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Pathfinder project #3

Circular Food Economy iHub CFE iHub icon

Project overview

The Circular Food Economy iHub (CFE iHub) serves as a hub of discovery, bringing together urban and rural communities to find innovative solutions to real-world food security and sustainability problems in Guelph and Wellington County. It fosters a living lab that promotes collaboration between food entrepreneurs, farmers, researchers and social innovators. As the innovation engine of Our Food Future, the CFE iHub drives the use of data and builds the necessary technological capacity to support a sustainable regional food economy.

This involves:

  • Accelerating the development of these solutions by facilitating collaborations, offering mentoring and ideation support, and prototyping and piloting projects, and
  • Helping bring solutions to market by connecting entrepreneurs to additional supports and collaborators within the innovation ecosystem, including the Harve$t Impact Fund.

The CFE iHub is engaging the entire ecosystem through:

  • Circular economy design labs to catalyze new purposeful businesses and collaborations that embrace people, planet and prosperity,
  • Direct outreach to the social/health sector that serves our most vulnerable populations,
  • Collaboration to develop social enterprises that employ disadvantaged populations, and
  • Public idea generation, competitive challenges and awards that involve the broader community in developing inclusive, innovative solutions.

iHub image


1. Surface challenges

A critical component of the CFE iHub’s success is the web of collaborators working together to surface challenges and attract potential solution providers. Primary, community-based business support organizations serve as “main doors” through which outreach and engagement are coordinated and programming is provided. The CFE iHub’s main doors include:

  • 10C Social Entrepreneurship Hub (for social entrepreneurs and enterprises),
  • Innovation Guelph Regional Innovation Centre (for scalable startups, small businesses and
  • internal innovation),
  • Business Centre Guelph-Wellington (for regional small businesses),
  • Wellington-Waterloo Community Futures (for rural entrepreneurs and small businesses),
  • LaunchIt Minto (for rural entrepreneurs and small businesses), and
  • Gordon S. Lang School of Business and Economics/John F. Wood Centre for Business and Student Enterprise (for University of Guelph students).

The CFE iHub also includes two individual connectors—one embedded in Wellington County and one embedded in Guelph. Their role is to maintain communication between the various main doors and facilitate connections when problems are identified. They also bring the right resources and people to the table, including technology and data experts, research support, technical experts, business experts, facilitators and project analysts.

Meanwhile, an extensive network of Our Food Future collaborators helps to surface challenges and direct problem owners and potential solution providers to the main door organizations. In this way, the entire Guelph-Wellington community becomes part of a living lab focused on surfacing,& curating and solving problems.

The CFE iHub also surfaces challenges by hosting discovery events each quarter, using a full circle model (see “Tools, templates and technology” section).

For example, in December 2019, CFE iHub cohosted an event with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Guelph Research and Development Centre. The full-day meeting brought together researchers, small businesses owners, industry association members, government representatives and academics to discuss advancements in food waste loss prevention and businesses that are applying circular principles. The event surfaced more than a dozen problems related to labour issues, packaging, nutritional challenges and more.

The following month, the County of Wellington hosted a half-day event with representatives from 25 farmers’ markets in the area. Staff from the CFE iHub led a session that surfaced several challenges around produce storage, processes for handling different waste streams and more. Meanwhile, in early March, Innovation Guelph held a focus group for food processors that surfaced problems concerning food packaging, water waste, organic waste and more.

2. Engage entrepreneurs with challenges

Rather than prescribe solutions to problems, our “challenge-based procurement” model invites innovators and entrepreneurs to propose a variety of possible solutions. This opens the door to more innovative ideas and opportunities.

In February 2019, we tested this approach as part of the Innovation Challenge at Toronto’s Globe Capital Exchange. Designed to connect innovators with corporate leaders looking for technology solutions, the event invited innovators to propose solutions to specific challenges. We put forward a challenge to minimize food waste. The winner was FoodCycler: a startup that has created a countertop machine that transforms food waste into a nutrient-rich soil amendment that can be added directly to residential gardens.

