WEtech Alliance’s First i.d.e.a. Fund Cohort Focused on a Cleaner, Greener Future

By: Jen Brignall-Strong

From automated vertical farming and bioengineered fibres to patient-centric healthcare software and sacrificial anode corrosion protection, WEtech Alliance’s first inaugural i.d.e.a. Fund cohort is filled withinnovative projects from a diverse array of early-stage technology companies all focused on creating a greener economy.

The i.d.e.a. Fund is a southern Ontario-focused initiative which helps clean growth firms unlock their potential and access the capital and mentoring needed to commercialize innovative technologies.

 The program fosters inclusion and diversity, with a focus on a green economic recovery. 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 being delivered by six Regional Innovation Centres (RICs): Innovation Guelph, Haltech, Innovate Niagara, Innovation Factory, TechAlliance of Southwestern Ontario, and WEtech Alliance.

 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 will be positioned for a successful future with the exciting new solutions developed by entrepreneurs through the i.d.e.a. Fund. Supports such as mentoring, resources, and the access to capital will enable entrepreneurs to contribute to a green recovery,” said the Honourable Filomena Tassi, Minister responsible for the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario. “The Government of Canada, through this support, is creating good jobs, fostering our transition to carbon neutrality, and encouraging innovation, all of which lead to healthy and prosperous future for Canada.”

“The record investment our federal government is delivering to Windsor-Essex for battery and EV manufacturing, and here directly to clean tech start-ups through our strong partnership with WEtech Alliance, is creating jobs and solidifying our region’s position as a national leader in the new sustainable green economy,” said Irek Kusmierczyk, Member of Parliament Windsor—Tecumseh.

 A cleaner, greener future

 Since the launch of the program in May 2022, WEtech Alliance has been able to provide $570,000 of seed funding to 19 businesses primarily in the WindsorEssex and ChathamKent area.

 “These innovative entrepreneurs and businesses were able to use these funds for a wide variety of green-tech projects including conducting research and development of new technologies; bringing those technologies to market; investing in wind and solar power; or even just adopting more sustainable practices in their businesses,” says Susy Kustra, WEtech’s i.d.e.a. Fund project coordinator.

 The program also provides specialized industry expertise to develop growth plans and related strategies in areas such as talent attraction, raising follow-on investment, product development and quantification of product benefits/market value propositions, commercialization of intellectual property, and market diversification.

 Having access to an impressive roster of business advisors and mentors, our i.d.e.a. Fund recipients received over 500 hours of mentorship over the last five months,” explains Kustra. “These 20 mentors provided invaluable guidance in such areas as marketing, finance, logistics and business strategy as well as making dozens of vital connections to potential clients, suppliers, associations, and industry leaders.

 For Shelley Fellows, coming on as WEtech’s lead mentor for the program was an opportunity to share her vast portfolio of knowledge with the next generation of local entrepreneurs. The Automate Canada Board of Directors Chair says during meetings with her mentees, she was able to assist them with not only the project at hand, but also with long-term goals and challenges.

 “One of the things I really like about this program is the fact that there is a strong and supported focus on bringing mentors and subject matter experts to the companies,” says Fellows. “To me, that’s unique. This is actually recognizing the fact that there are a lot of questions along the way.

 Sharing her network of business contacts also proved to be invaluable, says Fellows, noting that she was recently able to connect one of the companies she works with to an organization who could assist them with a particular technical challenge they were facing.

 “I’ve been able to bring to them some of my community connections,” she explains. “I was able to make a recommendation that will hopefully have an immediate and positive impact on their project.”

 When innovation and sustainability collide

 Connections have played an integral part in some of the other i.d.e.a. Fund projects as well, including a partnership between two of the companies in WEtech’s first cohort: Ortiliza Urban Farms and Affinity Custom Designs.

 “It’s very exciting to see two i.d.e.a. Fund companies from very different sectors, that had never met, work together on a viable and sustainable project as well as supporting local businesses,” says Kustra.

 Ortaliza, which grows microgreens in its vertical farming facility in Kingsville, was having difficulty finding a supplier who would create a recycled plastic packaging prototype in the quantities required. Through one of WEtech’s Business Advisors, Ortaliza was introduced to Affinity Custom Designs, a Lakeshore-based manufacturing company.

 Although packaging is not part of its core business, Affinity was used to working with recyclable material in manufacturing outdoor furniture. The company agreed to build the packaging prototype to Ortaliza’sspecifications and are also now working with the urban farm to create custom microfarming modules for its i.d.e.a. Fund project, which involves automating their growing process.

 “Working with James (from Affinity) has been really great,” says Ortaliza co-founder Carina Biacchi. “What we’re building using the grant means that we’ll be able to control (our growing environment) even more than we already do because when we bring in automation, we’ll be able to grow our greens more efficiently; that means optimizing resources like water and electricity.”

 Without the i.d.e.a. Fund, Ortaliza would not be in the financial position to be able to scale its business, adds Biacchi.

 “Honestly, we wouldn’t be doing this right now without the i.d.e.a. Fund because we’ve been bootstrapping this company; we were trying to find a way to start building this, and the i.d.e.a. Fund wasjust everything,” she explains. “If we weren’t a part of this first cohort, we wouldn’t be developing this at this point. We’d probably have to postpone this project.”

 For Affinity Custom Designs, the i.d.e.a. Fund has allowed the company to expand its product offering and refine its marketing strategies; all while reducing waste by improving production processes with larger format production machinery.

 Affinity designs and manufactures all-weather, outdoor living products made from ultra-durable (HDPE) high-density polyethylene. By using partially recycled materials, its products contain up to 90 percentrecycled plastic. In 2022, the company estimates that its products diverted over 14,000 pounds of plastic from landfills.

 “We are growing our brand, and innovating our products and processes to further reduce plastic waste,” explains owner James Gibb. “By building our brand awareness and marketing strategy, we are aligning our business to more closely evolve our relationships with dealers and landscape tradespeople.”

 “The mentorship provided through the i.d.e.a. Fund has been extraordinary […]”

 Gibb says the i.d.e.a. Fund has been an enormous benefit, allowing his company to invest in business building tools, as well as offering important insights through the expert mentorship portion of the program.

 “The mentorship provided through the i.d.e.a. Fund has been extraordinary at helping guide the way we think about branding, marketing, and sales, as well as providing key coaching on how to pitch our brand to our channels,” he adds.

 Gibb is also grateful for the connection made with Ortaliza.

 “This project has allowed us to bring our innovative plastic designs and manufacturing to a unique and innovative agricultural growth company,” says Gibb. Together through the mentorship, coaching, and support from our i.d.e.a. Fund leadership team, this connection was fostered and our two companies have been able to connect our innovations.”

 In addition to Ortaliza and Affinity, WEtech’s first i.d.e.a. Fund cohort includes 17 other businesses across a variety of sectors: Advanced Hi-Tech Centre Ltd., CanGRO Agric Inc., Cedar Valley Selections, DC Farms, DockShield, Harbour Technologies, IdeaCuria Inc., IPM Scoutek, MetraSign, Midstream Reseach Inc., ONtech Rapid Coatings, REEL Outline, Shantz Ag Products Ltd., SkiviYaan, O.L.T Footcare, ThreeSeven Consulting Services Inc. and WaveDirect.

 Companies must have their i.d.e.a. Fund projects completed by February 28th 2023, after which a celebration event to unveil the completed projects from all the Regional Innovation Centres will take place. Applications for the second cohort of funding recipients will begin in March 2023.

 To discover more about the i.d.e.a. Fund, visit wetech-alliance.com/idea.