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SalesProChat Transcription: Supporting Canada's Innovative Companies of Tomorrow
Dec 15, 2017 | Canadian Professional Sales Association lock

In the December SalesProChat episode, Amie Sergas talks with host Bill Banham about Supporting Canada's Innovative Companies of Tomorrow

Toronto-based Amie Sergas works with Ontario’s partner network of Regional Innovation Centres through the Business Acceleration Program (BAP) at MaRS Discovery District. Over the last nine years she has developed and managed funding programs and support services for the Ontario innovation entrepreneur ecosystem.

More recently, Amie has also been building out venture programs to support MaRS Start services. She brings over 15 years of program development and operations experience to this role. Prior to working at MaRS Amie held roles in marketing and business development in both telecom and biotechnology companies, as well as in cleantech and bioproducts for a non-profit organization. She holds a BSc in biotechnology and chemistry from Brock University and an MBA from Queen’s School of Business.

Listen to the CPSA’s interview with Amie Sergas and join us on November 30 for our monthly #SalesProChat Twitter chat.

Read the edited transcript here:

Bill Banham: Amy Sergas welcome to the December SalesProChat. It's great to have you here today. 

Amie Sergas: Thank you so much. Happy to be here. 

Bill Banham: We're talking about a pretty cool topic today, which is supporting Canada's companies of tomorrow. We're going to be looking at a couple of particular institutions that do amazing things to help exactly that. Let's begin. Firstly, tell me a bit about the mandate of MaRS and what programs does MaRS offer for new tech startups. 

Amie Sergas: Sure thing. The mandate of MaRS, and the vision of MaRS, has always been a neutral platform that convenes multiple stakeholders in their community with the mission to support innovators who really want to drive impact and change in the world. We do that with a focus on four key sector areas, health, energy environment, future of work, and finance and commerce, and really leveraging off of the skills and the capacity of our region. We do that by providing a variety of programs and services, providing a place for that all to happen, and come together, and also doing so right downtown in the city of Toronto. 

We're really wanting to work with strong businesses that have a path to growth, and have a vision to growth, all throughout the lifecycle of their growth. I think, you know, originally many of the organizations, and because of the community that we had, and the ecosystem that we had long ago, we're very startup focused. More and more now we're looking at how do all players in a community connect in. How do our scaling ventures and growing ventures connect in? How can we assist them further, as well as how can our corporate and community partners connect in? 

A lot of the programs and services we provide on the venture support side are pretty typical, connectivity, market development, services and programs, advisory services, accelerator-based programming. I think what's unique about this place is that we also have a line of sight to sort of creating that adoption and demand pull, which is a huge problem in Canada. How do we work with the systems that some of these ventures are up against? Especially if they're trying to carve out new markets, or new interventions, on say the energy space, or the health space. How do they deal with the regulatory barriers that are affecting them? How do we work with those systems so that the companies can get pulled through rather than continuously pushing them up a hill? We create a lot of these, what we'll call, sort of, systemic change, or demand based programs, as well to try and address all these wicked problems that we keep seeing companies face. 

Bill Banham: Okay, wonderful. Thank you. That was a great overview. Now your particular role helps support Ontario's Partner Network, or regional innovation centers, through the Business Acceleration Program, which you call BAP. Tell me a bit about BAP at the MaRS Discovery District. Why was it specifically created? What is it? What does it do? 

Amie Sergas: Sure, so the Business Acceleration Program we've created, it's first iteration in 2007, and then sort of a new model of it in 2010. We've been operating for about 10 years. What we were seeing provincially and what our provincial partners were seeing was a challenge in our entrepreneurial ecosystem. Particularly in the beginning around technology transfer and commercialization of technology. In these technologies stumbling as they're trying to get to market and we weren't really leveraging the whole capacity. The original proposition was how do we start supporting and making accessible general entrepreneurship, capacity building? Whether that's through education, advisory services, entrepreneurs in residence, scattered out to the province. 

Then over time, we've built that into a pretty tight system where we have a system of coordinated resources working in partnership with the 17 regional innovation centers in the province and providing the harbor the connectivity among the organizations. Not just in sort of a franchised or affiliate model but actually where all of our support services and programs are very tightly linked. We're all providing the very similar set of resources. We're all building off of each other to create that. It's become really interesting collaborative and partnership. The program itself provides a suite of online resources, workshops that we deliver across the province, advisory services specific in that region, outreach events. It funds all of these generative activities to build up these companies in each region and connect them in. 

Bill Banham: What events does MaRS offer for those in sales? For example, I noticed that MaRS recently hosted an event called Successful Sales Strategies and CRM Tools. Tell me a bit about some of the events that you guys put on for sales focused individuals.

