Thunder Bay

'Virtual incubator' offers online space for northern Ontario entrepreneurs

Entrepreneurs across northern Ontario are being encouraged to counter pandemic isolation, with a trip into virtual reality.

Connection for isolated entrepreneurs aim of new online platform

The technology developed by Tech-AdaptiKa allows people to interact in an online environment using avatars. (Tech-AdaptiKa)

The creators of a new virtual platform say they hope it will help to counter pandemic isolation for entrepreneurs across northern Ontario. 

IDENO or Initiative de Développement Économique dans le Nord de l'Ontario is a new online platform launched Monday with the support of FedNor and the non-profit Voila Community Help.

Described as a "virtual business incubator," it's an online meeting space where people can adopt an avatar and use it to wander around a 3-D environment, meant to replace physical spaces where entrepreneurs would normally go for support.

Visually, the platform resembles a video game. But its aim is a serious one, said Hosni Zaouali, co-founder of Tech-AdaptiKa, the company behind the technology.    

"A business incubator is basically an institution that is there to help entrepreneurs with mentorship, with services, with possible guidance on how to scale their business. How to make their business concept viable," he said.

"But the problem is the fact that all these incubators, due to COVID, had to shut down their doors almost overnight. And then they had to move to video conferencing tools … that are not adapted to what entrepreneurs need on a daily basis." 

What's missing, Zaouali said, are opportunities for connections and for the kind of spontaneous interactions that would occur between people at an event in a physical meeting space. 

"That's really the goal of moving from Zoom to more of an avatar-based virtual environment," he said, explaining that people who register can click on other avatars who are registered, see the information on their profiles and strike up a conversation if desired. 

Hosni Zaouali is the CEO and co-founder of Tech-AdaptiKa and Carrie Purcell is COO and co-founder. (Tech AdaptiKa)

The program will run for one year, with the goal of connecting as many as 1,200 entrepreneurs and service providers on a weekly basis, said fellow Tech-AdaptiKa co-founder Carrie Purcell. 

Entrepreneurs and start-ups across northern Ontario can register for free. The platform will also be open to service providers and agencies across Canada, interested in using the platform to deliver their services.

While the program is open to anyone, Zaouali said, one focus is to help strengthen the francophone business community across northern Ontario, which he said he sees as a growing force in the province.

Making new connections, especially with people in other parts of the province has been a challenge during the pandemic, said Dominic Mailloux, president of the Fédération des gens d'affaires francophones de l'Ontario, a southern-Ontario based organization which supports and advocates for the francophone business community across the province.

Mailloux said while it's too early to provide feedback on the avatar-based platform, he does plan to use the technology to try to reach out to more people in northern Ontario.

"We're eager to showcase our programs and services to people in the north and by the same token, get to be known by them," he said.

Quality of interactions is key, says business expert

While virtual business incubators are not a new idea, Dave Valliere, a professor of entrepreneurship and strategy at the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University, said this is the first he's heard of avatar-based 3-D technology for such a purpose. 

"It's always delightful to hear about new things being done to help entrepreneurs," said Valliere, who agreed that the pandemic has been a very difficult time for entrepreneurs.

However, he said whether the avatar-based format holds any benefits, remains to be seen. What really matters, he stressed, is the quality of interactions and connection to the best possible mentors.

"Incubators exist to provide entrepreneurs with basically three things," he explained, office space, networking and mentoring.

"And the quality of networking and mentoring, to a great extent, depends on the quality of the relationship between the individuals — between a mentor and an entrepreneur — and the ideal thing of course, is face-to-face meetings."

"So we'll have to wait and see whether this is an improvement over video calls and Zoom or not."

A new online meeting spaces designed to help entrepreneurs and start-ups in northern Ontario connect with mentors and services launched today, a time when many physical buildings are closed. Amy Hadley spoke with Carrie Purcell and Hosni Zaouali from Tech-AdaptiKa about "IDENO." 7:40