IRAP ponders expanding stage-gate training program nationally after initial success

Mark Henderson
December 9, 2016

Structured approach to commercialization

A novel pilot program that helps small yet established Ontario- and Quebec-based tech companies move products into development may soon go national. The seminar and workshop-based I2D (Idea to Development) program was developed by Stage-Gate System creator Dr Robert Cooper and launched in 2013 by the Ontario branch of the Industrial Research Assistance Program (IRAP). It subsequently expanded to Quebec and is now poised spread both west and east if the move receives the green light.

In the current climate of multiple consultations and potential participation by other federal agencies, IRAP officials won't confirm that the national program is going ahead. But Cooper says there is positive momentum from within the federal government including words of encouragement from the DM of the Department of Innovation, Science and Economic Development.

In Ontario, IRAP is partnering with the Ministry of Economic Development, Employment and Infrastructure to deliver I2D and has a sector-specific collaboration with the Centre of Excellence in Mining Innovation. In Quebec, the provincial partner is the non-profit Product Development Institute, which aims to stimulate the innovation capacity of companies, reduce time to market and improve the commercial performance of new products in the market.

Cooper says that if the program expands east and west, the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency and Western Diversification are the logical regional partners.

"It's now a permanent process in Ontario and Quebec and could double in size if it scales up nationally," says Cooper, president, Product Development Institute Inc, ISBM Distinguished Research Fellow, Penn State Univ and professor emeritus at McMaster Univ. "Nationally there could be 12 to 15 groups up from the current six … If we do start working with regional organizations, they want groups dedicated to their people."

The I2D pilot has been adjusted and expanded since its inception with a small cohort of companies. The Ontario group now holds four workshops annually and utilizes webinars as it's become too large for Cooper and his associates to deliver personally.

"There are now new ways to deliver the same information to clients ... We have a winning formula based on client feedback but the program is still evolving to hit it out of the park," says Dr Janice Singer an Industrial Technology Advisor (ITA) with IRAP Ontario. "The pilot provides a straightforward way of evaluating ideas that company engineers can understand and implement."

Analysis of results to date show that I2D is effective in several areas of new product development (NPD), including the use of "voice-of-customer" research as part of NPD projects, doing upfront homework, building a business case before entering development, effective use of cross-functional teams and picking the right projects.

Hard work

The structure and content of I2D requires a lot of work to select the most promising companies and move them through the stage gate process. Cooper says that work falls to the ITAs who typically can't take on more than one company in addition to their other duties.

"Just one in four products succeed from idea to launch and SMEs do even worse. The IRAP program is designed to improve the odds, the averages. We get dramatically better results —– an 80-85% success rate compared to 50% without the program," says Cooper. "We take companies part way through the game and into development, not to the end which is an actual product. We put them in the right direction and the game is won or lost in the first five plays. The rest becomes more straight engineering."

Firms with revenues

Cooper says there's a stringent selection criteria for participating companies and that firms must commit to sending their senior officials to attend. Start-ups do not qualify for the program which focuses instead on "sweet spot" companies with revenues in the $5 million to $50-million range.

To improve the odds of success, Singer says companies must commit to the I2D program at the senior level and ensure that processes are aligned by including executives from different parts of the company.

"The notion is to listen to the voice of the customer, not just marketing but engineering and even the CEO — the front and the back end," says Singer. "It also encourages companies to observe the customer using the product. It's a different way of thinking for the companies we deal with."

Structured Stage Gate approach

The I2D program offers a structured process for NPD which begins with 12 or 13 companies attending a 1-2 day seminar with at least three people per firm.

Companies then choose their projects and start applying the best practices introduced in the seminar. After about two months, companies return with a preliminary business case for a check-in and engage in a panel discussion. After two more months, companies are expected to have developed a full business case and are ready to apply for an IRAP grant and move into the product development phase.

In Ontario, more than 100 companies have taken the I2D program since its inception. Singer says participating companies are often not run by people who trained to become senior managers or even have a business background, making the I2D program critical to expanding beyond initial market success.

I2D is aimed directly at a weakness in Canadian industry that has resulted in poor business R&D performance and limited success in global markets.

"Canadian management is the core reason. They're risk averse and don't do best practices, and in school they don't take the right courses," says Cooper. "A better education system and company best practices is the answer."


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