Amie Sergas: Sure, sure thing. A broad variety. MaRS as a place, is continuously welcoming in partners into the space to put on a variety of events. We have a lot of sales focused organizations, or professional organizations, that are always providing meetings, events, conferences, especially in this topic as well. I find it's a pretty lively topic a lot of the time because it's also one of the hugest gaps that we see in many founder teams from a skill set. MaRS itself has addressed this through a variety of resources, and programming, all throughout the lifecycle of the company again. For very early stage companies, or entrepreneurs, that are just thinking about this in their business, it's how do you try and instill that sales-driven, or revenue generating, mindset from the beginning, so that they can start demonstrating traction, that product market fit, very early stages, and start getting those multiplier effects. 

In the beginning, it's a bit of a dance between are you selling something that's at least at a minimum viable product stage. We do that through intensive workshops that we deliver across the province, coaching on direct sales, or B2B sales, peer environments, peer advisory services, continuous coaching. Then also leaning on our whole community and ecosystem. There is, at any given point in time, I think there's any event, any night, that you can connect your companies into that you're working with.

Bill Banham: Why is southern Ontario and Toronto getting so much press recently? Because there's been so much when it comes to its rise as a tech startup mecca. 

Amie Sergas: I feel like we're in this perfect storm of many things coming together over long periods of time. It's one of those overnight things that have taken 10 years to build. 

Sometimes I like how folks around here will rationalize things from a hardware and a software perspective. From a hardware perspective we have this new wave of serial entrepreneurs in our community, say from like the mid-2005 or so, or the post-recession boom, or about five years ago. They've created companies. They've now exited. Now they're on to their next thing. We finally have more of this momentum and sort of a new age innovation economy, and these types of businesses going forward. More so, we have this massive density and concentration of all of our university, our brain trust, our universities, our research hospitals, our research capacity, technology talent, technology use, coming out of programs. 

Then you're combining that with this business talent that is now here because we've had these companies grow to a stage where they do finally have a global perspective. We have these folks who are really in their new forms of their companies, or their new companies, finding really unique market needs. Then the maturation of our community around that. We also have more folks that have gone abroad and have been coming back. You take that and then you mix that with the software, or the soft side of Toronto, which is our communities and our diverse population, it's a thriving city culturally, so people want to live here, and go to work every day here. 

It also is a global mindset city so we have less of the mindset of just selling Canada, and just selling to the US. Our entrepreneurs now have the ambition and connectivity, as many of our newcomers as well. They're seeking global markets and have that connected world perspective so I think all of these things coming together is creating a really interesting time. I shouldn't leave out capital. The capital attraction that we're seeing to fuel some of these venture's growth. Typically, in the past we've not seen very large funding events happening or capital being attracted out from the US as frequently as possible, but there's not a day that goes by on BetaKit where I'm seeing another company raising double digit million, or triple digit million, investments. It's a really interesting time. 

Bill Banham: As a resident of Toronto for the last five years, I can support lots of those statements. It's a great place to be. We will do other shows with focuses on other cities in Canada, of course. Sorry for the slightly GTA centric show today. Next, can you share any success stories? Can you name some companies, Amie, BAP has helped to get to the next level?

Amie Sergas: Sure, my favorite stories are sort of these 10-year successes in making. Because we have been around for a while and supporting the community for a while. I wasn't born in Toronto so I love it when there are folks in small communities that are doing really big things or smaller communities. One of my favorite stories is a venture called UI Labs and now I think they're called UITV, but they started around 2008 and initially, they were creating a UI ... It was a UI hack to create an iPhone user experience on dumb phones. It was just really cool at the time. Now it's grown into this really sophisticated algorithm that's being implemented and used on mobile devices. They've been around for about seven to 10 years now. We've helped them, not just here in Toronto, through some of our business acceleration program work. I think the VP of Business Development that was funded back in 2010 is still part of the management team today. 

Our whole community of support around this, I'm sure they've leveraged off on any OCE grant that they could develop. Invest Ottawa, they're an Ottawa based company. Jason Flick is a huge supporter of the Ottawa community, so it's really cool to see them get to the stage that they're at now. I'm from St. Catharines, so there's another company that I love in Niagara. Again, around that sort of 2011 time frame, and it's called the International Internet Exchange or IIX. In the beginning, I think he was looking at the movement of large data, like in film production across peer-based Internet exchanges, but in a secure way. 

