Our job is to produce good companies
Tim Ellis is determined that Grand Innovations will live up to its name – that it will truly be grand, and that it will be innovative.
The “grand” part may have been a no-brainer – Grand Innovations is located at 96 Grand Avenue South in Cambridge. But Grand Innovations is “a research and development centre for industry” – in other words, yet another accelerator/incubator facility – and being innovative in this increasingly crowded environment is not an easy task.
“It’s the first sustainable model for this type of centre in the region.”
But Ellis (above photo), who is CEO of Grand Innovations, is convinced his new facility is on the right track. It’s different, and innovative, in a number of ways, he says.
“It’s the first sustainable model for this type of centre in the region,” points out Ellis. He should know about the region – Ellis is former CEO of the highly successful Waterloo Accelerator Centre. He has also been involved in entrepreneurial support programs in countries around the globe, including Australia, Bosnia, Vietnam, Serbia, Albania, the United States and Canada. Ellis was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Science for his efforts building a world class Accelerator program and vibrant knowledge based ecosystem in Australia.
So he brings a tonne of experience and vision to his new role at Grand Innovations, which is located in the Gaslight District, the ambitious brownfield redevelopment project spearheaded by HIP Developments. The Grand Innovations building has been redeveloped by HIP, and Jody Schnarr, CEO of Fibernetics.
The short-term key to making Grand Innovations sustainable, explains Ellis, is “our rental model.” Established companies will open satellite, innovation-oriented offices at Grand Innovations, where a corporate “innovation zone” costs $3,000 a month.
At the same time, start-ups – and even pre-start-ups – can have a place at Grand Innovations at a fraction of that cost. There is space for about 25 start-up enterprise. Start-ups can have between one and six desks in that section of the re-purposed former Tiger Brands warehouse for $100 per desk per month. And prospective entrepreneurs just starting to develop their vision are also welcome in a common area.
Says Ellis, “We’re going to take them earlier [than the Accelerator Centre], when they are conceptual.”
Ellis says there will be a second stage to establishing sustainability – eventually, Grand Innovations will hold equity in successful client companies.
Sustainability is one unique element of Grand Innovations. There are more – like the focus on working with advanced manufacturing companies, not only digital enterprises. Says Ellis, “we’re going to focus more on lower-tech things, like advanced manufacturing.” One company involved from the get-go is Cambridge’s own ATS Automation, although Ellis quickly notes that other soon-to-sign-on clients are coming from Toronto and Brantford.
Ellis notes that although Grand Innovations is working with advanced manufacturing, that does not mean the facility is not concerned with cutting edge technology – a key goal is to facilitate “the digitization of manufacturing.”
Ellis maintains that manufacturing is “an industry we’re not serving well,” when it comes to R&D and innovation support. “It’s a niche that’s not really being served in our community right now. And that’s the whole reason I am here.”
The Cambridge environment
And one other factor that makes Grand Innovations unique is the eco-system in which it is being developed – the city of Cambridge. Ellis believes that Cambridge has a unique environment, nurtured by a longstanding manufacturing sector, and influenced by the city’s traditional – if stereotypical – role as underdog in the region. “Cambridge,” he says, “is perfect.”
He is determined to leverage the Cambridge mindset; his goal is that Grand Innovations will be a significant influence on growth and development in the city.
A year from now, he predicts, “we will have a foothold on the innovation side of things. The facility will be close to being full.” And by the way, he has no intention of accomplishing that by poaching clients from the Waterloo AC, or Communitech; in fact, “I don’t want to take people from the AC or Communitech,” he insists.
“In Waterloo Region, we have drank our own Koolaid.”
Looking farther ahead, Ellis says, “In 10 years we can build the entire ecosystem in Cambridge. It starts here.”
It’s an ambitious goal for a facility that, at time of writing, had two client start-up companies on site, and two staff members – Executive Director Jennifer Fletcher (below), and Ellis. Fletcher is full time; she came to Grand Innovations in February from her position as Associate Director of Applied Research and Entrepreneurship at Conestoga College. Ellis, at this point, is part-time but working toward devoting all his time and energy to Grand Innovations. The facility only opened in January of this year.
The city of Cambridge has stepped up to help in the launch of Grand Innovations, with a $500,000 grant to the facility. HIP Developments, which is developing the entire Gaslight District, has kicked in a million dollars, half of it a forgivable loan.
Ellis describes Grand Innovations as “a partnership with HIP. They are behind this. They really have a vision to see this work, here. I can’t say enough about HIP’s support in all of this.”
The time is right for the whole project, says Ellis. “The rest of the core here is ripe for revitalization.”
“Drank our own Koolaid”
Ellis does not mince words when he talks about the need for change in the region’s incubator and accelerator system. “In Waterloo Region, we have drank our own Koolaid,” he says, pointing to a local sense of entitlement. When he has worked in less developed countries, he says, “They are grateful. I enjoyed helping those people. We seem to be an entitled society.”
He smiles when he adds, at Grand Innovations, “We don’t bring the Kitchener-Waterloo culture, we bring the Cambridge culture. We want it to be a bit different; we want it to be about Cambridge and manufacturing, which they do well here.”
Ellis says that they also want to be about succeeding – or failing quickly. He points to his personal experiences with a number of start-ups, arguing that he has learned more from failure than from success. So Grand Innovations will be selective about who is accepted into the program. Says Fletcher, “It has to be the right people for the space – but they will come.”
Ellis says that he has found many key people willing to help out with the new facility. He has a small, effective board of directors, and a roster of highly experienced mentors. Mentors will work with clients to help them evaluate their plan, develop it, bring it to market… or realize quickly that it is not going to work. Ellis describes this as “accelerating them to some conclusion… to push them to success, or they’re out. We’re big on accountability.”
He adds, “First and foremost, my job here is to produce good companies.”
There will be legal, accounting and human resources experts on site, available (for a price, of course) to the client companies.
This is an exciting time to be located in the Gaslight District in Cambridge. Grand Innovations, just completed, is a spectacular 54,000 square foot redevelopment, retaining many of the intriguing features of the warehouse it once was, and now including its own public event space. The entire Gaslight area will be taking shape over the next three years, with condos, restaurants, a brew pub, a market – in fact, a complete, innovative, urban environment.
Out of the immune system
Innovation centres often seem to focus on start-ups, and that is certainly part of the mandate at Grand Innovations. But the corporate innovation groups – satellite facilities of large companies, created to allow innovation and creativity – may be even more important.
Ellis explains, “There are corporate ‘immune systems’ that stifle innovation. It’s all about giving corporations the platform to act like a start-up, removing them from the corporate immune system” that tends to fight innovation and creativity as though they were viruses attacking the system.
It’s a growing trend, says Ellis. “More and more companies are being open to it.” And Grand Innovations is open and eager to working with them.
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