Cecilia Nasmith/Today’s Northumberland
Since 2013, the annual Northumberland Community Future Development Corporation’s N100 competition has brought forth some truly innovative technology startups to vie for a $100,000 investment opportunity.
The cutting-edge ideas it draws from across Ontario and beyond make up a list that includes everything from shape-shifting molds to wearables, from voice-active computing to environmental monitoring, from digital market intelligence to control technologies for smart buildings.
N100 has been featured in major tech publications like TechCrunch and BetaKit, has been highlighted as a best practice in Gary Will’s Cultivating Startups podcast, and has attracted corporate sponsors from as far away as Quebec and Massachusetts.
In 2018, it became N100 Evolution, Northumberland CFDC Venture Catalyst John Hayden said, “signalling the next stage in the advancement of our brand and value proposition.
“The investment opportunity is now $250,000, and we added a $2,500 cash prize for an all-new Audience Choice Best Pitch Award, sponsored by Chris Oliver and CCO Productions.”
The prize of a $250,000 convertible note from the CFDC helps the winner get onto a solid venture-capital track, positioning them for subsequent investment.
N100 Evolution is also the first time N100 was held at the brand-new Venture 13 entrepreneurship-and-innovation centre, a new facility made possible by the CFDC’s partnership with the Town of Cobourg, the Cobourg Police Service, the Northumberland Manufacturers’ Association and Northumberland Makers. N100 start-ups can now “soft land” at Venture 13.
Far from a one-time pitch session, N100 is a challenging multi-stage six-month competitive gauntlet, with a series of intensive entrepreneurial-development and -training opportunities offered along the way. Start-ups learn skills like pitching, board-room presentation skills, business planning and negotiation. They also network and interact with mentors from the Impact Centre at the University of Toronto, Spark Centre, UOIT, Bereskin & Parr, LUX Equity and more.
After extensive evaluation and due diligence, Hayden announced the N100 Evolution winner in the Innovation Commons at Venture 13 on Jan. 15. That was Argentum Elecronics, whose product line focuses on Power-over-Ethernet technologies and smart power-management solutions it is taking to market with significant new backing from Northumberland CFDC.
Imagine data and power over a single connection, and control technologies that will optimize the performance of the smart buildings of the future, Hayden said. Argentum is already working with partners across the value chain to commercialize their innovative solutions.
“It’s not only the money we’re excited about,” Argentum founder and chief executive officer Bolis Ibrahim later tweeted.
“It’s the connection to Venture 13, Northumberland CFDC and the Microfactory Coop.”
Northumberland CFDC delivers a wide array of programming, offering financing and strategy for entrepreneurs. Most of its portfolio supports traditional small- and medium-sized enterprises in Northumberland, from main street to manufacturing, but more emphasis is being placed increasingly on innovation. This includes accelerating next-generation ventures, as well as transitioning those existing small- and medium-sized enterprises to the innovation track.
Referencing the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Rural 3.0 report, Northumberland CFDC executive director Wendy Curtis said, “The Community Futures Program is a rural program, and rural is synonymous with growth.
“Part of our efforts to support rural revitalization is this drive to harness the potential of innovation. It is a recognition of a reality that we live in a digital age. We can adapt or be left behind.”
While each year many Northumberland-based technology firms apply to compete in N100 (six in 2018), the competition was deliberately conceived as an attraction strategy for Northumberland CFDC – an open call to entrepreneurs across the region and beyond to establish a presence and impact in Northumberland County.
For early-stage start-ups, investment capital is scarce, and the opportunity for backing is significant. Smaller communities can play a role in mobilizing resources and partnerships for success, where urban ecosystems are often over-saturated and under-responsive to the potential of entrepreneurs.
“N100 is our message to the world that Northumberland is a place that supports innovation and entrepreneurship from the beginning,” Hayden added.
“I liken N100 to the Voyager Probe or maybe the Canadian Alouette statellite. It has put us in touch with great people, inspired new partnerships, and is our marketing vanguard for all of our start-up programs.”
As representatives of the Northumberland CFDC and Venture 13 partners gathered in the Innovation Commons Jan. 15 to congratulate Argentum founder Ibrahim, he was delighted to add another to his company’s string of wins. These include such accolades as the Norman Esch Engineering and Innovation Award, the Ontario Centres of Excellence David McFadden Energy Entrepreneur Challenge, the RECODE Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship Award, the Global Student Entrepreneur Award and, most recently, a gold medal from the Korea Electric Power Corporation’s digital-transformatio conference (BIXPO).
The company boasts an impressive patent portfolio, backed by partnerships with Microsoft’s IoT & AI Insider Lab in Redmond, Washington, and the very tech-forward WZMH Architects in Toronto – who collaborated with Argentum on a successful customer-demonstration project.
