Innovation Compass and Rainforest

November 09, 2019 07:49 By Aaron

How Does the Innovation Compass Reconcile with Rainforest?

The Innovation Compass was a community study commissioned the EEDC (Edmonton Economic Development Corp). In this article, we will take a look at how the Compass Recommendations fit within the context of the Rainforest Pillars.


What is the Compass?

The purpose of the Compass Report and the engagement activities is described as to “Engage with Edmonton’s tech-enabled innovation community to develop a series of recommendations and directions around how to support and grow Edmonton’s innovation ecosystem.” You can read more about the Compass on the Innovation Compass website.


The complete list of recommendations is below. They generally focus on identifying gaps in current programs and services in the Edmonton ecosystem. For the most part, the recommendations are a list of things that should be or could be done for the benefit of entrepreneurs and represent new program opportunities.


The report was launched in December 2018 and published in August 2019. The report and activities were paid for by EEDC in a non-public procurement process which did not go to public tender. 

The Compass Recommendations

The Innovation Compass concludes with 14 recommendations that their efforts determined would support tech-based entrepreneurs in Edmonton:

  1. Encourage pools of private investors from all sectors to move off the sidelines and start investing in local tech 
  2. Find ways to deploy government funding and support of the ecosystem in ways that better align to the needs of entrepreneurs.
  3. Make it extremely easy for innovators to benefit from and build on the IP they develop at post-secondary institutions.
  4. Facilitate more direct mentoring by entrepreneurs who have recent experience successfully founding and building tech companies.
  5. Invest in the establishment of a tech accelerator with a model proven in other jurisdictions.
  6. Reshape the mandates and governance models of service providers to be as agile as possible with the goal of meeting the evolving needs of the ecosystem.
  7. Foster an environment where companies can launch easily and fail fast.
  8. Develop a single window to communicate the entirety of services, programs and supports within the ecosystem available to entrepreneurs.
  9. Persistently communicate the ecosystem’s success stories – small or large – to both external and internal audiences.
  10. Establish funding and initiatives that encourage a predominantly relationship-based culture between entrepreneurs across the ecosystem.
  11. Facilitate opportunities for entrepreneurs at every stage to build applicable skills in practical areas (e.g., coding) and business skills (e.g., customer development).
  12. Shift the service provider focus to securing local, national and international customers for entrepreneurs.
  13. Formalize, fund and strengthen a mandate for an entrepreneur-led tech industry association.
  14. Focus the ecosystem around  supporting identified pillars of strength, rather than diluting 

Thoughts and Considerations

The report states that the "engagement consultant [has] no major interests or attachments within the innovation ecosystem and that they act as a neutral third party throughout  the process." However, it is relevant to note:

  • The consultant in the process, ZGM (formerly Calder Bateman) has been engaged by EEDC for previous studies; and
  • Since the Innovation Compass was released, the project lead and feedback session facilitator, Chris Henderson has been retained by EEDC for a series of other engagements or projects. As of this writing, little information has been released relating to this that we are aware of.


Also, given that the project was privately tendered and the scope of work in the contract has not been publicly disclosed (to the knowledge of the author), the project may have had an additional scope of work or desired outcomes beyond that above. 


The report was to be impartial and focus on recommendations for those who support the tech-enabled ecosystem. A detailed commentary was provided about specific service providers in the ecosystem, including:

  • Advanced Technology Centre (ATC);
  • Alberta Innovates (AI);
  • EEDC;
  • Startup Edmonton;
  • TEC Edmonton; and
  • The University of Alberta's Venture Mentoring Services (VMS).
Of this list, only VMS and AI are independent from the EEDC. Indeed, Startup Edmonton and the ATC are wholly owned entities or brands of the EEDC, and TEC Edmonton is a joint venture between the EEDC and the University of Alberta's Vice President of Research (VPR). The VPR and VMS (which is a program administered by the University of Alberta's Office of Alumni Relations) are both part of the University of Alberta. 

To its credit, the Compass is fairly critical of the impact and validity of each of EEDC's assets, including EEDC as a whole and Innovate Edmonton, the division of EEDC which oversees Startup Edmonton, the ATC and their joint venture with the VPR in TEC Edmonton. This suggests that the underlying data was not purged of negative feedback to paint the EEDC or its subsidiary brands in an undue positive light, however, it is disappointing that no feedback is provided on the array of other service providers in the ecosystem. 

