Article by Sarah Artis
What does a large-scale worm composting system and a fish finding app have in common? What about a solar heater made out of pop cans and bottled water made out of herbs from Haida Gwaii? Reflectorless survey targets and a travelling juice stand made from local produce?
They are all great ideas, innovative ideas. And they are all winning ideas from the 2014 and 2015 Northwest Innovation Challenges.
The Northwest Innovation Challenge is a regional contest that encourages and celebrates innovation in Northwest BC. The challenge, happening this spring for its third year in a row, is organized by SNCIRE. Pronounced ‘sincere’ and short for the Skeena Nass Centre for Innovation in Resource Economics, SNCIRE is a nonprofit society serving Northwest BC. Through innovation and research, SNCIRE identifies, develops and promotes opportunities to build a resilient and sustainable natural resource economy in the Skeena-Nass region.
“It’s great because the ideas and criteria are so diverse, so many of the finalists win. And sometimes people win more than one prize, which adds up to a lot of money”
“We are looking for great ideas. It’s as simple as that,” says SNCIRE Executive Director Rick Brouwer. “Your innovation doesn’t have to be a product or a service. You don’t have to have a prototype. You don’t have to be on the verge of starting a business. Just submit any innovation that’s been rattling around in your brain – even if you think it’s quirky or not totally developed.”
Anyone living in Northwest BC, of any age, can submit an idea. From those applications, SNCIRE chooses 12 or so finalists to attend the final Northwest Innovation Challenge event in May in Terrace. At the final event, finalists display their innovations, similar to booths at a trade show. The judges circle the room and ask the finalists’ questions about their innovations. The event is also open to the public.
“We had 12 finalists from various communities across Northwest BC in both the 2014 and 2015 Northwest Innovation Challenges,” says Brouwer. “Both years we awarded $10,000 in cash prizes. It’s amazing to see the work people put into their ideas and how proud and happy they are when they are rewarded. It’s a really fun and inspiring evening.”
Innovations are judged on six criteria: strength of innovation, regional relevancy, impact of the innovation, appeal of the display, enthusiasm, and potential for commercialization. Based on these criteria, judges choose a first and second place winner, the Mountain and Tree prizes.
The Challenge also includes other prizes with specific criteria as well as a people’s choice award. For example, this year the $1,500 Thrive North Commercialization Prize will be presented to the innovation considered to have the best potential for commercialization. And the $1,000 CityWest Regional Relevance Prize will be awarded to the innovation that best addresses the needs and opportunities of Northwest BC.
“It’s great because the ideas and criteria are so diverse, so many of the finalists win. And sometimes people win more than one prize, which adds up to a lot of money,” says Brouwer.
The Northwest Innovation Challenge is funded through a mix of grant money and donations from sponsors. The generous sponsors who have already committed to making this year’s event possible include ThriveNorth, BG Group,CityWest, Regional District of Kitimat Stikine, Bulkley Valley Economic Development Association, Central Mountain Air and Hawkair, EventHostBC, McElhanney Consulting Services, Stantec, Lakelse Financial, Northwest Community College, and the Terrace Standard. We also received a $100 personal donation from Dave and Meredith Wolfe of Terrace who said they thought the event was important. Depending on the amount they’ve donated, sponsors can create specific prizes with specific criteria. Sponsors also have the opportunity to be a judge at the challenge.
Although SNCIRE confirms many sponsors before the Northwest Innovaton Challenge launches each year, it will accept donations up until the day of the final event “More money means more fun and more prizes,” says Brouwer.
“I loved being a judge at the Innovation Challenge last year,” says Sarah Zimmerman, Northwest Community College’s Director of Communications & Public Relations. “It’s amazing to see what people can accomplish when they think outside of the box. The Northwest is home to innovative, creative thinkers – we are northerners after all. What a great opportunity to present an idea, get feedback and potentially earn cash prizes to develop a further concept.”
“The range of submissions was really inspiring and sometimes simple ideas are just as innovative as complex ones,” Zimmerman adds.
As part of the application process, SNCIRE asks applicants how their innovation “turns the model upside down.” That’s actually SNCIRE’s tagline; Turning the model upside down means to think and act in new and different ways.
SNCIRE’s official vision is: Communities prospering from a diverse natural resource economy that is commercially, environmentally and socially sustainable. The non-profit aims to build a stronger community and region by trying new ways of thinking and doing things.
“That’s why we keep the innovation challenge quite open,” says Brouwer. “We want to encourage and celebrate people in the region who are creating new products, new thinking models – from scratch or by building on older ideas and systems. We want people to submit ideas that range from just that – ideas – to actual products, systems, applications, technology…anything!”
“Historically, Northwest BC and its communities have lived through many boom and bust cycles. We believe encouraging and supporting locals to think differently – especially about local products and resources – can help the future of the region be more stable and more prosperous,” adds Brouwer.
While SNCIRE engages in many activities that support their vision, the Northwest Innovation Challenge is its flagship event. For finalists, the challenge is a supportive venue to air ideas, get feedback, make connections, and win potential seed money. And to have fun. Past applicants range greatly in terms of themes, hometowns and ages.
“A lot of our winners have actually been quite young. In 2014, our first and second place winners were high school students from Hazelton and Smithers. Last year, the people’s choice award winner was a 13 year old from Terrace,” says Brouwer. “One of them said it was a life-changing experience.”
Wanita Simpson of Terrace is the 2015 winner of the Bio-product Prize, awarded for the most innovative use of a bioproduct. Her innovation was cat trees, large climbing structures for cats, mounted on your wall and beautifully designed out of recycled cardboard. “The entire experience was exhilarating,” says Simpson. “The Innovation Challenge definitely influenced me to carry on with my business idea. Just having an annual outlet such as the Northwest Innovation Challenge is highly motivational.”
Alyson Watt, one from a team of two who won the 2015 Tree Prize, the second best overall innovation, had similar things to say. “The challenge was such a fun experience. The financial support, motivation and confidence in our business idea that came from the Innovation Challenge are the only reason we can move forward,” she says.
Some winners take the money and invest in other passions. Others, such as Simpson and Watt, have used the challenge as a springboard for launching their ideas into action.
Brandon Greenall of Hazelton, the 2014 challenge’s first prize winner did both. He put some money towards developing another prototype of his pop can solar heater and some aside for his post-secondary education.
After the Northwest Innovation Challenge, Greenall also hooked up with a regional non-profit, and together they led seminars teaching people how to create their own solar heaters. They continue to brainstorm and prototype other ideas for improving the energy efficiency of people’s homes and communities in Northwest BC.
The final Northwest Innovation Challenge event takes place on Friday, May 13 at the Elks Hall in Terrace.
This article was featured in the Spring 2016 issue of Northern Routes.