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On a silver platter


April 14, 2014
By Jim Chliboyko

Topics

Years ago, there was a late night commercial on American television,
featuring a shrill guy named Matthew Lesko, dressed in a suit decorated
with question marks, offering an online service that would “cut through
the bureaucratic paperwork and show you exactly what you’re eligible for

Years ago, there was a late night commercial on American television, featuring a shrill guy named Matthew Lesko, dressed in a suit decorated with question marks, offering an online service that would “cut through the bureaucratic paperwork and show you exactly what you’re eligible for. Plus, we’ll also help you fill out any government application… for free!” The ads were oddly watchable, in a so-bad-it’s-good kind of way, with Lesko and – depending on which one of his ads you were watching – a group of wacky musicians running Benny-Hill style over the more picturesque areas of Washington D.C. His car is also, evidently, decorated with question marks.

MONEY 
There is money for companies wanting to improve products and test new inventions, but navigating Ottawa’s alphabet soup of agencies and programs to find it is impossible for most small business owners. Now a new service from the National Research Council is designed to help.

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Canada has something like that now, but Mr. Lesko is nowhere to be seen. And it’s a little more sober than a two-piece suit covered with question marks.

The Concierge Program is the product of consultations which took place a few years ago between government and public stakeholders (including business owners) looking for ways in which research and development support services could be delivered or promoted more favourably. According to the NRC, the service came out of a panel presentation in 2011, when “the panel found that SMEs struggle to understand and access much of the support that is available to them and recommended a concierge service to address this issue.”

That the service would be created was then announced in the 2012 federal budget. It promised the “NRC would create a concierge service to provide information and assistance to SMEs to help them make use of federal innovation programs.” The features of the service unveiled this past December seem not too different than the way it was described back in 2012, complete with the idea of service customization specific to clients and the idea of the one-stop shop.

According to the NRC, regarding the consultations of a few years ago, they “found that SMEs struggle to understand and access much of the R&D support available to them, and recommended a concierge service along with a web portal to address this issue.”

Likewise, the CBC, in an online article about the 2012 announcements, said, “Canada spends more than most countries to help businesses create new products. But it hasn’t been paying off, and the participation of Canadian businesses in research and development is still lagging.”

Evidently, over 98 per cent of businesses in Canada have less than 100 employees, and are thus defined as an SME. A 2011 document from the Business Development Bank of Canada, and based on information from Statistics Canada, came to the conclusion that less than one-quarter of the SMEs in Canada invested in research and development.

In terms of the glass industry, just over 11 per cent of Canadian SMEs were considered to be involved in construction (with only Retail and Other Services coming out ahead of construction). 

“For many SMEs, the efficient and reliable commercialization of R&D into new products, processes and services is extremely challenging, particularly with limited resources. Innovation is a catalyst for the development and growth of new businesses, high-value jobs, and long-term economic prosperity for Canada,” stated Perrin Beatty, president and CEO of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce. 

The Concierge Service’s goal in 2014 is to help businesses, through customized service, properly leverage programs for their benefit, with up-to-date, easily accessed information in business language. It also will provide time-saving guidance, and possibly connections to partners or other organizations that may benefit the SMEs in question.

NRC advertises the service as being like a one-stop shop. It is a combination of phone, online and in-person service. Citing the current climate of increasing global competitiveness and the importance of innovation, the NRC predicts the service will become invaluable to SMEs (which represent over 54 per cent of the Canadian economy) and an important key to productivity.

As well, the service aims to help SMEs avoid the confusion of accidentally applying to the wrong program or one that perhaps doesn’t exactly match the firm’s needs. And, according to the NRC, this will help the firms hit the ground running, giving them the sense of where to truly start.

“It was announced a little bit before the Christmas vacation,” said Bogdan Ciobanu, vice-president for the Industrial Research Assistance Program at NRC. “But it was, from the first day, very well received. There were a lot of hits on the website and a lot of direct support face to face.”

It’s still early days for the program. When [i]Glass Canada[/i] talked to Ciobanu, the program was only about seven weeks old, but he said there was a good amount of attention generated by the program across many different sectors of the economy. One phrase he used was “heterogeneous representation.” He also said it was a bit early at this point to get industry-specific information, but that they would have a better idea as to which sectors took advantage of their services once the first year was finished.

“There are all types of industries (interested), in all types of stages of development with all forms of innovation,” he said. “So it can be product innovation or service innovation or you can work to innovate in terms of cost of production. This is all considered by us as innovation and will help companies maintain or increase competitiveness.”

Ciobanu said the program is open to all and, when asked about the type of company the program was targeting, he emphasized the usefulness of whoever wants to take advantage of it, taking pains to note that it was an inclusive program.

“We can expect to have more early stage companies, in their first, I would say, five years of existence that are looking for government support when they don’t have enough financial backers, or the risk is too high for private investment,” he said. “If a company finds that they want to innovate, that in the past they might not have looked for support, but may think that they need to do something to develop a new product or to increase their productivity, (they might think) what can I do, what technology do I need to develop, acquire adopt or adapt.

“There are a lot of resources. What we want is to help the small businesses that don’t have the time, resources or the network. We’re not creating a program (for them). It allows companies to have a one-stop shop. Knock on the door and have access to everything to do with innovation on the government side.

There are several ingredients to the program, including the role of 10 CAs (concierge advisors) across Canada, as well as the program website and a client contact centre. There are two concierge advisors in each of the five regional areas in Canada: Pacific (British Columbia and Yukon); the West (Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Northwest Territories); Ontario; Quebec; and the Atlantic (Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick and Nunavut).

The general transaction goes something like this: A company contacts the Concierge Program over the web or by phone for some assistance. If the phone crew cannot immediately help the company, then their query gets turned over to the Concierge Advisors, who then attend to it personally. Though some potential clients may be more remote or further away from main centres, travel is not a worry, said Ciobanu.

“We have people on the ground in all these regions across Canada who will help clients directly understand better what would be the most appropriate program for that and help them move forward,” said Ciobanu. “We try to minimize the waste of time from the client side. It’s much more than information; it’s personalized.”

“Most companies can just take the information and proceed. Many companies want the advice and want to be guided.”

Of course, different provinces have different programs available, depending on the province itself, so ultimately what may help out different firms may depend on where they are located.  For partners, the Concierge Service claims 75 funding and advisory programs from 40 federal, provincial and regional partners.

And the Concierge Program is an evolving vision. Ciobanu mentioned that this was merely Year One and that the program would be looking to offer even more services, and not just support.

”We (also) want to grow it to provide expertise,” he said, saying that this is something a direction that will take shape over the next year.

Otherwise, Ciobanu seems eager to be able to see how this new program is working out, once his team gets a few more months, or even a year, under their belt.

Said Ciobanu, “We have a good team working on this, very enthusiastic, and they know the innovation system in Canada.”


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