“Apply even if you think you won’t get it,” says ePACT Network (Tips to Win WINN)

Content provided by ePACT Network

As start-ups striving to do the most with the least, we are all (obviously) looking for opportunities to access funding for our companies. When the Western Innovation (WINN) Initiative was launched in 2014, we – along with many start-ups – were very excited.

When WINN was first announced, we chose not to submit an application, as we were just kicking off a raise and did not know how much we could apply for given that WINN matches funds. In retrospect, that was a mistake on our part. Our 2014 raise was successful and if we’d been selected for WINN, a sizable portion of that could have been matched to expand our runway. We definitely kicked ourselves on that one! But learning from our mistakes, we vowed to submit a WINN proposal for the next round.

When the 2015 applications opened, we decided to submit a proposal for the amount we’d need to drive our business versus the amount we knew we already had in the bank. It feels weird to do it at the time, but I strongly recommend it. It’s really no different than most aspects of running a start-up. How many of us actually know where our companies will have grown or what changes we’ll see in the 4-6 months that grants/financing programs require to finalize their selections? We basically live in dog years in the start-up world, so a quarter of a year can feel like a decade in so many ways!

Fortunately, our 2015 WINN submission only took us a few weeks to pull together as we were already working on our product and business roadmaps, as well as strategic planning for 2015. This was a huge help, as we were able to take our larger corporate plans and use them as the foundation of the WINN application.

As it says right in its name, WINN is very focused on innovation. And as part of Canada’s Western Economic Diversification (WD) program, it strives to support growth for the West with opportunities for job creation and commercial success for companies in B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

As we were just pushing to commercialize across Canada and into the U.S., our plans were well timed to meet WINN’s goals. From demonstrating that we are highly-innovative with only a few peripheral competitors, to showcasing our plans to rapidly expand our team over the next 12 months, and the positive response we were getting in marketing and outreach which demonstrated a product-market fit, we hit WINN’s four listed objectives:

  • Commercialize innovative technology-based products, processes, and services;
  • Stimulate greater private sector investments in commercialization activities;
  • Increase the number of jobs for highly qualified personnel in Western Canada;
  • Enable company growth.

We were completely thrilled and honored to be selected as one of the 21 companies awarded WINN this year, and strongly recommend that growing start-ups apply for the 2016 intake later this year. For those considering this program in future (or for that matter, any government funding), here’s a summary of the learnings and approach we took that I believe helped us with the selection process:

1) Apply even if you think you won’t get it
We really regretted not even attempting a 2014 application, and recommend anyone who is interested in funding take the time to apply. At worst, you lose a little time to paperwork. At breakeven, you and your team spend some time planning business growth. At best, you are selected and can significantly increase your runway by doubling your funding or revenue dollars you use to grow your company!

2) Reach out to industry experts
Do you have subject matter experts in your field who support you or would validate your product/service? We know several funding programs that have talked to experts about our product, the opportunity and market overall. If you do not have validation from people in your specific field, establish relationships to get their opinion on your product so you hear firsthand what they think. And hopefully, some of those people are also the ones the government/funding programs turn to for opinions during the selection process.

3) Have a project manager to keep you on track
It’s ridiculous how fast time flies in start-up land. You get pulled in so many different directions and have so many demands that it often seems like you blink and a week has gone by. Assigning a PM on your team ensures you keep to the required submission schedule, while also having a point person for the entire team to check in with. Plus, a PM will ensure you put together the best submission possible for your company.

We were lucky enough to have hired a part time consultant just before WINN was announced. She took over the role of PM to keep us on track with our submission – both in regards to timing and continually checking that we were aligned to the program’s objectives. I firmly believe we wouldn’t have gotten our WINN submission in on time and/or in such a polished manner if we did not have a PM!

4) Talk to grant representatives – they are literally there to help
Most programs have representatives available to answer questions, follow up on missing elements, and ensure submissions meet their checklist. But they are also there to help us too! We reached out early in the submission process and were so fortunate to be able to speak with someone that was a total delight – quick to respond, effective at providing information, absolutely helpful throughout the submission and review process. If you have questions about your approach/applicability, or just want an update on status during selection, I say don’t hesitate to touch base throughout the process. Yes, you might get someone who is up to their eyeballs in paperwork and crankily tells you to check the website, but more often than not a call typically yields not just the information you need but more, as questions you didn’t even know to ask are answered!

We were also able to speak with two of the 2014 selected companies to pick their brain on the application and selection process, and I would highly recommend this as well. Nobody knows the process better than the applicants who have gone through it, and their advice really helped guide us.

5) Engage as much of your team as possible
Our WINN submission really was a team effort. Though we were well along on our corporate plans, it made things far easier to bring our tech folks to the table and have our marketing and sales people help directly, to fit everything into the WINN format. Best yet, when we were selected, it was a team celebration for pretty much every person in the company had touched our submission.

To any start-ups thinking about applying for funding, I hope the above suggestions or recommendations help and wish you great success with all your submissions!