How Does This Align with Rainforest?

The Rainforest Pillars detail the aspects of an innovation ecosystem that support innovation. 


The Scorecard Assessment provides two key elements:

  1. An overall score; and
  2. A radar graph of the relative pillar scores.


In general, a higher score indicates a higher-performance ecosystem, i.e. an ecosystem that better supports entrepreneurs to:

  • Test their ideas quickly;
  • Fail fast and iterate; or
  • Commit to their concept, grow and ultimately scale their company.

The shape of the graph indicates the stage of the ecosystem, and balance is key. Traditional ecosystems, or those that highly value rank and file leadership or top-down governance will typically show high Leadership and Role Models scores but very low (relatively) scores for Culture, Frameworks, Resources and Activities.
Read More about the Pillars

Past scorecard results show an evolving ecosystem. 


In September 2017, the score was just above a passing grade but the shape of the graph indicated a traditional ecosystem. The graph is stretched slightly towards Leadership but is somewhat balanced overall.


In March 2018, the score took a slight step backward, but it was much more concerning that the shape was losing balance. Specifically, scores for Activities & Engagement and the Resources Pillar were suppressed. During this point in time, some notable proposals were made in the ecosystem and entrepreneurs expressed a feeling of frustration that decisions were being made on their behalf, without their involvement. 


Fortunately, this frustration turned to positive engagements and a stronger desire to engage with entrepreneurs. Although the score did not increase drastically, the November 2018 scorecard results show a much more balanced and supportive ecosystem. The scores generally hover around 65% in each category, so there is certainly a significant amount of work to be done, however it is vital that the ecosystem remain conscious about all 6 Pillars and take intentional actions to invest in initiatives (or support existing initiatives that are well-regarded) to ensure that balanced growth occurs. In particular, it is vital that the ecosystem not encourage or support Leadership initiatives over and above other initiatives as this would be considered a backward step towards a more traditional and less innovation-focused top-down model. As a grassroots organization led by entrepreneurs, Rainforest Edmonton is highly supportive of bottom-up leadership and the development of new initiatives.

Mapping Compass to the Pillars

Although there may some room for interpretation, it is fairly easy to roughly map the Compass Recommendations to the Rainforest Pillars. Below, we will briefly look at the Recommendations in the context of each Pillar, and where appropriate, comment on expected results for the upcoming Scorecard Assessment.

Leadership

Identifying leaders and champions in the organization will be one of the most essential first steps in assessing innovative potential. Leaders of innovation must have a clear understanding of the motivations, experiences, and perspectives of their organization’s potential, to better understand the decision-makers and influencers.

The Recommendations that map to Leadership include:
#13: Formalize, fund and strengthen a mandate for an entrepreneur-led tech industry association.

Leadership is an area where the Rainforest Scorecard Assessment has rated the ecosystem consistently poorly. It is disappointing that there are not more recommendations to address this Pillar. 

Particular trends keeping the Leadership score low have been a lack of trust of the current leaders, lack of diversity of current leaders and the perception that people with leadership titles are often not considered to be the real leaders in the ecosystem (the "doers").

With recent changes in some leaders, we would expect this score may start trending upwards in the next Scorecard Assessment, underway now.
Resources

Resources form the foundation for both the generation and implementation of innovation. Physical resources are an essential element of the implementation of innovation; knowledge resources are essential for the generation of innovative ideas; and human resources span both functions. Understanding the quantity, quality, and origins of the array of resources available to an organization provides a fundamental understanding of its innovative potential.


The Recommendations that map to Resources include:
#1: Encourage pools of private investors from all sectors to move off the sidelines and start investing in local tech.
#2: Make it extremely easy for innovators to benefit from and build on the IP they develop at post-secondary institutions.
#4: Invest in the establishment of a tech accelerator with a model proven in other jurisdictions.
#10: Shift the service provider focus to securing local, national and international customers for entrepreneurs.
#14: Focus the ecosystem around  supporting identified pillars of strength, rather than diluting 

Resource scores have been trending upwards, due to the introduction of new tools into the ecosystem and the relative ease of accessing tools online. 


Consistently, the most cited drawback or challenge in the ecosystem has been lack of access to capital, which is echoed in the Compass Recommendations. 


