NBIF: Learning from failure is key to commercialization success

NBIF: Learning from failure is key to commercialization success

We’re confident enough in our success stories to say that NBIF has been a launchpad for some of New Brunswick’s most exciting and innovative applied research projects and start-up companies. The proof is in our impact; we’ve invested more than $100 million in New Brunswick innovators and leveraged another $457 million from other sources. And we’re committed to continuing this momentum.

So, it might be surprising to hear that some of these innovations, whether it is a new technology or globally relevant company, will fail. At one point or another – or at multiple points – they will fall short of success. How can that be?

After all, we carefully guide our portfolio of innovators through the complex world of growth and commercialization and, in the process, encourage them to be brave and focus on their pursuit of global relevance. We’ve helped create more than 113 companies, fund 494 applied research projects, and recruited 75 professors to the province.

But here’s a secret people don’t often hear, and it’s crucial: Failure is just as important to an innovator’s development as success is. In fact, setbacks should be celebrated as much as accomplishments. Why? Because it’s through setbacks that the foundations for long-term, durable success are laid.

We’ve all heard about “teachable moments.” There’s nothing more momentously teachable than failing despite your best efforts. What’s vital is learning from failure and applying those lessons down the road. With each failure, you learn what it takes to be more successful in the future. Most importantly, you learn about yourself. Can you take the hit, pick yourself up, and go on to the next stage better equipped than before to succeed?

Those are the innovators we look to work with at NBIF. We jump in at a very early stage because we believe in the project or the start-up’s success globally. When we receive new proposals, we don’t assume the hypotheses will work out perfectly every time, but we’re willing to take the chance.

But the question we ask ourselves is, are they prepared to take their research or their product in whichever new direction their results and experiences are pointing? Those that are, frequently become high performers in the end. SmartSkin Technologies of Fredericton is a case in point.

Today, this innovative business provides state-of-the-art systems – using its own patented sensor technology – for measuring line pressure and 3D orientation in glass, can, PET, and many secondary and tertiary packaging lines. Its customers include some of the biggest and most successful food, beverage and pharmaceutical companies in the world. But it wasn’t always like this.

As its founder Kumaran Thillainadarajah readily admits, the farthest thing from his mind back in 2008 was starting a business. He was an engineering student at UNB. But after winning a few business plan competitions and four awards at NBIF’s Breakthru Competition in 2009, he launched commercially. His great idea, though, just wasn’t able to land in the marketplace – even after repeated attempts to drum up interest from, among others, prosthetics manufacturers and golf club makers. But through persistence and learning from his missteps along the way, eventually, he prevailed.

NBIF supports SmartSkin, who has come full circle from an applied research project we supported to a commercially viable company that we also invested in. We do this with our entire portfolio of researchers and start-ups, precisely because they are willing to learn and grow on the road to success. This is about much more than funding propositions.

It’s about building a talent development pool of successful, knowledgeable entrepreneurs, applied researchers and business development professionals who will feed start-up innovators in New Brunswick. It’s about producing a healthy ecosystem that, in turn, generates a continuous supply of highly qualified students, researchers and commercially minded entrepreneurs.

We say that success is in our DNA, but really, we’re side by side with our portfolio, as optimistic realists – grounded in reality and returns on investment – with an unwavering belief in our provinces’ innovators potential. We believe greatness can come from anywhere – especially here.

But we also know from experience the road to success is not always smooth and straight. Frequently it’s bumpy and crooked. It’s how we deal with that and learn from our experiences that matter. •

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