Tools, templates and technology used

Discovery events

Discovery events are a key to unearthing new opportunities. Using a full circle model, they bring businesses and organizations together to surface problems, decide which of those problems are the most important and feasible to address, and identify opportunities to create solutions. Discovery events can take a variety of forms:

  • One-on-one sessions, which are particularly well suited to larger companies concerned about confidentiality,
  • Bringing together multiple organizations from the same sector, which can help identify common sector-wide issues,
  • Bringing together multiple organizations from different sectors, which can help surface unexpected connections, insights and opportunities for collaboration, and
  • Small focus groups, which often allow for a deeper dive into issues.

Whatever format a discovery event takes, the more interactive it is, the more challenges it will surface.

iHub Process

Full circle model

  1. Engage to surface problems—Employing the principles of Design Thinking, we start with divergent thinking. Drawing on multiple sources and stakeholders, we surface problems and issues at various points within the value chain (from field to fork). Specifically, we’re seeking problems that result in food waste, energy waste, inefficiencies and unexploited opportunities.
  2. Define problems—Having identified a robust list of problems, we then apply convergent thinking to curate and refine the list. The intent of this stage is to zero in on a more manageable list of problems to tackle. These problems are then added to the CFE iHub’s challenge database.
  3. Explore solutions—Focusing on challenges with the greatest potential, we once again shift to divergent thinking to generate the greatest number of possible solutions. We do this by reaching out to other interested parties to participate in solution-generating opportunities.
  4. Assess solutions—Once again, convergent thinking is brought to bear as we curate and refine proposed solutions to identify those with the greatest chance of success. The most promising potential solutions and solution teams are then moved into the acceleration phase.
  5. Development sprint—In this acceleration phase, teams work to prototype and validate their solutions. With the assistance of CFE iHub Innovation Specialists, solution teams develop prototypes, minimum viable products (MVPs) and initial business models.
  6. Prototype validation—Once a solid MVP is defined, it is tested and put through multiple customer/user validation cycles, and feedback is incorporated to ensure product/market fit. Using an agile approach, development is iterative, continually extracting and applying learnings.
  7. Reconnect—CFE iHub participants are connected with relevant organizations within the ecosystem to continue driving their growth and development.

One of the key characteristics of a living lab is agility. With the arrival of COVID-19, we’ve made a number of changes to the full circle model, including a total shift to online problem surfacing and solution generation until further notice. This is made possible by the addition of the Kitchen Table, an open innovation platform that supports all Our Food Future engagement and living lab activities. While this technology was always intended to supplement the CFE iHub process, it has now become central to the model given the need to limit face-to-face interaction.

Seeding Our Food Future—micro-grant project

To support Guelph-Wellington’s COVID-19 recovery efforts, we’ve launched a new microgrant program that will provide non-repayable grants of up to $5,000 to individuals, businesses and social enterprises across the city and county. These grants can be used to:

  • Start a new business that supports the sustainability and circularity of the food system,
  • Pivot an existing food system business to a more circular/sustainable business model,
  • Implement circular practices, systems or processes,
  • Create or pivot to a business model that supports inclusive access to nutritious food,
  • Enable food system businesses to effectively use data and technology, or
  • Initiate a collaboration that contributes to our tech-enabled circular food economy.

This program targets 40 new and existing businesses, for a total investment of $200,000. In addition to the micro-grants, iHub and other delivery system partners provide resources, mentorship and advisory services to program participants (a $4,500 value for each company, up to a total of $180,000). Successful applicants will also be eligible to apply for one of 36 interest free loans of up to $10,000 through the Harve$t Impact Fund and the Waterloo-Wellington and Saugeen Community Futures offices.

Several community partners help support and coordinate the program, including Innovation Guelph, 10C, the Business Centre Guelph-Wellington, LaunchIt Minto and University of Guelph. Meanwhile, we are pursuing federal funding to develop a second phase of the program.

Challenges and lessons learned

Recognizing financial realities: Organizations and companies are typically very interested in innovation. However, lack of funding often prevents projects from getting off the ground. Many of the organizations we work with have identified the need for seed funding or pilot funding to help them move good ideas forward.

Recognizing the value of incremental change: When engaging with existing businesses and organizations, the scope of shifting to a fully circular business model was intimidating. While almost all contacts could see the value and commit to making small changes, the idea of completely revamping their business model met with strong pushback. To create the kind of systems change we’re looking for, we’ll have to bring people along one step at a time and celebrate the incremental changes that will eventually lead to success.

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