“We are so fortunate – this firm has been around for ages. They did the CN Tower,” Ibrahim noted.
“They have this really cool vision for bigger, smarter buildings. Making us a part of that has been awesome.”
Getting to the N100 win was a value-added process that included Board Room training with Brittany Ugolini from Ritual, Braden Kemp from National ProStaff and Noureddin Chahrour from Adrenalease, not to mention some fun and relaxation (including a sunset reception held at Headwaters Farm with camaraderie and wood-fire pizza).
“It’s been a lot of fun being here throughout the stages of the competition,” Ibrahim said.
“This has been transformative for us. I look forward to all the development to come. I’m also looking forward to being part of the community here.”
Offering his own kudos, Northumberland CFDC board chair Rick Holmes said the excitement of the competition and the innovation of the winners made him wish he was 40 years younger.
“Your concept is fantastic, and we are just delighted,” he declared.
N100 Evolution attracted 44 entrants when it began in July 2018. The pool was narrowed down to eight semi-finalists and, from that group, four finalists were chosen by the N100 Power Panel to advance to the Board Room presentation. After evaluating business plans and product demonstrations, and hearing final pitches, one ultimate winner was chosen.
As this announcement was the culmination of the 2018 edition, look for the next one in 2020 as N100 Evolution is now biennial.
Hayden extended thanks to Holmes, executive director Wendy Curtis, the N100 Power Panel of judges and the chair, Port Hope Angel investor Paul Godin, as well as partners, advisor s and sponsoss MathWorks, Budgeto and CCO Productions. It takes a village to accelerate a start-up.
Argentum Electronics may have won, but all of the N100 start-ups came away from the process strengthened and well positioned.
As part of the Northumberland CFDC’s commitment to drive value end to end, all eligible N100 Evolution semi-finalists were pre-qualified for up to $30,000 in matching seed funding, thanks to another CFDC program – the $2.2-million N1M initiative (with increased support from the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario recently announced by Northumberland-Peterborough South MP Kim Rudd). This includes EmulGreen Labs, who are developing innovative bio-emulsifiers and who have partnered with another CFDC client, Advonex, in Elizabethtown-Kitley near Brockville, Ont.
“We’re seeing more and more momentum for technology entrepreneurship, and not just in N1M,” Curtis said.
“For example, our Collaborative Economic Development Projects initiative, with the support of FedDev Ontario, has co-invested $6-million in innovation capital across Eastern Ontario, helping high-potential firms to accelerate timelines for new products and processes that position them for competitive advantage, business growth and access to new markets. This is a collective and co-ordinated strategy to harness the potential of innovation both locally and regionally.”
Following the N100 win, Ibrahim recalled his team’s early days of working on his new technology both at home and at Ryerson University’s Clean Energy Zone. He was determined to improve controllers for smart buildings, and aimed to mount his intervention at the construction stage to set up lighting, ventilation and any type of electrical device by sending Power over Ethernet (PoE).
“You want things to be smart. You want to give them some data connection. In that way, we deliver power and data through one cable,” he said.
“It makes sense. You don’t need Wi-Fi, you don’t need standard electrical cable. It’s easier to set up, cheaper, safer.”
Early supports to Argentum Electronics came through the University of Toronto’s Impact Centre and a program called Techno, an elite entrepreneurship training program for the best science and engineering students as well as recent graduates. It was at the Impact Centre where Ibrahim heard of the N100 competition and was introduced to Venture 13.
His company survived all competitive down-selection and, at the finalist stage, made a presentation that included discussions of their business and funding model, as well as a demonstration of their capabilities of controlling light and power through a software interface.
“The idea is not new. It’s an always-changing technology. We are probably the first with a higher power standard, and we will be the first to hit the market with this standard.”
The internet capability currently maxes out at 90 watts, he explained. Argentum Electronic technology has quadrupled that capacity.
The N100 win is not the only role Northumberland has played in advancing Ibrahim’s vision. He’s also glad the competition brought Argentum to Venture 13.
“I’m happy to be part of the space here. It’s going to attract so much innovation,” he stated.
“Being part of a space like Venture 13, we are part of an ecosystem of a centre of influence which accelerates us. It’s a compound effect.”
Along with the potential for revolutionary new directors for PoE technologies, Curtis noted that their latest winner offers the potential for new jobs. In fact, the company is immediately hiring for technical positions in Cobourg at Venture 13.
“We are excited about Argentum Electronics’ PoE technologies and the opportunity for collaboration with local firms and organizations devoted to industrial innovation,” she said.
“This is just the beginning.”
N100 Winner Offers Power Over Ethernet Technology
Cecilia Nasmith/Today’s Northumberland