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ONSIDE, a new not-for-profit organization supporting innovation-based companies in Nova Scotia, knew from the outside that it was not working with a blank slate as it plotted ways to work collaboratively to improve the innovation ecosystem in Nova Scotia.

The organization grew out of the province’s participation in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Regional Entrepreneurship Acceleration Program (MIT REAP), which is an international accelerator for ecosystems. The mission is to put into practice the lessons learned in the program between 2016 and 2018.

In doing so, the ONSIDE team is on a mission to work in partnership with other organizations that have already built up a dynamic ecosystem in Nova Scotia and Atlantic Canada. It has adopted the philosophy of “collective impact” in executing on its mission, and strives to increase diversity and inclusion in the region’s innovation community.

“The special sauce is understanding the stakeholder model and what you’re trying to do is improve the operational trust between the partners,” said ONSIDE Executive Director Alexandra McCann in an interview. “We aim to increase the trust and improve the ability of people to work together beyond just their transactional obligations.”

The experience at REAP showed that Nova Scotia has a strong innovation capacity, but needs to work on its entrepreneurship capacity. So, ONSIDE aims to work with existing support organizations to improve the volume and calibre of innovation-driven entrepreneurship in the region. McCann hopes ONSIDE can help through the three Cs that comprise its operating mantra: “Convene, Connect and Catalyze.”

“Before we even start, we have to assess what we’ve got and go from there,” said Chère Chapman, Chair of the ONSIDE Board. “Nova Scotia’s strength is its innovation, and there are a lot of great organizations that are really making strides, like CDL Atlantic.”

This strength has been apparent in the past two months as startups have pivoted quickly to respond to COVID-19 and its impact on communities. For example, Dartmouth-based SimplyCast delivered technology to help municipalities, health-care clinics, and others improve communications and manage resources during the pandemic. Outcast Foods, also of Dartmouth, is working on solutions to lessen food waste, and Halifax’s Sona Nanotech is producing a COVID-19 rapid-response antigen test.

Global data indicating that startups will play a major role in economic recovery is starting to emerge, and ONSIDE believes startups can aid economic recovery here in Nova Scotia.

The guiding philosophy of ONSIDE is “collective impact”, a formula for problem solving first articulated in 2011 in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. First applied to education, the theory states that modern problems are so complex that no single player in the system can come up with a lasting solution on its own. Modern problem-solving requires the participation at the planning stage of a range of organizations, including governments, academia, labour, community groups and representatives of minority groups. All these groups have to work together to achieve a clearly defined goal.

McCann said collective impact is a method of mobilizing a broad range of people to tackle large, systemic challenges, such as poverty, environmental problems, or educational short-comings. 

ONSIDE perceives its role to be a “backbone organization”, that is, a body that brings together all the disparate groups in the ecosystem so they can solve problems together using collective impact. The MIT REAP model it has adopted examines the system, the stakeholders and the strategy and works with groups to improve the ecosystem. It is working closely with Nova Scotia’s three innovation districts and hubs – the Rural Mainland Hubs, Cape Breton Innovation District, and the Halifax Innovation District. It also supports the work of the Atlantic Women’s Venture Fund, a pan-regional group that aims to address the shortfall in funding for female-led ventures.

ONSIDE is assessing the whole ecosystem and looking for gaps in support organizations. It is focusing, for example, on supporting rural innovation through its interaction with hubs and innovation districts outside of Metro Halifax.

In keeping with the theme of collective impact, ONSIDE aims to promote greater inclusion in the startup community. There is a need to generate more participation from African-Nova Scotian and Aboriginal communities, said McCann and Chapman.

The team says it has been reaching out to under-represented segments of the community to ensure that their voices are heard as the ecosystem evolves. For example, it has been holding meetings with groups like the Black Business Initiative.

“It’s not enough just to grow the economy or the ecosystem, but we also need to focus on social progress,” said Chapman. “We’re working on looking at the ecosystem through the diversification lens to make sure that every opinion counts.”

Editor's Note: This is the second of three articles on the origin, philosophy and work of ONSIDE. You can find the first article here


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).