Richard Chénier never intended to become some kind of a startup guru. He spent the first part of his career in human resources, launching a couple of business ventures in that field. Eventually he joined ETS in a similar capacity.
“I’m an HR guy, not a tech guy” says Chénier. He explains that in 2015 the new GM of ETS, Pierre Dumouchel, decided to make entrepreneurship a central pillar of the institution. “He asked me, ‘Richard, can you help me? You are our most entrepreneurial director here at ETS. You know the school very well and you also have entrepreneurial aptitudes’ and so I worked with him for 6 months and at that point I said to Pierre, ‘I think we need to do something with Centech because I’m not sure they’re on the right path”.
Chénier assumed his role as General Manager of Centech in January 2016 and has never looked back. Founded in 1996, Centech is one of the oldest incubators / accelerators in Canada. But a recent expansion into Montreal’s old Dow Planetarium is just the latest in a series of moves by Chénier that have helped Centech make its mark on both the Canadian and the global innovation stage.
Centech provides both an accelerator program and an incubator program. The acceleration activities will take up most of the space in the new campus, along with Centech’s corporate partnership programs. The goal of this program is to help about 120 companies each year (roughly 40 companies in each of their 3 cohorts per year, starting in January, May and September). However, some cohorts have a focus on different verticals such as med-tech, aerospace, construction-tech, agri-tech or even manufacturing. These verticals were chosen because of Centech’s top down philosophy, and their mandate to help support companies who apply new technologies to develop tangible hardware products that address real challenges in old economy industries. For example, right now Centech has 16 projects in its general cohort, 16 in a med-tech cohort and 6 in an aerospace cohort. There are also currently 35 businesses in the incubator or “propulsion” program.
“We may be the strongest incubator for hardware and deep-tech in Canada. There’s one in Waterloo (Velocity), but there aren’t many places in Canada to support that kind of entrepreneur” according to Chénier. He suggests that his entrepreneurs are focussed on developing technology to address specific industry needs, rather than building the tech and then trying to see how it can be applied. Furthermore, he points out that the time to go to market is considerably longer for startups developing hardware, which can make them more expensive to launch.
“For example in med-tech, you have the FDA rules (in the US). It’s impossible to launch a product in 12 weeks” he added. “What we do now, is we connect our entrepreneurs with their respective markets at the beginning of the process. After that, if you find a connection and you know very well what you have to do or to build. We will support you for two years (in the propulsion program) to grow your product and structure your business”.
Apparently it’s working. The renovation at the planetarium cost over $11 million, and this is on top of recent renovations at their old campus at 400 Montfort. The proof is in the pudding… Centech is launching one SME per month at the scale up phase, all high growth businesses with immense potential.
This unique value proposition, combined with the fact that Centech’s services are free, and they take no equity or IP, means that entrepreneurs from all over the world are clamouring to gain acceptance into these programs.
“Believe me man, they took us to school” says Bryan Martin, Chief Innovation Officer at Audible Reality and proud Centech alumnus. He has a long and illustrious career in the music business which includes both a Grammy award and a Juno award. While studying a PhD in sound recording at McGill, he met his partner Matt and founded their 3D sound company. “We knew nothing about running a business” Martin said, adding that the 3-month Centech accelerator program “Is a mini-MBA. Either you learn and move forward, or you don’t. So it’s up to you at the accelerator stage, to get your get your business acumen up to a certain level and get your business model to a point where you can move forward”.
As for Centech’s 2-year incubator program, Martin raves about that too. “Well, number one, you get an office in downtown Montreal for 2 years. So right there, you have home base. You look like a real company, you can act like a real company. Bring people in… The education in the incubator comes more from the people coming in, seminars, presentations, VCs, business people… You’re basically networking and pitching your business every day. They help you try to find clients… it becomes more of an active business”.
Martin contrasts this with his experience in Toronto’s Creative Destruction Lab, which was also valuable, but different. Access to all types of professionals is still available, but he says the major difference is “At CDL you go in every 8 weeks, they tell you by the time you come back you need to accomplish XY&Z. And if you don’t, you get kicked out. Not everyone makes it to the end of CDL”.
On top of the growing demand for space within Centech, another reason for their expansion into the nearby planetarium was to give themselves the opportunity to add a new revenue stream – Corporate partnerships.
“Large corporations have 2 main problems. The first is attracting talent. The second is how to do tech scouting more easily. Some of these companies are now paying us to be connected to our ecosystem.” This, according to Chénier helps their corporate partners find early access to tech that can address some real-world challenges they face, sometimes even on a global scale. So far the Port of Montreal, Ericsson, Siemens and CAE have begun to collaborate with Centech startups through this program. The advantage for startups being, if you partner with a multinational right off the bat, you’re a global business on the day your product launches. “Our job is to create collisions and synergies with startups, corporations, researchers and professors.”
Centech’s new campus is located at 1000 rue St-Jacques in Montreal.