Why Cisco Canada wants to give your startup $300k to solve big problems


Whether due to pandemic recovery or the challenge of scaling a business that can keep up with shifting global demands, Canadian tech companies need to solve big problems. However, true innovation requires the right kind of support, including cash, markets, and mentorship.

Cisco Canada is aiming to bolster Canadian innovators with all three: its new Fast Future Innovation Awards will give away seed funding, plus a wide range of market and mentorship opportunities, to the companies that can prove they’re solving big problems.

Speaking with BetaKit, Wayne Cuervo, the Director of Innovation and General Manager of Cisco’s Toronto Innovation Labs, and Eric Thibault, the Director of Industry Solutions and Cisco Canada’s Country Digital Acceleration Program, explained why this type of award is necessary for Canadian tech, what types of companies can apply, and how Cisco Canada plans to support applicants.

Solving big problems requires the right support to scale

While scaling innovation has been a topic for discussion in Canada for years, the debate, like many other things, has only been further accelerated by the pandemic. However, Cuervo said it’s important to understand the context of why support is so critical: against a decrease in GDP and Canada lagging in global innovation rankings, the only solution is incremental investments in innovation.

The most critical thing for applicants, above all else, is “making sure submissions can articulate the business value of solving these challenges.”

“We often see innovation as top-of-mind, not only for Canada, but for Canadian organizations,” said Cuervo.

Across the board, Cuervo said many companies need help innovating on internal challenges such as market transitions, remaining competitive, and going to market with new solutions. It’s not just about being great to customers right now, but also ensuring your business has the right internal processes to continually deliver value into the future.

With this reality in mind, Cuervo said the Fast Future Innovation Awards were an answer to the question of how Cisco Canada can help drive more innovative cultures and solutions throughout Canadian organizations. He added that each winner gets “a very bespoke opportunity to engage” with Cisco’s resources, starting with cash and adding relevant in-kind support on top of it.

Open to organizations of all sizes and across sectors, the Fast Future Innovation Awards have three awards to grant: first place will take home seed funding up to $300,000, the runner-up and third-place company will receive $200,000 and $100,000, respectively.

The three winners are also invited to collaborate with Cuervo and Thibault to identify what kinds of broader support they need. If they face technology challenges, Thibault’s department – the Country Digital Acceleration Program – can help out by connecting the organization’s tech leadership with Cisco’s technologists and platforms. If it’s more about team building or design thinking to innovate on new solutions or products, then Cuervo’s team in the Cisco Innovation Labs can help out by facilitating design thinking sessions. From there, Cuervo said Cisco Canada can provide winners with access to a range of additional in-kind support, like specific mentorship connections or introductions to Cisco customers who have a challenge that the winner might be able to solve.

Cuervo and Thibault both noted that because Cisco Canada is able to offer many kinds of support, the organization’s commitment is to help companies in whichever ways make the most sense for their obstacles and goals.

“We think innovation is a team sport, and we want to be a layer in helping solve our customers’ challenges,” said Cuervo.

Impact and urgency

To be eligible to apply, companies need to meet one simple criterion: a big problem to solve. This could be an ongoing challenge, or an issue brought about by the pandemic, but the key is it must be critical to unlocking new value and growth within the organization.

“What we’re ultimately looking for are key business challenges,” said Thibault.

Cuervo added that once applications are submitted, Cisco Canada will assess companies based on a few different pillars:

    Ingenuity: is your approach to solving your problem creative and novel?

    Impact: what does solving the problem mean to your organization, stakeholders, or the community you’re hoping to solve these problems for?

    Business value: has the problem been in existence for a while, is it a symptom of a larger problem, and can a strategic thinking lens help uncover a better solution?

    Feasibility: how realistically can your proposed solution actually solve the challenge?

    Urgency: do your problems need to be solved as quickly as possible, risking major damage to your organization if left unchecked?

When thinking about an application, Thibault said the most critical thing for applicants, above all else, is “making sure submissions can articulate the business value of solving these challenges.”

“We want to avoid science experiments,” he said.

Cuervo added that Cisco Canada explicitly wants applicants from companies of all sizes. The Awards criteria are less focused on the absolute size of a problem and more on how impactful solving that problem will be for the applicant’s business. That means even a small startup would be as competitive as the most recent Series B recipient, provided you’re facing a big problem and have a novel idea on how to solve it. For Cuervo, “unique and pressing challenges” are what matters most, not the size of your company or fundraising to date.

“We want to be very open to the kinds of things our customers and organizations out there are trying to solve,” said Cuervo.

Learn more about the Fast Future Innovation Awards or to start your application today!

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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