Innovation Anthology

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Program ID: Innovation Anthology #851
Program Date: 03/07/2017
Program Category: Alberta, Entrepreneurship & Commercialization, Funding, Women in Science

!Spark Incubator Gets $400,000 For GP Entrepreneurs

INNOVATION ANTHOLOGY #851  INTERVIEW WITH HOLLY SORGEN

March 7, 2017

MP3:    10.4 MB

TIME:   11:22 MINUTES

Intro:  Holly Sorgen is the Executive Director of Community Futures in Grande Prairie, Alberta.  The Provincial Government recently announced funding to underwrite enhanced support for a business incubator program called Spark. The organization will receive $400,000 over two years as part of Alberta Innovates $10 million Alberta Entrepreneur Incubator Initiative. 

HOLLY SORGEN 

CC:  HOLLY YOU HAVE A PROGRAM CALLED SPARK!  IT'S A BUSINESS INCUBATOR.  COULD YOU TELL ME A LITTLE BIT ABOUT SPARK! AND THE ORGANIZATION YOU ARE WORKING WITH?

 HS:  Sure.  Well I've actually been with my organization "Community Futures, Grande Prairie and Region" since 1997.  Our organization has been around since 1986.  Since 1986, what we've really been focused on is Rural Business and Rural Economic Development.  Part of that is to support new and startup businesses with things like business planning, training, coaching, advising, and facilitation, all of those types of things, linking them up with professional services.  We also do finance for some of those startups. 

And since we have been in operation, one of the things that we've really recognized is the need for some of our startup businesses to be incubated.  For anyone who is familiar with that term, it really talks to how we can support a business in the best way, shape or form.  Most normally, people will think of incubation as being a physical space.  And that certainly is part of what we have provided in the past and are providing now.  But it's also that additional piece--the support, the mentorship, the feeling of a team.

So sometimes when we get involved in doing business, we get so involved in doing business that we forget there are other people out there who can sometimes get us past the frustrations and the challenges, share their successes with us, best practices.

What we have been doing, I guess for the last 31 years, is providing an opportunity for those businesses to have access to a physical space at a reasonable rate, month to month, instead of long term three and five years so they can test the market and see if it something that's really viable for them.  Community Futures has supported that usually because we have a space that might have an additional couple of offices.  So it's been very incidental up until this last little bit.

And then about two years ago, we started to work with the City of Grande Prairie and a number of other partners, GPRC Research and Innovation, Grande Prairie Regional Innovation Network, the partners under that, which are Municipal, the Chamber of Commerce, that sort of thing - trying to identify how we can be a bit more intentional in the way we support and grow our businesses.

What came out of that, I guess, was this concept around the business incubator.  And then I guess some months ago it was announced that there was going to be some dollars available through the Alberta government specifically to support existing incubators.

CC:  YESTERDAY YOU GOT SOME EXCITING NEWS.  $400,000 FROM THE PROVINCIAL GOVERNMENT; SO WHAT IS THIS $400,000 AND WHAT WILL IT DO FOR YOU?

HS:  Oh, it's such a boon for a non-profit organization such as ours.  I think it's a boon for the local entrepreneurs as well.  

And what we've been seeing for the last little bit is an increase in the number of clients coming through the door, looking at how they can take skill sets and their careers and put them into an entrepreneurial setting.  So it's the perfect timing.

These dollars, $400,000 over two years, provide the opportunity for the Spark! Business Incubator to be more than just physical space.  It allows us to do concierge services for the client and identify what their needs are, to help them put together action plans, to provide all the support they need to create business plans, and to do some training and stuff like that.

 But probably even more important is that client who comes through the door that identifies a need or something that they require, we all know that businesses that are in startup mode usually are looking for the dollars.  We do everything on a shoestring, just like we've been taught, and so if we had access to additional dollars, we could leverage those dollars into something larger.  That's where these funds come in really well. They can provide some dollars to help us leverage the assistance that that client might need. 

So it might be professional services, like a patent lawyer, accounting, marketing, business coaching or consulting, all of those are things that might be something the client needs in addition to that space so we can provide the full meal deal because there's a little bit of money attached each of those clients who come in.

So, for us, this is like heaven, because it means we can do even more with that client than what we would normally do, based on their budget.

CC:  MAYBE WE COULD LOOK AT THE DEMOGRAPHICS IN THE GRANDE PRAIRIE AREA.  BECAUSE YOU'RE IN THE NORTHWESTERN ALBERTA, HOW MANY PEOPLE ARE IN GRANDE PRAIRIE AND HOW MANY WOULD YOU BE REACHING WITH THIS PROGRAM?

HS:  You know, it's kind of interesting, because we look at rural Alberta and our numbers.  The City of Grande Prairie proper has about 68,000 people in it.  And then kind of the cachement area for our community is anywhere from 250,000 to 300,000.  So I mean there's a market there, certainly.

I think if we were to consider the Community Futures region or even kind of the cachement area for Grande Prairie Regional College, we're looking at you know 100 or 110 kilometer radius.  And that's probably larger.  We're looking at maybe 100-110 thousand people.

That being said, a smaller population doesn't necessarily mean that we have less entrepreneurs.  In fact, I would probably argue and I think there's a lot of statistical information to show that Grande Prairie and surrounding region is one of the most entrepreneurial communities in the country.

