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Enabling innovation

It’s tough scaling a new product and getting it to market. Through District Ventures, Arlene Dickinson is working to change that

Arlene Dickinson with Jana Sobey, vice-president of merchandising, community, Thrifty Foods and Field at Sobeys.

Arlene Dickinson with Jana Sobey, vice-president of merchandising, community, Thrifty Foods and Field at Sobeys.

It’s not uncommon to hear industry folks lamenting the lack of innovation in Canadian consumer packaged goods, but entrepreneur and Dragons’ Den star Arlene Dickinson doesn’t share that view.

In fact, one of the things that surprised her most when she started the District Ventures accelerator five years ago was how many people out there are innovating in the food and beverage space. A bigger issue, she contends, is the number of co-packers who will take on small businesses—“that’s more of a hole in the market than innovation,” she says.

Since its inception in 2015, more than 60 companies—including the likes of Drizzle Honey, Zak Organics and Chickapea Pasta—have passed through the not-for-profit Calgary-based accelerator, which helps participants grow and scale their businesses. During the five-month program, held twice a year, cohorts—selected from hundreds of applicants—get sales, distribution and marketing support with the ultimate goal of getting products on shelves. So, who makes the cut? “We’re looking for companies making products that we think are on trend and we’re trying to put cohorts together that complement each other so they can learn from each other,” says Dickinson. “We’re also looking for entrepreneurs that have got some traction.”

Just like the retail industry, Dickinson says District Ventures is always evolving. Last year, for instance, the program established significant partnerships such as its first-in-Canada collaboration with Calgary’s Sunterra Market. Under the arrangement, the retailer gives precious shelf space to products coming out of the accelerator; it also serves as a testing ground where Sunterra is able to provide immediate feedback to the entrepreneurs on things such as pricing and packaging. In May, District Ventures struck a similar partnership with Circle K, where products developed in the accelerator were listed in more than 400 of the convenience chain’s Ontario locations.

Last fall, District Ventures announced it was taking over Toronto’s defunct Food Starter (nearly a year after it abruptly shuttered), renaming it District Ventures Kitchen. Dickinson says the space, which gives early-stage food companies access to a commercial kitchen, among other supports, was the last piece of the puzzle in ensuring participants have support from beginning to end. Again, partnerships were key, with Sobeys and Chartwells Canada supporting the launch.

READ: Empire joins District Ventures to support food entrepreneurs

And in February Empire Company— and its banners including Sobeys, IGA, Safeway, Farm Boy, Foodland, FreshCo, Thrifty Foods and Rachelle Béry—became the title sponsor of both the District Ventures Accelerator program and District Ventures Kitchen. Through the unique partnership, the program’s early stage food and beverage companies will receive support and coaching from the grocery giant as well as an opportunity to get their products on the shelves of Empire’s grocery stores.

“We have forged relationships that actually add real value to these companies so they can get distribution, retail shelf space, which is always such a hard thing to do and, of course, the trend now is that grocers are looking for innovation, too—so it’s a win-win.”

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