Al Burgio was the founder and I think he took advantage of some of our workshops in Niagara that we were running as well as a few funding programs along the way, or small consulting projects and that sort of thing. But also, with the support of the Innovate Niagara team there and started creating more connectivity to California and is a huge company now. I think he's a few hundred employees and has offices all over the world. Some pretty cool stories. 

eSight's another one and also one of my favorites. It started out in Ottawa and then came to Toronto. It's a wearable that helps the legally blind see. I think countless hours went into eSight all across our community and our respective communities. At one point, one of the entrepreneurs and residents at Invest Ottawa actually eventually joined the team and I think he's still there today. 

It really takes a village and these are some of those companies where you just stack any resource on top of them to get them through difficult hurdles and difficult challenges and then you're hoping that at some point they can take off. A lot of them are dealing with deep technological challenges so it just takes time and patience and creating those opportunities. 

Bill Banham: There will be a lot of folk listening to this particular show, thinking well, I've got more of a sales-focused background. I'd love to find some guys from different departments, maybe some tech geniuses out there who need somebody to partner up with to get the message out there and so on. Make relationships and start the sales. Do you have any general advice from either what you guys do or what you've seen work well elsewhere, in terms of real places where people can meet up and find their potential business partner of the future or online resources too?

Amie Sergas: Sure. There are countless ways to engage with the community. I see it mostly through events and there are a lot of tech events in the city. Namely, Tech PO is a great one. It's a large event, every month there are about four or five founders on the stage, talking about a key issue that they're facing. A whole community around it, 500 or 600 people go out. It's just huge. There's a social element to that as well, so it just gets everybody out there and talking to each other. 

There are tons of pitching and competition opportunities throughout the city, where interested folks who are curious about what's going on can attend and talk to the founders after. See where they're at and just engage. I think of BetaKit, BetaKit's an online publication, and they also have a podcast series. They're sort of like my community Bible. They're like the beat on the street, sort of. You can find out about anything happening or any company, whether it's programmatic or government based things, anything affecting our tech community. Countless Facebook groups out there, Startup North, among others. 

Just exploring and signing up to our MaRS site. We try to curate as much as possible at marsdd.com. There's usually every event going on in the city or the community ends up being promoted at some point in time. No shortage of things to do and get out there too.

Bill Banham: Okay, thank you. We're coming towards the end of this particular interview. Before we wrap things up, just a last couple of questions for you. Firstly, if you could offer two or three snap tips to anyone thinking of making the leap and creating a startup, maybe a tech startup, but it could be another type, what would be your two to three bits of advice that everybody should adhere to before they make that leap?

Amie Sergas: I'm a risk-averse person, I'm going to be full-disclosure on that one. I go by my gut and I think when people have that continuous drive and they're continuously thinking about this problem, I think that's a really good indicator that they might be onto something. I would just encourage everybody to keep exploring that feeling and keep problem-solving around it and just keep talking to people about it and try and work through it. It's a really lonely journey and I don't think many talk about that, especially in the early days. I mean, it's great when you come up with something with a couple of co-founders, but a lot of times folks come up with something on their own. Especially when you're taking huge risks. Or huge financial risks and you have a family. There are so many factors to consider. 

I think that there's a community around you and everybody is willing to help and pay it forward. Don't be shy and get out there and ask and ask people what they think or what hits on them. Talk to customers and talk to potential users. My favorite thing to do, in this city, is getting into an Uber and finding an entrepreneur in the driver seat and then just talking things out with them and encouraging them as much as possible. I love it when I see them using that short period of time to do some user testing and some customer discovery work, and that gets me really excited. You never know where these things can come from and I truly believe that great ideas can come from anywhere, it's just the execution piece. Just keep working it out.

Bill Banham: Okay. Super. Now that just leaves me to ask you, how can our listeners learn more about you, more about the Business Acceleration Program, and more about the work done at MaRS? 

Amie Sergas: Sure. Marsdd.com is your home base for everything. I think we're also on many, many social media channels. And you can just tap in, subscribe to any news or resources that you see. We are just launching our fifth cohort of our Entrepreneurship 101 course. It's an online course, free and open to the community. It used to be a live event here at MaRS, but you know there's only so many that you can touch with a live event, so we scaled it to an online format with an online community around it. Usually, there are about 15 to 2,000 people engaged at once during the five-week period. It's pretty exciting. We have another one on the go right now so you can tap into that program too.

Bill Banham: Perfect. Amie Sergas, thank you for being our guest today. 

Amie Sergas: My pleasure. Thank you so much.

Bill Banham: Listeners this was the final SalesProChat of 2017, so Happy New Year to you all. Do try and join us for the related Twitter chat using the hashtag salesprochat. But until 2018, happy selling. 


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