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Mark Vaughan-Jackson: Putting our money where our ideas are

Bob Williamson on Newfoundland and Labrador’s start-up scene compared to the rest of Atlantic Canada: “Simply put, per capita you have more successful start-ups than I've seen in the other three provinces.”
Bob Williamson on Newfoundland and Labrador’s start-up scene compared to the rest of Atlantic Canada: “Simply put, per capita you have more successful start-ups than I've seen in the other three provinces.” - Telegram file photo/Kenn Oliver

It’s a good time for ideas in Newfoundland and Labrador.

The words innovation and the idea economy have firmly been added to our lexicon.

We’re getting more familiar with terms like start-ups, incubators, accelerators and — perhaps most importantly — angels.

We’ve all seen the stories: small companies where someone had a great idea: a smarter, greener way to heat our homes, a potential breakthrough in health tech, a different take on education technology, a new app for this, that or the other.

But the ideas are just the start-point, the first step on a journey. Lots of people have great ideas, but it takes investment and advice to help make those ideas a reality.

There are a growing number of investment sources in this province and Atlantic Canada and across the country: venture capital companies, individual angel investors, government funding agencies, successful individual business people who are looking to share some of their success with an up-and-comer.

Putting the two together, the start-up with the right investor, can be difficult.

But if now is a good time, St. John’s was a good place for ideas this week.

All day Tuesday, it was a sold-out crowd at the first ever InvestNL conference in downtown St. John’s. Its main purpose — helping to forge those relationships between the start-ups and the investors. The event was hosted by Invest Atlantic and the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Technology Industries (NATI).

The event offered a full slate of panel discussions, networking sessions, a keynote address from one of the top performing angel investor groups in the country and more.

There were also chances for start-ups to directly pitch their ideas to potential investors. Just to make it fun, organizers made it a bit more competitive — not only could participating start-ups make a connection with one of the listening investors, the winner of the day’s pitches stood to win $50,000 in in-kind support and opportunity for investment from event sponsors.

On the heels of good news for projected oil revenues for the province and just hours before he hopped a plane to join an Atlantic Canada trade mission in China, Premier Dwight Ball reminded participants how important their start-ups are for the province’s future.

“We certainly recognize in our province that, as a government, we must continue to support our start-up community and nurture this because, incrementally, when you’re successful we will be successful,” he said. “Innovation and investment are key building blocks in supporting business and economic development in Newfoundland and Labrador, and we as a government are providing innovators and young entrepreneurs with the resources they need to start, to grow and achieve global success. We have access to global success right here in our province.”

And start-ups from this province are already making noise on the regional and national scenes.

Invest Atlantic’s Bob Williamson, CEO of the Jameson Group, added some context of the impact N.L. start-ups have had.

“Over the nine years that I’ve been working here in Newfoundland and Labrador, per capita I’m seeing more successful companies coming out of Newfoundland and Labrador than any other province. Period,” Williamson said. “And the (stat) that I find very curious … there are more female investors, per capita, in Newfoundland and Labrador than I’ve seen in any other province. I don’t know what the magic sauce is, but it’s working. Keep it up.”

Investment NL’s honorary chair is Kendra MacDonald. She’s also chair of NATI and the newly appointed CEO of Canada’s Ocean Supercluster.

Understandably, she’s very big on this province’s start-up sector and its potential.

Because every time a local start-up takes the next step on its journey, works with the right mentor, connects with the right investor, it’s a win for them as well as the entire province.

That’s why events like InvestNL are important, she said. It’s not just about helping start-ups and investors to make connections, it’s about publicly celebrating the entire sector and its growing role as part of the provincial economy.

“Part of being able to diversify the economy is to have people thinking of new types of jobs and new types of opportunities and the opportunity to build a business. I think the more widely we spread that story, then the more you’re able to attract the type of talent that we need for the future and for these businesses,” she said. “We’ve been working very hard at NATI to get the message out around these great things that are happening so that we’re not just hearing about oil and things like that. We’re actually hearing these great stories of companies that are quietly worldwide in terms of the global reach that they have.”

I’m pretty new in the business beat and I’m constantly looking for ideas to write about. Based on the vibe in the room at InvestNL, the diversity of some of the ideas local start-ups are working on is frankly exciting.

I’m looking forward to writing a lot more about some of them in future columns.

Watch this space.

Mark Vaughan-Jackson is The Telegram’s business editor. Email him at mark.vaughan-jackson@thetelegram.com.

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