Lion's Lair: What did Hamilton learn from the innovation competition?

Lion's Lair 2012 is complete. What should Hamilton expect for next year? Lion extrodinaire Nick Bontis talks to CBC Hamilton.
Lion Nick Bontis gets ready to reveal the winners at Thursday's Lion's Lair gala. (Julia Chapman/CBC)

Sixty applicants, narrowed to 10 finalists. Six tech-based entrepreneurs, two agricultural ventres, one medical innovator and one dinner solution.

Nick Bontis, business professor at McMaster University's DeGroote School of Buisness, tells CBC Hamilton how the winners were chosen, what to expect in 2013 and where he thinks the untapped local market lies.

You've been a Lion for two years. Tell us about the challenges you had picking the winners this year.

I felt that the sophistication level was greater than it was last year and that's a testament to the training the Innovation Factory has given to all the candidates.

We were very steadfast with our criteria. Obviously the Hamilton impact was important, a strong Hamilton story, the quality of the product and/or service, was it innovative, was it cool, is it something that people are going to say wow? I've never thought of that before and then the actual person, the entrepreneur, does this person have the ability to execute on what they promised?

If you look at our three winners. On the bronze side, you have Nervu. Young, energetic, no risk, no wifes, just do this. And when you're doing that gorilla-type marketing, which essentially is what SMS marketing is, you have to work hard, you need to put the hours in to get the customers and to get the suits to adopt the technology. So I thought these guys had very good energy and in terms of all the presentation, they were probably the most polished, but they're businesses students. That's to be expected.

With regards to Stephanie [McLarty] and REfficient, she just lives the stuff. She lives green, she lives Eco Chic. It's in her DNA and that came across in the pitch. The actual service that she's offering is an excellent idea because at the end of the day, people have nothing to do with that excess inventory. Some businesses have warehouses of old electronic junk, so she's looking for margin in the garbage bins of other organizations. We also felt that she wasn't promising the world. Entrepreneurs say they'll have X amount of dollars in revenue and X amount of jobs. It's probably a little bit further from the truth, but she was very sincere and very realistic in their goals.

That brings us to Michael. Michael's story was so cool because it's old school. It's a farm. It's hay. It's not technology, it's not mobile apps or Gorilla Cheese sandwiches. It's hay. How the hell do you make hay interesting? And this guy found a way to take a product that they already produce on their family farm and package it in such a way that it's demanding such a high margin of price for pet owners. It was just a very innovative solution.

He's the type of guy who is sincere and would execute what you say and frankly, he had massed a certain amount of traction already. The brand was there, the packaging was beautiful, the product was already out the door. It was more than just proof of concept. In terms of bottom line impact to Hamilton, he would probably have the best shot at making it.

About half of the competitors were tech-based companies, and it's an agricultural business, going back to Hamilton's roots.

And I made that point in my speech. Going back a 100 years to the agricultural era, the escarpment was prime land. Now we're into the knowledge era with McMaster and biotechs being so influential, and here we're making a full circle.

But the cool thing is we're making agriculture and infusing it with knowledge-based assets. It's not just hay. If you actually learn about his company, he's got technology embedded in his hay. He's got different types of hay for pets at different stages of life.

Let's talk about the other seven companies. What happens to them?

It's not as if they will keel over and die. Look at the other seven from last year, and you'll see fantastic stories about what they've done. What Lion's Lair does is gives you development because the skills of entrepreneurship don't come naturally. You have to be taught to hire a lawyer. Why do you need a lawyer? To get intellectual property protection. Why do you need an accountant? To deal with tax issues. Technical details that I think some entrepreneurs don't know that Lion's Lair provides you.

The next important thing is the exposure. They've had a tremendous amount of exposure, and you've got to jump on that exposure immediately and see if you can harvest opportunities.

As an example, all [New Attitude] needs is a major medical manufacturer to find out that this lady is making the best breast prosthesis in the world... It's unbelievable what she's created and compare it to what you get from OHIP, it's night and day.

You said the bar was raised this year. What do you expect for next year?

What I see is close to 100 submission from 60. We had variety, from medical equipment to agriculture and we had a couple of dot coms. As the variety of industries becomes more prevalent in Lion's Lair, that will attract ventures from non-tradition sectors as well. I think the diversity of ventures is what we want to support in Hamilton. What it's going to mean is the quality of submission is going to be greater. I don't want this to disincent anyone from applying. It'll also attract more sponsors and as the sponsorship gets bigger, the program gets bigger.

In terms of the type of industry or venture, what's untapped?

That's a very good question. Last year we had education covered. I would have never guessed in a million years that an agricultural venture would win. If you look at Hamilton is famous for, I would really like to see a venture related to steel repurposing.

Who wouldn't love some person with an idea that says, 'Ok Dofasco, you were a huge supplier in the auto sector, the auto sector has gone sideways, it got revitalized. China is stealing market share from you because they can manufacture steel and bring it here faster than you can make it. I have a new market opportunity for you." What a great story that would be.