The eighth edition of Techno has come and gone, and what a week it was. Thank you to the participants, instructors, and everyone else who shared knowledge and expertise. Here are some of the key topics covered during this year’s sessions.

Market identification

“If you listen very carefully, your customers will tell you what market you’re in.” This was the advice Techno teams got from Impact Centre senior fellow Charles Plant.

Seventy-five per cent of startups fail, and the number one reason for failure is lack of market need. If this year’s participants want to be effective disruptors, they have to “cross the chasm” by convincing hardheaded consumers to buy in with them. Making that connection involves choosing the right customers and finding out how to magnify their triggers, while minimizing their barriers to change.

Intellectual property (IP)

Techno participants may have been surprised to learn that “to patent or not to patent” is rarely an obvious question. For instance, as expensive and time-consuming as patents are to attain, they can be even more costly and difficult to enforce, especially for startups. There is also plenty of strategy involved in IP: cross-licensing, defensive disclosure, and how and when to speed up or slow down the examination process are all things companies should think about when choosing to file.

Isi Caulder, a patent lawyer from Bereskin & Parr, came to speak with some of the teams. “Our main piece of advice is, ‘Make sure you keep the idea close to your chest,’ because discussing it publicly severely complicates patent filing,” she warned.

Funding

Most people know it takes money to start a business, but not necessarily how or where to get it. Does it come from investors? Government agencies? The company’s own cash flow? What sources make the most sense to pursue, and what are the best ways to approach them?

Among the funding options explored at Techno were grants from agencies like OCE, federal programs like IRAP and tax incentive programs like SR&ED. Early on however, many startups will find themselves “bootstrapping,” or launching the business without any external capital. Doing so successfully requires three things: revenue, returns and “references” – meaning happy initial customers, and a strong network.

Prototyping

For hardware startups, a product development strategy is one of the most critical parts of scaling the business. Companies often face the tough decision of whether to spend more money up front and get to market quicker, or to minimize costs and delay product launch, which can negatively impact long-term return on investment. Balancing time and money is another big challenge during development. Failure and redesign can be a valuable part of a company’s learning curve, but prototyping is already expensive, time consuming, and takes tons of effort and discipline as it is.

Either way, companies should make a habit of recording everything they’ve learned throughout the process, especially when communicating with industry partners. “How a company arrives at its conclusions is just as important as the conclusions themselves,” advised Inertia Engineering president Ray Minato.

Unique Value Propositions (UVPs)

When choosing customers, there are three things businesses must consider: what it is they offer; how it works; and most importantly, why it matters. Together, these pieces make up the company’s unique value proposition, which informs most of the other ideas on this list.

UVPs are also important for competitive advantage. Businesses typically compete based on a level of speed, cost or quality that is unique from other players in the market. The value of a new product or service depends on its ability to satisfy customers’ needs, align with their values and ultimately form a connection with them.

Pivoting – both personally and professionally

Darren Anderson

Successful entrepreneur and Impact Centre alum Darren Anderson spoke at Techno about his experience starting and growing a business. His company Vive Crop Protection, which began as Northern NanoTechnologies, changed industries several times before settling on the right one: agriculture. “Once the big Ag companies came seeking us out, that was when I knew we finally had a product-market fit,” he explained.

In addition to pivoting his company, Anderson also talked about adjusting his personal goals. While trying to decide between a future in industry or academia, his time spent in Entrepreneurship 101 (Techno’s predecessor program) made him realize he had both the skills and attitude to succeed in business. Being open to new directions has been key to his success.

Branding

One of the participants’ first tasks was to name their new companies. They were also encouraged to design logos and print business cards for upcoming networking opportunities. Techno history shows many of these ideas won’t be permanent, but it’s a good exercise to get teams to think about branding early on.

Amol Rao, a former Techno participant and founder of Somnitude, described how he originally used the same name (“Blue Blocking Glasses”) for his business and his product so customers could find both easily. However, his team soon realized that having a distinct brand identity – and finding it sooner rather than later – was key to long-term success.

Pitching

“Founders should treat everybody they speak to as a potential investor,” the Impact Centre’s Rich McAloney said during Techno. Even if the person can’t provide funding right away, there’s no telling where a conversation might lead down the line. That’s why every new business needs a refined, ready-to-go elevator pitch.

Each team was challenged to condense its target market, competitive advantage, value proposition and unique hook into a 20 to 30-second speech. They were also coached on developing slide decks for longer, more formal presentations. After plenty of “crowdsourcing” – that is, delivery in front of other participants and Impact Centre staff over and over for feedback – each team’s pitches will be put to the test this week, at both the networking dinner and Techno 2017 Pitch Day.

The Impact Centre is once again honoured to have prepared a bright batch of entrepreneurs to bring their science to society. We can’t wait to see what their futures hold!

Kelvin McDermott is a Communications Intern at the Impact Centre