How to navigate the tangled web of government startup grants

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Don’t leave money on the table for your startup.

Governments across Canada want to support startups, but the grant landscape is murky at best.

Despite billions of dollars in available grants, many startups don’t seek them due to application complexity, confusion in finding them to begin with, or a mix of both. This is something the Cisco Grants Support Program is working to solve. The Grants Office helps startups of all sizes navigate the grant funding landscape in Canada and apply for relevant grants.

You are really going to see a huge range of grants out there in terms of topic or theme.

Speaking with BetaKit, Stephanie Cesar, a Grant Development Consultant, and Ashley Schultz, the Global Manager for Research and Consultation, shared what types of grants are available for Canadian startups, common misconceptions startup founders have about grant funding, and three ways to find government grants without wasting hours.

What’s in a grant?

One of the first things founders need to know about grants is just how many there are, both in overall quantity and type. Cesar and Schultz shared three different categories of grants available for startup founders, each with specifics depending on the project at hand:

Starting up: Validating an idea, making a business plan, building a website, or hiring your first employees.

Scaling up: Participating in advanced research in partnership with a university, export commercialization, opening international offices, or building or retrofitting new physical buildings as needed.

Founder support: Mentorship, mental health support for founders, and collaboration opportunities with other businesses for mutual benefit.

“In the startup ecosystem, you are really going to see a huge range of grants out there in terms of topic or theme,” said Schultz.

Don’t take it for granted

Having worked with many startups and other organizations, Cesar and Schultz know that business leaders have several misconceptions about sourcing and applying for grants.

Many startup founders think they won’t qualify for grants because they are either too early stage or their project is too specific. Thankfully, said Schultz, the reality is that grants exist for all levels and stages of the business.

Cesar noted that many organizations shy away from grant applications because they simply get lost in the research and application process. She added that many founders feel it’s just too much of a time commitment and stop halfway through, something the Cisco Grants Support Program aims to help with.

“Any stage in the process is a good time to reach out to the Cisco Grants Support Office,” said Schultz.

Another common concern Schultz and Cesar hear from founders is the need to avoid certain grants (usually the bigger grants) because they assume a large number of applicants make their chances of success too low to justify the application effort. This is tied in with a further misconception that all grants are unique, meaning you can’t reuse content from one application to the next. While Schultz said there are unique elements to each grant, you can often reuse a significant amount of information, saving time and making it easier to apply for grants regardless of the perceived (or actual) competitiveness.

The final concern Schultz hears from founders is that not getting a grant means the whole application process was a waste of time. While she understands the frustration of spending time on an application without getting the money, she said the process of applying helps businesses clarify their goals, story, and metrics—which is valuable in itself.

“Even if you’re not successful, going through those steps and laying that path at your feet is really, really helpful for organizations, large and small,” said Schultz.

Three ways to find grant funding for Canadian startups

Both Schultz and Cesar lamented that it can be difficult for startups to find the right grants for their circumstances in Canada because there are so many, but added that the quantity of grants and support is also an enormous positive. To help startup founders find grants that might work for them, they suggested three pathways:

1. Canada Business Benefits Finder: a grants search engine that allows you to put in the characteristics of your project and see what grants or loans might be available from government agencies. It also links into the Accelerated Growth Service, a free advisory service offered by the government to help you navigate some of the more complex government-sponsored grants.

“This is the best place to start,” said Cesar.

2. Regional Development Agencies: seven agencies across Canada that help with region-specific development projects. These agencies, said Schultz, often have more cash to give out than provincial governments because they cover whole regions of the country such as all of Atlantic Canada (ACOA) or the Prairies (PrairiesCan).

3. Cisco Grants Support Program: The support program office is happy to help with any stage of a company’s lifecycle since there are grants available for the earliest stages of idea validation to specific commercialization, export, and growth projects.

All of these pathways aim to help entrepreneurs sort through the large web of grants, tax credits, and other opportunities for startup funding. While the process can take time, it’s worth it not just for the possible financial gain but also for the exercise of applying—as you refine this information for different applications, you might find it becomes a strategic component of your business.

Click here if you have questions about the Cisco Grants Support Program or want to learn more.

Photo courtesy of Unsplash.

Stefan Palios

Stefan Palios

Stefan is a Nova Scotia-based entrepreneur and writer passionate about the people behind tech. He's interviewed over 200 entrepreneurs on topics like management, scaling, diversity and inclusion, and sharing their personal stories. Follow him on Twitter @stefanpalios.

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