Sherbrooke Innovation accelerator focuses on local manufacturing

By Gordon Lambie

Denis Marchand is the General Manager of Défi Innovation Estrie, a joint initiative of The University of Sherbrooke and the now defunct Conseil Regional des Élus (CRE) that seeks to tackle that great challenge of the business world; “Innovate or die.”
“(The University and the CRE) evaluated the needs of local industries and determined that we needed to help the manufacturing industry in particular to innovate,” Marchand said. “If you want to be competitive on the world market you have to be better than the other guy.”

According to its General Manager, Défi Innovation Estrie runs more or less like a consulting service, providing local manufacturing businesses with the tools, expertise, and strategies needed to keep their business practices current and capable of making a mark in their respective markets.

“Innovation is not a goal, it is the means to achieve your goals” Marchand said, pointing out that several industry studies over the last thirty years have suggested the Eastern Townships is the region that struggles the most with innovation in the province of Quebec. Coupling that with the known facts that Quebec lags behind the rest of Canada when it comes to staying ahead of the market and that Canada lags behind the rest of the world, the General Manager said that local businesses clearly have their work cut out for them.

Drawing its funding from a variety of governmental organizations and departments across municipal, provincial, and federal levels, Défi Innovation Estrie takes four main approaches to its consulting. Adding that the services that they offer are catered to the specific needs of each enterprise, Marchand explained that the four pillars of the organization’s work are a focus on product development, process development (which mostly involves the technology used to create products), organizational development, and the commercialization of innovation necessary to keep new ideas from just sitting on a shelf.

In simpler terms, the organization offers businesses the training and coaching necessary to help them find the resources, structure, and expertise to better succeed in an ever-changing business world.

“There’s always room to improve things,” Marchand said. “The simple thing to say is eliminate waste, but that’s very complicated.”

Similarly the General Manager said that it is a well accepted fact that businesses that constantly reinvest in their own processes and product development do better overall, but he acknowledged that for the kind of small, young businesses that exist in the Townships, that level of investment is simply not possible. With the exception of BRP, he said he could not think of a single local company with the resources to successfully engage with research and development in an ongoing way.

Last week the organization launched a new program called “Defi Productivité.” As the name suggests, the new program focuses specifically on businesses’ ability to work efficiently. Over the course of five workshop sessions, local businesses involved in the program will learn about themes in productivity development on the global market while also getting direct coaching on and analysis of their own productivity projects. Marchand said that round one of the new initiative has about 20 participants, and will take place over the next several months.

“We will work with them on their projects” the General Manager said, “but it’s really a process. There is a really strong involvement from the companies that are participating.”

According to Marchand Défi Innovation Estrie has helped more than 300 companies so far across the region since it got started in 2008 and it is now in a place of trying to innovate on its own methods.

“We have a good track record,” Marchand said. “Where it is going now will depend on the politicians.”

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