Partnerships and Innovation

Office of Partnerships and Innovation
Office of Partnerships and Innovation

Queen’s Partnerships and Innovation’s high-impact mentorship program encourages CEOs to see what is possible

There’s a memorable line from a song by the late American singer Bill Withers: “We all need somebody to lean on.” That’s true for entrepreneurs as much as anyone else – maybe even more so. Someone has an idea or a product. It seems like a winner but moving it forward is hard. There are a hundred questions, and a thousand distractions – and all too often entrepreneurs are trying to do it all on their own.

Queen’s Partnerships and Innovation’s new High-Impact Mentorship program aims to change that. The program pairs the CEO of a Kingston-area tech company, one with a product, some sales and a significant potential for growth with a seasoned and successful entrepreneur in a six-month, one-on-one program. The goal is to boost the growth of these new companies, by helping them tap into money, avoid pitfalls and build the sort of networks that help a company be successful on its journey.

Three years ago, Matt Deir had an idea. Then (and now) the CEO of a custom software shop called Dragonfly, Deir had developed a program for a group of Ontario fruit farmers that would help them grow and harvest their crop more efficiently. “It tracked yield, it tracked expenses, it monitored for chemical safety,” and did a whole lot more, he says. He wondered if there might be a bigger market for it, and, he says, “I sort of ran with it. We put up a website and started getting some traction.” Queries came in from around the world and Croptracker, as he named his new endeavour, was born.

When QPI asked Deir in the fall of 2019 if he’d be interested in taking part in an experimental mentorship program they were setting up targeting companies with a potential for growth, he jumped at the opportunity. “I needed to learn how to grow faster and better.”

It also meant the chance to work with Ottawa’s Leo Lax, the well-known, Ottawa based serial entrepreneur. “I jumped at the chance to do that, too,” says Deir. Over the course of his highly successful career, Lax had worked at Mitel and Newbridge as a senior manager, and run an investment fund that had more than $250 million under management. Together with Ottawa entrepreneur Pat White, Lax created L-SPARK, as part of the Wesley Clover International portfolio. This ambitious accelerator provides one-on-one mentoring to start-up entrepreneurs. When QPI wanted to start up its High-Impact Mentoring program, they turned to Lax and L-SPARK.

“Pre-COVID, he actually came down to Kingston once a week for a day,” says Deir. “But we would talk by phone for several hours a week. We worked on all sorts of problems, from HR to legal questions to IP-related issues. He’d suggest options and give examples of similar situations he’d encountered in the past.”

“In many accelerators and incubators,” Lax says, “the programs are curriculum based. The first week we do sales, the second, marketing, the third week finance and so on.” With one-on-one mentoring, the program is driven by the participating company’s needs and goals and how a mentor can help the company get there. He likens himself not to an adviser, but a Sherpa. If you plan to climb Mount Everest, he says, “An adviser will let you look at a map, show you the best pass to go through and, once in a while, check back with you to see how you are doing. A Sherpa will actually pick up your packs and help you climb.”

Lax and Deir worked together for six months, in what was initially a pilot for the program, and very much an experiment. And then, says Deir, “They [QPI] said, ‘Okay this seems to be going well, now we’re going to do the real program. Do you want to be in it?’” He did and they carried on.

The program bore results fast. “Since the mentorship program started, we’ve expanded dramatically.” They’ve made deals on the US west coast, in Australia and New Zealand, “and we’re working in Europe. We’ve added five employees and we’ve basically doubled our revenue,” says Deir.

“I don’t know if I can attribute all of that to the mentorship program, there was a lot of work leading up to it, but it was very helpful to have a perspective from someone who was not stuck in the day-to-day end of things.”

As valuable to Deir as Lax’s first-hand experiences were the less tangible, but highly useful informal networks that Lax had built up in his career as an entrepreneur, the indispensable human relationships that can take years to develop.

Says Deir, “We got introduced to a great set of lawyers who are helping us with some restructuring. There’s a number of technician groups that we met through the mentorship program that we’re leaning on too. We also met with a lot of different venture capitalists both in person and remotely during COVID.

“Here’s a story. We were having an issue with a supplier who was supplying some critical hardware to us; they were being very non-committal and non-responsive. Explaining this over a number of calls to Leo, he says ‘Who is it? Let me look.’ He looks it up and he goes, "I know their main investor, he sits on their board of directors, let me give him a call.’  A few days later we had a meeting with the company and resolved the supply issue. That network was able to exercise some pressure that we wouldn’t have been able to otherwise."

Since the end of the program in September, Deir has been kept busy with Croptracker’s growing business and continuing to develop his relationships with the venture capitalists. “We’re still on the track with a few groups we were in active communication with during the mentorship program,” he says. Lax has continued to be involved with the mentorship program, and is currently working with another young Kingston company, Mesh AI.

“The relationships we forged during the program will definitely outlast the program. And I know I will stay in contact with Leo and give him a call whenever I’m stuck on something,” Deir says.

“I’d recommend the mentorship program,” he says. “In fact, I have. “

Somebody to lean on? A Sherpa? For Deir, mentorship was “that personal trainer at the gym. You can convince yourself that you’re going to go to the gym every day, but it’s a lot easier when you know the personal trainer is there waiting for you and will be very disappointed if you don’t show up and you’re not doing your exercises. It was very beneficial, and I believe it will continue to be for quite some time.”