The University of Alberta IP Policy has been mentioned as well, although the relatively low number of research projects seeking to commercialize has lessened the impact of this issue.


It is very reassuring to see so many Compass Recommendations that address the shortcomings of access to resources in the ecosystem as the overall score, though improving over time, has been barely above passable (75/150 = 50% was the low point in the recent assessments).

Frameworks, Infrastructure and Policies

Frameworks, Infrastructure, and Policies form the structural landscape for organizational innovation. They include all the organizations, departments, support infrastructure, and policies that have a role in the process of innovation. This section is a process of identifying who these stakeholders are and the policies that determine their action and interaction.


To have a meaningful conversation, it is important to have a common language.


The Recommendations that map to Frameworks include:
#2: Find ways to deploy government funding and support of the ecosystem in ways that better align to the needs of entrepreneurs.
#6: Reshape the mandates and governance models of service providers to be as agile as possible with the goal of meeting the evolving needs of the ecosystem.
#8: Develop a single window to communicate the entirety of services, programs and supports within the ecosystem available to entrepreneurs.
#10: Establish funding and initiatives that encourage a predominantly relationship-based culture between entrepreneurs across the ecosystem.

Scores in Frameworks have been higher and more consistent than that of Resources, however with recent government funding decisions, it is reasonable to assume that this score will drop, possibly drastically, in the next Scorecard Assessment. This may be buoyed in the future as the work on building a new, entrepreneur-centric e-RIN gets off the ground and starts making an impact.



Activities and Engagements

Activities and engagement represent a measure of the vibrancy of an organizational economy. Activities that are initiated on an organizational level (i.e. top-down) are an important signal to constituencies of organizational ambition and commitment to innovation. Activities that promote innovation and actively encourage engagement across a diverse array of participants are an essential part of a thriving innovative ecosystem.


One of the major ways the Rainforest engages with the Edmonton entrepreneurial community is through events. We host Lunch without Lunch (LWOL) twice a month, and Connector once a month.


The Recommendations that map to Activities include:
#11: Facilitate opportunities for entrepreneurs at every stage to build applicable skills in practical areas (e.g., coding) and business skills (e.g., customer development).

The score for Activities has trended upward, and it is reasonable to assume that it will continue to do so in the Scorecard Assessment.


Initiatives such as StartupTNT have gained traction, the various community organized and led meetups on technical and subject matter specific topics are constantly growing and diversifying their topical offerings. 


Programs like VMS are also consistently cited as the best, most high-impact services available to entrepreneurs. Sadly, this program is only available to UAlberta Alumni.

Role Models

Role models come in all shapes and sizes and are those individuals who embody characteristics that others wish to emulate. They are powerful influencers for the accelerated learning of new social behaviours and can transform entire organizations through inspiration.


The Recommendations that map to Role Models include:
#4: Facilitate more direct mentoring by entrepreneurs who have recent experience successfully founding and building tech companies.
#9: Persistently communicate the ecosystem’s success stories – small or large – to both external and internal audiences.

Communication of Role Models, which serves to both acknowledge the hard work of entrepreneurs and to inspire potential future entrepreneurs, has been lacking. Initial scores were around failing but are starting to creep upward. Initiatives such as Start Alberta and Innovate YEG have popped up in the last 18 months or so and seem to be having a positive effect.


Also, many new entrepreneur-focused and innovation-focused awards have been created, and the profile of those that previously existed continues to rise, assisting with acknowledgement and recognition for innovators in Edmonton.

Culture

Culture is the foundation for any innovative ecosystem and while it is a component of all other areas being evaluated, it must be considered as an independent and isolated factor as well. The principles of shared culture will ultimately determine the success of any innovative initiatives.


The Recommendations that map to Culture include:
#7: Foster an environment where companies can launch easily and fail fast.

Culture scores in Edmonton have trended slowly upwards over the past two years.


As mentioned in Leadership, trust has held this ecosystem back. Unfortunately, few activities have been undertaken to build stronger trust between government and citizens, or among the various entrepreneur support organizations. 


The formation of EACOS, on the other hand, has supported a stronger dialogue between the entrepreneur community and both the government & service providers. Hopefully, this will be demonstrated by stronger Culture scores in the next Scorecard Assessment.