Queen’s Partnerships and Innovation’s Wings program helped a diverse, eclectic range of entrepreneurs and innovators successfully launch their businesses. Run by a team experienced in helping startups take flight, the program taught participants how to recognize their strengths, focus on what it is they are really selling, and identify their customers. The program welcomed its final cohort of fledgling startups this January 2023.
When Andrew Jackson explains the Wings program that he and Elza Seregelyi ran successfully for Queen’s Partnerships and Innovation (QPI) for four years, he talks about “the right-hand side of the Business Model Canvas.”
There’s nothing wrong with an analogy. Business people use them all the time. But with a program called Wings you might expect something involving birds or aviation. And indeed, says Elza Seregelyi, that’s why the name Wings was chosen. “To capture that idea of taking off, of soaring to new heights – and even of experiencing some turbulence along the way.”
So, to dip apparently into the world of the fine arts for your metaphors after that is a little surprising. But this isn’t really about the fine arts. It’s much more down to earth. The creation of business theorist Alex Osterwalder and others, a business canvas – specifically the Business Model Canvas – is a one-page tool for understanding a company and its workings. The firm’s key activities, partners and resources go on the left. The right hand, by contrast, focuses on the customer – who are they, what do they want, and how can you reach them? By focusing on these important questions, Queen’s Partnerships and Innovation’s Wings program has helped launch 43 companies in the Kingston area and beyond since the program’s inaugural session in 2019.
The Wings program was created, in Jackson’s words, as a “sort of greatest hits package,” drawing on two previous programs that he and Seregelyi had designed and delivered for QPI: DiscoverXL and GrindspaceXL.
Wings, however, differed in two distinct ways. One, it recognized that the previous programs were too time-consuming for entrepreneurs, who often don’t have much of that resource to spare. Wings, by contrast, would be once a week and last just eight weeks. Second, those programs called in experts as needed to cover the subjects that participants needed to learn about. Wings was essentially just Jackson and Seregelyi presenting the material as well as working one-on-one with the participants, an approach which allowed them to tailor the program very closely to their participants’ needs. “The content was always different according to the entrepreneurs enrolled,” says Seregelyi.
One further, if unintended innovation: thanks to COVID, virtually every session was given remotely. This actually made it easier for some entrepreneurs to participate, even once restrictions were lifted.
“The basic idea of Wings,” says Rick Boswell, Assistant Director, Programs and Operations at QPI, “was to help companies do product and customer validation, to understand the market and their place in the market.”
By interviewing potential clients and working with Seregelyi and Jackson, they slowly developed their own “value proposition” that, says Boswell, boils down to “This is the problem, this is how I am going to solve it, and this is how it will bring value to the customer.”
“If an entrepreneur can figure that out,” says Jackson, “they can start to build out the rest of their business model.”
Drawn from companies enrolled in the Queen’s Startup Runway incubation program, participants in the various Wings cohorts have included companies developing stratospheric communications balloons, ways of conducting drug and medical trials remotely, and software intended to help spas and wellness clinics run their businesses.
“At the most basic” says QPI’s Communications Coordinator, Amanda Gilbert, who helped oversee the Wings program, “they just needed to have an idea and a prototype or MVP [minimum viable product] to show that they had actually put some thought into developing a business proposition and were ready to speak with customers about it.”
Speak to graduates and perhaps one of the most interesting takeaways they have from Wings is the degree to which they learned and benefitted from the experiences of other participants in their cohort. They may have been developing radically different ideas or pursuing very different markets, but they were all entrepreneurs. That was, says Seregelyi, something that “We designed the program to support. You can’t force the networking among participants, but that peer-to-peer element was very strong.”
Says Mike Kelly, a participant in the final Wings program, “Being able to watch these people in their earlier stages and then in their later stages teaches you a lot about what it takes to bring an idea from napkin to market.”
Participants over the years have been laudatory about the program in general.
“We were almost at a point where we had given up,” says Simone Santos of Path2Zero. “And then Wings was there to motivate us.”
“The Wings program and specifically the focus on what they called customer needs, really helped us,” says Morgen Peers, of London Street/ZAKOapp.
“I can’t say enough about Wings,” says Joshua Balderson of Reel Alumni. “I can’t thank them enough for all they taught me.”
Although, the program was in existence for only four years, it was delivered five times to distinct cohorts of 6-10 companies that were very much in their infancy, and it has already produced its share of success stories:
Politraq. Post Wings, thanks to his success with his innovation, a scheduling and tracking software for government lobbyists, founder Chris Moffat Armes has been able to leave his previous job and work full-time on his new company.
Hülpr. Created to provide older people with any help they might need – from repairs around the house to running them to medical appointments – the firm’s founders have seen Hülpr expand in terms of employees, revenue, and resources from idea to a company actively engaged in patient transfer from home to hospital or medical appointment while offering their clients trained personal support. According to co-founder Jonathan Ladha, the company today has revenues 23 times larger than when it finished the Wings program.
mDETECT. The brainchild of Drs. Mueller and Wiginton, the company’s novel “liquid biopsy” technology recently earned the founders a $900,000 grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research to enable a multi-centre breast cancer clinical trial.
Plantee Bioplastics. A member of the very first cohort of companies to pass through the Wings program, Plantee’s work in the emerging world of bioplastics is helping to find solutions to the daunting problem of ocean pollution caused by conventional plastics.
Theia Markerless. By giving him insights into marketing, the Wings program helped Scott Selbie launch his novel AI-based system for evaluating human movement without the need to attach markers or sensors to the body of the person being studied. This year they are projecting to double their revenues for the second year since participating in the program.
“I was talking with Elza about all the different companies,” says Jackson, looking back on Wings, “and there are so many different reasons to take inspiration from all of them. In some cases, it’s a transformational personal journey. In others, it’s a change the world story, where you look at it and go this is just amazing.”
Says Seregelyi: “The number of times someone said, ‘I’ve gained confidence in my own abilities or my business.’ I think it’s tremendous.”
“It is always a privilege to be part of an entrepreneur’s growth and journey,” adds Jackson, “and we’re very thankful for the growth this program has provided us.”
Queen’s Partnerships and Innovation acknowledges the assistance of FedDev Ontario, Invest Ottawa, and the Scale-Up Platform Project, which provided funding to deliver a variety of programs and services, including Wings and QSR, to technology-focused companies in Eastern Ontario.