A.I. & International Growth

Cohort 2 of Innovate Niagara’s i.d.e.a.™ Fund Focused on Innovation & Expansion

By: Jen Brignall-Strong

From disruptive AI solutions to companies seeking to establish a global footprint while prioritizing sustainability, Cohort 2 of Innovate Niagara’s i.d.e.a. Fund crafts a captivating narrative of innovation, growth, and global impact.

As the second iteration of the program comes to a close, Innovate Niagara’s Director of Client Services, Chris Janzen reflects on the 22 participants.  While they may represent a wide range of sectors, these forward-thinking companies are steering their focus towards the same pivotal fronts: expanding beyond domestic borders, pioneering groundbreaking AI technologies, and building a greener, more sustainable economy.

The i.d.e.a. Fund was created in 2022 to support and position businesses in southern Ontario for long-term growth. The goal is to provide high-potential businesses with the opportunity to receive non-repayable contributions (seed funding) and business advisory supports to develop new green products, services, processes, and technologies and/or redesign existing products, services, processes, and technologies to reduce their impact on the environment.

Supported by a $10-million Government of Canada investment through the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario (FedDev Ontario), the i.d.e.a. Fund is led by Boundless Accelerator in partnership with five Regional Innovation Centres (RICs): WEtech Alliance, Innovate Niagara, Innovation Factory, TechAlliance of Southwestern Ontario and Haltech.

Through the program, each RIC is able to distribute a maximum of $30,000 in matching seed funding to select innovative businesses in various sectors including medtech, agritech, social enterprise, advanced manufacturing and more.

“Canada’s growing green technology sector is solving complex problems while creating jobs. Our government is encouraged to see the promising companies that the i.d.e.a. Fund is supporting,” says the Honourable Filomena Tassi, Minister responsible for the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario. “The innovations that Canadian companies are bringing to the table will help Canadians lead healthier and more prosperous lives. It is critical that we continue to support businesses that provide positive, sustainable solutions.”

In its inaugural year, the program garnered significant acclaim, culminating in the prestigious recognition of the 2023 TECNA (Technology Councils of North America) Innovation Award for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.

Janzen says that in addition to featuring a diverse array of founders from all stages of development and life experiences, Cohort 2 also saw a variety of unique projects; from sustainable food packaging for a rapidly growing local snack company to a new, more effective plant fertilizer and AI banking solutions to reduce a financial institution’s carbon footprint.

“Each of them has really unique, cool projects that they’re working on,” he shares. “For example, International Zeolite. They’re primarily a fertilizer manufacturer, but zeolite is a different type of nutrient that requires less water to nurture the plants, so essentially it’s a drought resistant fertilizer.”

Zeolite is a naturally occurring mineral found in volcanic ash. Its naturally porous crystalline structure allows the minerals to act as natural filters. International Zeolite’s NEREA® product can simplify and accelerate crop production, effectively reducing total crop time by at least one to two weeks, promote germination rate, time, and flowering, shortened the crop cycle, and increase crop yield.

According to Janzen, the company owns the rights to the technology in both North America and Europe and have benefited from the mentorship and connections the i.d.e.a. Fund has provided it.

“The company is actively working with Niagara College on some of the more technical aspects of its development and manufacturing processes,” he explains. “But the majority of the mentorship through the i.d.e.a. Fund has really been about marketing and positioning it to enter that agricultural space, particularly. Things like speaking with Foodland Ontario and helping the company access these kinds of third-party industry associations.”

Fellow i.d.e.a. Fund participant Eatable, whose gourmet popcorn has been featured in the official gift bags for the OSCARS®, has gained valuable insights from introductions made through the program as well. The Yorkville-based company is also working with Niagara College to create new packaging that is environmentally friendly yet still ensures the integrity of their product.

“The i.d.e.a. Fund mentorship support has helped us focus our efforts as well as connect us with academic support including Niagara College,” says Eatable CFO Mike Fan. “The program has allowed us to explore and trial new packaging types, which can offset a potential 50,000 plastic bags from landfills.”

While specialized plant fertilizer and sustainable packaging are more obvious “green” advancements, Janzen says other i.d.e.a. Fund companies, like Cacao Systems, are utilizing AI technology to create more sustainable business practices in the financial and banking industries.

“The company developed this AI technology that essentially has the ability to synthesize tens of thousands of pages of data and pull together themes,” he explains. “It’s really a reduction of paper and office storage requirements, so that’s the environmental piece.”

With a strong handle on many of the technical aspects of its project, Janzen says that like International Zeolite, Cacao leaned into the mentorship portion of the program to help enhance its pitch and build a marketing strategy.

“Our mentors worked with Cacao on the marketing side of things, like how to select the right industry vertical to go after,” he shares.

For as different as each of this cohort’s companies are, Janzen said thematically they have the same goals in terms of growth. He shares that this year the expert mentors fielded many questions about international expansion.

“The one that I would say has up most is  about international marketing,” he says. “They’re not just asking, ‘How do we get Canadian clients?’ they’re asking, ‘How do we get into the states? How do we get into the EU?’”

Janzen said they’ve worked hard to get companies the resources they need to the decipher regulatory processes and expand into these new markets.

“It’s a good problem to have, right? Because we’re talking about market expansion. They’re very keen on international growth and we’re excited to see where these companies go in the future.”

In addition to International Zeolite, CaCao Systems, and Eatable, Innovate Niagara’s second i.d.e.a. Fund cohort includes 19 other businesses across a variety of sectors: Niagara 4 Mile Creek Farms, Amber Energy Co-operative, Aquasensing, Barber HyMac Hydro, Brand Blvd, DriverDX, ElectroMaax, ESGTree, Forward Robotics, Haraa, IDEAMASN, kind laundry, LIVEN, Poket, Rosor, Sade Baron, Tailwind, Trybe Meals, and Urban Tractor Farm.

To discover more about i.d.e.a. Fund, visit innovateniagara.com/site/idea-fund.

To learn more about FedDev Ontario, visit feddev-ontario.canada.ca.