Innovation Guelph accelerator celebrates 10th anniversary

It’s been 10 years since a regional centre with a mission to help innovative entrepreneurs opened its doors in Guelph. 

Innovation Guelph’s accelerator programs have supported more than 1,300 southwestern Ontario businesses in the agri-food, information and communications technology, advanced manufacturing and cleantech sectors. 

Why it matters: The Bloomberg Innovation Index, which annually ranks the world’s most innovative economies, placed Canada in only 21st spot last year. Supporting innovation can boost Canada’s competitiveness and economic output.

“Over the last 10 years, Innovation Guelph has made a difference by supporting businesses that can—and do—change the world,” stated Innovation Guelph CEO Anne Toner Fung. “The outcome is an innovation ecosystem that drives economic growth, supports environmental sustainability and enhances the quality of life for everyone in our region.” 

Waterfarmers Urban Agriculture Innovation Inc. has benefitted from Innovation Guelph’s support. The Guelph environmental design-build firm specializes in urban agriculture, indoor farming, rainwater harvesting and ecological landscape projects. 

“Common projects this year are irrigation,” said co-founder Garrett Tribble, adding drainage and storm water mitigation, filter beds and rainwater harvesting are also popular requests. 

Indoor agriculture installations are a big part of the business as controlled environment agriculture projects become more widespread. Business partner and co-founder Evan Bell alsoNhas experience in aquaponics, which uses waste from farmed fish to provide nutrients for hydroponic plant production. 

“A core part of our customers are organizations and commercial operations; some have pretty significant scale in terms of controlled environment agriculture,” added Bell. “We also work with smaller organic market garden-size farms and start-ups.”

Matching grant funding through Innovation Guelph’s Fuel Injection program helped them buy their tools, equipment and the shipping container that serves as their office. Since then, they’ve taken part in Innovation Guelph trade shows, received guidance from the organization’s mentors and received a Seeding our Future micro-grant for a rainwater harvesting system demonstration site installed at the University of Guelph’s Arboretum. 

Cheryl Haskett credits Innovation Guelph for playing a key role in helping to build her family’s Oxford County dairy goat ice cream business. Her husband Greg is a dairy goat farmer who wanted to have a product for consumers that came from the farm. She incorporated Udderly Ridiculous in 2018. 

According to Haskett, Innovation Guelph provided mentorship and links to a network of other food producers and helped connect them with people to raise capital outside of traditional lending. 

“The mentors that have gone alongside us, they ask us the right questions, challenge us, encourage us and connect us to other people,” she said. “It has been a huge thing to have someone in your corner who isn’t a family member who will tell you if things don’t taste well and remind you how far you have come and where you are going.”

Last year, Haskett won the 27th Canadian Grand Prix New Product Award in the dessert category. COVID-19 slowed down Udderly Ridiculous’ growth trajectory, though, when consumer tasting events were cancelled and online sales proved difficult for a frozen product. 

With a freezer van, they began doing more deliveries themselves to keep that connection to consumers, but the pandemic also underlined the need to create new opportunities for brand exposure and a place for the public to learn about agriculture. 

After completing Innovation Guelph’s Rhyze Program for women entrepreneurs, Haskett launched Udderly Ridiculous Farm Life earlier this summer – a combination on-farm store selling local food products and agri-tourism experience. 

“It’s been a journey, but we’re open and people are hearing about us. Now we are bringing people to the farm instead of going to events,” she says. “A lot of Innovation Guelph people who are food producers are in our store here. The mentorship, learning and funding were great, but the long-lasting impact is the network this has created and the system of small farm producers and female entrepreneurs trying to bring products to market in a challenging environment.”