And so when we start thinking demographically, we have one of the youngest populations in Alberta as well, so we have a large population of young people that inherently think entrepreneurial, are strong leaders, are able to be big thinkers, and think outside the box.

Then we also have the alternate population of individuals who have amazing skills sets and career experiences who are looking to link into the employment market, labour market, in a different way.  That maybe are kind of inclined to consider how they can take the skill sets that they have and put those to use as an owner/operator in a business as well.

So we have this kind of two distinct populations who have the same need.  And that's to figure out how to take the idea and put it into reality.

So it's pretty exciting that way that we can actually link into a whole bunch of populations and key into that entrepreneurial spirit.

CC:  WHAT ARE SOME OF THE IDEAS THAT ARE COMING FORWARD?

HS:  You know, it's interesting because I got asked this yesterday and everybody is like, you know there are specific businesses.  I would say, and probably benefit-wise for our region, it's very diverse.  The clients who come in are looking what am I good at?  So if I was to generalize, probably 90 percent of the businesses that we are helping right now are service based and the rest are probably product oriented.

But the product oriented businesses are trying to figure out how they can provide service with the product, and the service people are trying to figure out, are there products that we can be offering as part of our service.  So we're trying to help them figure that out to diversify their customer base as well.

But yeah, some of the things I'm seeing are social media experts who are working with firms to help them not only create strategies but to implement.  And I think the easy button for entrepreneurs is always a good thing.  We're seeing individuals who have new technology that they want to put to use for clients, so it might be a 3D scanner or something like that.  Then there's the more traditional route.  The individuals who have strong financial backgrounds and want to become bookkeepers or provide bookkeeping as an entrepreneurial opportunity and support small businesses.

I also have a paralegal who is looking to provide those services or to increase the way she does those services.

So it's all over the spectrum and I think that's to our benefit because it means that we become more diverse in the way we help our clients.  And we have a larger database and network that we can connect them to. 

CC:  IN THAT AREA, THE CORE ECONOMY I WOULD ASSUME IS BASED ON AGRICULTURE, OIL AND GAS AND FORESTRY.  IS THAT CORRECT?

HS:  Yes, absolutely!  So those are our three main drivers.  And certainly a lot of the individuals we talk to will key into those main industries.  It just makes a lot of sense.  We do get a lot of owner-operators, individuals who are involved in transportation and hauling, oil field services, that sort of thing.  We support those as best we can as well.

We've seen a rise in the clients we're working with in the value added agriculture round.  Just kind of figuring out how we can take what's traditionally been what we do with agriculture and how we could add value to it and appeal to a larger market in the same.

On the forestry side, just kind of developing the skill sets and I mean we have a company that we work with that works with drones and has been doing some work in the forestry area, helping them to look at their forest and different land masses and things as well.

Yeah, there are little ways that we can be assisting all of those clients that key into those three main drivers.  And then, on that sort of hospitality/retail side, we can provide support to help those tertiary industries as well.

CC:  THE $400,000 DOLLARS IS PART OF A BIGGER PROGRAM FROM ALBERTA INNOVATES.  WHAT CAN YOU SAY ABOUT YOUR PARTNERSHIP WITH ALBERTA INNOVATES?

HS:  You know that is probably really exciting for us.  We have keyed into our local Alberta Innovates representative and feel like in the past couple of years anyway that there has been a real flow through from clients who are looking for innovation services and back and forth between our organization and theirs.

And then keying back into that relationship, our Alberta Innovates individual here works very closely with Grande Prairie Regional College Research and Innovation.  And so there's kind of like for lack of a better term, a Holy Trinity between what can we provide as a one stop shop for business.  

So our partnership as Community Futures with GPRC Research and Innovation, with Alberta Innovates, and then adding on that municipal and chamber area with the City and the Chamber of Commerce, just adds so much more value.

So when I look at northern Alberta and I look specifically at our region where our success comes from is a willingness to collaborate.  We've kind of been leading edge on saying lets figure out how we can work together to fulfill everybody's mandate.

CC:  FOR THOSE PEOPLE WHO ARE INTERESTED IN UTILIZING YOUR SERVICES, HOW DO THEY GET IN TOUCH WITH YOU?

HS:  There's lots of ways.  First and foremost by phone, 780-814-5340, that's going to be your first point of contact.  Then you'll talk to one of our concierge or talk to myself. 

The other way is to hit us up on Facebook.  We have a Community Futures and Grande Prairie Region Facebook page.  We will be having a Spark! Business Incubator page as well.  We'll be launching that in the next month or so.

And I would actually encourage clients if you want to see what the incubator looks like, check out the space.  The best way to figure that out is to come up to the 3rd floor, 214 Place in Grande Prairie, on the North side, the tallest building in the city.  That's where we are.  We're open 8:30 to 4:30.  Everybody is welcome to come check it out, have a coffee, ask us about what the incubator does, and we'll figure out how we can fit you.

CC:  THAT'S REALLY GREAT.  THANK YOU VERY MUCH, HOLLY.

HS:  Thank you. 

Holly Sorgen is Executive Director of Community Futures, Grande Prairie and Region.

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