Cash scarce for Manitoba entrepreneurs

June 29, 2012
Author: Martin Cash

Innovate Manitoba, along with the national organization Startup Canada, met about 300 entrepreneurs and supporters over the last couple of weeks in Winnipeg and Brandon.

The point of the activity was to celebrate and encourage entrepreneurship.

Entrepreneurs would probably prefer if you could just send money.

That's right. Access to capital continues to be a critical problem.

As one technology-industry specialist said, encouraging the bootstrapping of businesses into success is one thing, but eventually some capital is required.

There is an acute awareness of the issue in the community and a mobilization of energies is underway.

The Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce is not likely to turn the city into a Silicon Valley of the north, but it has a fairly well-heeled task force putting the final touches on a draft policy on venture capital.

"People talk about the deals being done in other provinces and it is just not happening here as much as it should be," said Chuck Davidson, vice-president policy at the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce. "There is an increased awareness of the importance on the issue of capital right now."

If innovation and the growth in homegrown enterprises are crucial to the ongoing health of the economy, then such activity needs to be supported, one way or another.

More investment capital might not have directly saved the National Research Council's Institute for Biodiagnostics that's closing down and leaving about 60 well-paid researchers and scientists out of work.

But who knows what its fate would have been if more companies emanating out of the research done at the NRC could have been formed and funded and grown into sustainable enterprises.

"We do need a bank for technology companies in our community. That's a statement of fact," said Harry Schulz, a veteran business development player in the medical technology field in Winnipeg.

Schulz is a managing director of Linn Grove Ventures, an American/Canadian fund that's raising $125 million to invest in agribusiness technology companies in the Red River corridor.

"It is important for our infrastructure, our ecosystem, for innovation, that we have some leadership in the community to enable that to happen," he said.

So the chamber is out there marshalling interested parties and trying to present a model that will work in the province.

The consensus is that provincial money is needed to fund the super-high-risk idea-to-prototype period, but not for later stages -- from $250,000 to $5 million and beyond.

Gary Brownstone, CEO of The Eureka Project, the business incubation centre at the U of M's Smartpark, is also trying to formalize a fund concept he has that includes marrying capital and management at the earliest stages of a company's formation.

He realizes that during these uncertain economic times no one is throwing extra money at anything. And since the labour-sponsored-fund debacle of a decade ago, the provincial government maintains a fairly conservative attitude about investing in a sector that has at least a 70 per cent failure rate at the best of times.

"There is a public image risk," Brownstone said. "Who wants to be seen squandering public money in difficult economic times."

But if this stuff were easy we'd all be rich.

The province launched Commercialization Support for Business Program Manitoba last year and there are plenty of suggestions as to how it can be tinkered with to better aid early stage companies. Also, some are pitching a way to broaden the Community Enterprise Development Tax Credit to include tax credits for approved funds as well as individual investors.

The chamber is also revisiting the whole issue of figuring out some palatable way to get Manitoba public sector pension funds to put more money back into the province.

It's important work that continues to demand serious effort.

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