involved within their business. And because we don't have that, it was a little harder for us to access (funding)," Sanchez explained.

Gillian Thomson faced similar challenges while building Skipper, a company that has redesigned the traditional shower cap with an eye on sustainability. When it came to business incubators or grant money, many of the offerings Thomson considered required the company to have a technology component and to already have a product on the market. But Skipper's shower caps took more than 18 months to develop, and Thomson ended up funding that process with her own savings.

"I think it would be really difficult if I didn't already have some money set aside to find other options that would be applicable to my product," Thomson said.

Money from pitch competitions helped the Ruth team initially get off the ground. Both Thomson and Sanchez have also been able to access the University of Alberta's ThresholdImpact Venture Mentoring Service. The volunteer-based program offers mentorship for new entrepreneurs that focuses on business guidance rather than preparation for investment.

"I'm not seeking investment funding at this time, so I don't really qualify for a lot of the programs that would help me grow my business," Thomson said. She'd like to see "more programs that are just about helping entrepreneurs navigate the ups and downs of everyday entrepreneurship."

Innovate Edmonton, a not-for-profit corporation formed in 2020, has a mandate to make innovation a major economic driver in Edmonton. Part of that work involves a commitment to delivering inclusive innovation.

Catherine Warren, CEO of Innovate Edmonton, noted that the programming the organization acquired from Startup Edmonton and the now-defunct TEC Edmonton came with "certain standards and requirements based on the funding we receive for delivery of the programs." Federal funding was recently announced for Capital City Pilots and an Innovation Gallery, both of which provide opportunities to non-tech-enabled companies and ideas.

Portraits of Nicole Sanchez and Gillian Thomson

Nicole Sanchez and Gillian Thomson have both faced challenges accessing guidance and funding to build their respective businesses in Edmonton. (Supplied)

Innovate Edmonton has also recently updated the delivery of its Business Model 101 program and will host Edmonton Startup Week in the fall. "We still have work to do to ensure that all innovators are included and supported," said Warren.

More discussion with companies and founders developing innovative products outside the tech space would be helpful, Sanchez said. "We need this kind of innovation, especially in this day and age."

Thomson noted that "there are many common household items that are being rethought right now with sustainability in mind, and they don't have high-tech angles to them," citing products such as waterless shampoo and conditioner.

"That sort of thing is going to change the way that people go about their day-to-day lives," Thomson said. "I think that if Alberta could get a little more ahead of that with funding opportunities for people interested in rethinking these items ... that's a side of innovation that is being overlooked right now."

Hear the whole conversation on Episode 14 of Bloom, Taproot's podcast about innovation in Edmonton.