The origins of ONSIDE, one of the newest components of the Nova Scotia startup ecosystem, date back four years to when a group of business, government and academic leaders joined an ecosystem acceleration program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
It was called the Regional Entrepreneurship Acceleration Program, or REAP, which MIT initiated in 2012. Nova Scotia was one of six jurisdictions to participate in Cohort 4, which ran from 2016 to 2018.
Following the conclusion of the program, the participants decided to form ONSIDE – whose full name is the Organization for Nova Scotia Innovation-Driven Entrepreneurship – to carry out the work begun through MIT REAP. They aimed to foster a prosperous Nova Scotia through innovation-driven entrepreneurship, and to put into practice the lessons learned in the Boston area.
“A group went down and engaged in the program for two years,” ONSIDE Executive Director Alexandra McCann said in an interview. “What MIT REAP teaches you are frameworks to understand the nature of your innovation ecosystem, as well as identify the key stakeholders who can help it advance. In moving from theory to practice, the teams identify a ‘must-win-battle’ and use a collective impact approach to accomplish the acceleration goal.”
Added ONSIDE Chair Chére Chapman: “REAP teaches you to look at entrepreneurs, capital and innovation capacity and work with them to strengthen an entrepreneurial ecosystem.”
MIT REAP is an accelerator for ecosystems rather than businesses. It grew out of the notion that jurisdictions can improve their startup networks by assessing the strengths and gaps in their ecosystems, then bringing people together to amplify the good parts and improve the weaker points.
Jeff Larsen – who was then moving from a strategy position with the Nova Scotia government to becoming Executive Director of Innovation, Creativity and Entrepreneurship at Dalhousie University – heard about the program and arranged for Nova Scotia to apply. The province made it into the fourth cohort, along with Dubai, Iceland, Lima, Lagos and Madrid.
REAP operates on the belief that there are five main components of an ecosystem – corporations, government, entrepreneurs, risk capital and post-secondary institutions. So the Nova Scotian team attending MIT REAP included representatives from each component:
- Corporations – Clearwater Seafoods Founder John Risley, Emera CEO Chris Huskilson, and Nova Scotia Power President and CEO Karen Hutt.
- Government – Nova Scotia Deputy Ministers Bernie Miller and Murray Coolican; and John Knubley, Deputy Minister of Industry Canada.
- Entrepreneurs – Jevon MacDonald, Co-Founder and CEO of Manifold; and Chére Chapman, CEO of DGI Clinical.
- Risk Capital – Build Ventures Partner Patrick Keefe.
- Post-Secondary Institutions – Dalhousie University President Richard Florizone, Chiefs of Staff Erin Stewart Reid and Martha Casey, and Jeff Larsen.
What they learned was that Nova Scotia performed really well in innovation. The province has a host of universities, and Dalhousie is one of the top 20 research institutions in Canada. There is a lot of technology that could be produced by research being carried out in the province.
“Nova Scotia has a very high innovation capacity,” said McCann. “We have strong policy governance, institutions, lots of research, and where we aren’t doing very well is on the entrepreneurial side. The risk-taking and the access to risk capital is where we need improvement.”
One of the benefits of attending REAP was that the Nova Scotia team was able to compare itself with its international peers. The team learned that Peru, by contrast, has a high entrepreneurship capacity, with a lot of risk-takers, but has a much lower innovation capacity.
During the two-year program, each jurisdiction is asked what its comparative advantage is and what can be done to amplify that advantage. The answer for Nova Scotia was that it had strong research and operational capacity in ocean-based industries, and the team dove into this opportunity.
The REAP curriculum stresses that each jurisdiction has one battle that it simply cannot afford to lose, and the teams have to figure out what that battle is and how to win it. The Nova Scotia team decided the must-win battle for Atlantic Canada was the federal government’s supercluster competition.
The federal government was due in 2018 to award a total of $950 million in R&D funding to five superclusters, or hubs of innovation in certain sectors, across the country. The hope was that these “superclusters” would become international hotbeds of innovation in specific areas. The four Atlantic Provinces put together a committee to oversee the supercluster bid, and they ended up capturing one of the five positions in February 2018.
Having completed the program and seen success in its “must-win battle”, the REAP team decided it needed a not-for-profit organization to put the theory it had learned into practice. It formed ONSIDE, with Chapman chairing its board.
As its Executive Director, it chose McCann, who had recently served as Chief Operations Officer at Dockside Investco. Her previous postings included investment attraction at Nova Scotia Business Inc., covering such sectors as cleantech, oceantech, life sciences, agrifood and seafood.
ONSIDE knows that it is looking to improve an ecosystem that already has a lot of pieces in place, and is benefiting from the splendid work of many organizations. The team also knows there is room for improvement, and it aims to make a difference – first in Nova Scotia then throughout Atlantic Canada.
“It’s still early days so we’re working on getting more done,” said Chapman. “We don’t have any preconceptions but we want to work in partnership and to work with people to figure out what the right questions are and how to find the right answers.”
Editor's Note: This is the first of three features we will run on ONSIDE in the coming month. We will publish one article every two weeks to coincide with the release of the group's podcasts.
ONSIDE is a newly established backbone not-for-profit organization that is focused on working collaboratively with stakeholders and partners to galvanize a prosperous Nova Scotia through inclusive Innovation-Driven Entrepreneurship (IDE). It was born out of a two-year engagement, championed by Dalhousie University, with MIT REAP (Regional Entrepreneurship Acceleration Program).