Initiatives That FedDev Ontario Put In Place For Small Businesses During COVID-19

Small Business Canada

James Meddings – President of FedDev Ontario

James Meddings was appointed President of the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario (FedDev Ontario) on October 31, 2016.

FedDev Ontario delivers programs and services to support innovation and economic growth in Canada’s most populous region. With its headquarters in Waterloo and offices in Toronto, Peterborough, and Ottawa, the Agency has a presence across southern Ontario to actively promote the region and provide regionally-tailored knowledge and expertise.

James served as Assistant Deputy Minister of Policy and Strategic Direction at Western Economic Diversification from 2011- 2016 and Vice President, Individual Learning and later Vice President, Organizational Leadership at the Canada School of Public Service from 2006 to 2011.

In his 28 years of federal public service Mr. Meddings has also held positions as Director-General, Policy, and Corporate Affairs, at the Meteorological Service of Canada; Director-General, Parliamentary, and Corporate Affairs, Human Resources Development Canada; Policy Analyst at the Privy Council Office, and Advisor to the Chief Commissioner, at the Canadian Human Rights Commission.

Prior to joining the federal public service, Mr. Meddings taught economics and political science in public and private schools in the United Kingdom and Canada.

Mr. Meddings has a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in Economic and Social Studies from the University of East Anglia; a Post Graduate Certificate in Education from the University of Birmingham; and, a Masters in Public Policy and Public Administration from Concordia University.

He is married and lives in Almonte, Ontario with his wife Susie Quackenbush and their four children: Sam, Harry, Max, and Georgia.

As President of FedDev Ontario, what would you say is the biggest challenge of your role and what are the strategies you use to overcome these challenges?

  • There are a few challenges in this role, which is what makes it such an exciting and rewarding job. I will highlight two.
  • First, our programming is designed to support companies across the region to scale in part by attracting and de-risking additional private capital to accelerate this growth. This programming is, as a result, in high demand which means we have to say no to too many of the high-quality applications we receive. This is a function of being in southern Ontario which is a dynamic and diverse urban and rural economy. The region contributes some 36% of Canada’s GDP with over 400,000 small- and medium-sized business, more than a third of Canada’s population, 40% of Canada’s domestic exports, 45% of Canada’s manufacturing capacity, a robust innovation ecosystem with world- leading research institutes, over 100 incubators and accelerators and 35 post-secondary institutions all producing a highly skilled and talented workforce. The region is also home to important traditional sectors including  automotive, aerospace, agri-food, life sciences, financial services and ICT, as well as emerging strengths in the full range of growth sectors such as AI, data analytics, cyber, quantum computing and regenerative medicine. The challenge then is maximizing our investments to the greatest effect and impact. The better we are in identifying strategic investments, the greater is the demand for our programming. To address this challenge we try to facilitate opportunities for applicants to collaborate together and, when this is not possible, we make every effort to path find those strong applications to other potential federal or provincial funding programs.
  • Second, internally we are, like many public and private sector employers, in the talent attraction game. To be successful in attracting the talent, we need to deliver on our mandate. We work really hard at being a model of a diverse and respectful workplace, committed to employee development. Building dynamic and effective teams takes dedication and hard work. I have to say that it is exceptionally rewarding to have seen the reputation of this Agency grow over the past years, and to have played a part in building a working environment that is so collegial and optimistic.
  • This positive culture has such an important impact on the businesses and communities we support. The fact that we were just recently recognized by the Career Directory 2021 as one of Canada’s best employers for recent graduates is to me a strong validation that we are creating the right environment for our employees and for the region we serve.

What are some of the initiatives that FedDev Ontario put in place for small businesses during COVID-19 to help them?

  • I am always impressed by the dedication within the Agency to support southern Ontario businesses. When the pandemic hit, it was no surprise that the team took swift action to ensure our clients have the support they need. Many businesses shared with staff the challenges of keeping their business going through the pandemic and restrictions. We listened. We quickly implemented flexibilities in repayment terms and project deliverables, as well as advance payments to alleviate some of the pressures for our existing clients. We also offered pathfinding support – ensuring that businesses and organizations were aware of the support available through Canada’s COVID-19 Economic Response Plan.
  • Since May, regional development agencies (RDAs) under the leadership of the Honourable Mélanie Joly, Minister of Economic Development and Official Languages, including FedDev Ontario here in southern Ontario, have also been delivering the Regional Relief and Recovery Fund (RRRF) – a key part of the Economic Response Plan – to businesses and organizations that have been unable to access other federal relief measures, or that need more help.
  • This includes targeted support for small, rural businesses, delivered by our Community Futures Development Corporation (CFDC) partners.
  • To date, the RRRF has supported over 25,000 southern Ontario businesses and organizations with investments of over $398 million that are projected to maintain at least 50,000 jobs in the region through the pandemic. This funding is helping businesses and organizations cover fixed costs and pay their employees – helping them remain operational now and setting them up for a strong recovery.
  • The pandemic has also underscored the importance of digital innovation as the world moves more and more to virtual, online alternatives. To help businesses to adapt, we invested $42.5 million in the Digital Main Street program, which provides vital support to businesses at the heart of our communities to adopt digital models, making them more resilient and competitive. We also committed $7.5 million to the Toronto Regional Board of Trade’s Recovery Activation Program (RAP). Through the program, Ontario SMEs are evolving their businesses, digitally transforming and adapting to the new, post-pandemic normal. These investments are having a real impact – about 23,000 businesses will be supported through DMS and the RAP in over 130 communities across the province. The Digital Main Street initiative has also provided jobs for more than 1,000 students who are working with these businesses to assist them along their digital journey. I would encourage you to read more about these innovative programs in our pivotal project profile. 3e`ese
  • We also know that while the pandemic has impacted businesses across all sectors. Some, such as the tourism industry, have been particularly challenged by the new realities. That is why FedDev Ontario allocated $12.5 million over two years to assist tourism organizations impacted by COVID-19. The projects we are supporting through this initiative are helping businesses adapt, stay afloat, and prepare for a safe reopening when the time comes.
  • The pandemic has also had a profound impact on under-represented groups. For instance, women entrepreneurs. The challenges they face in Canada’s job market, such as access to financing and networks, and other economic and labor market barriers have been amplified. What is being referred to as a she-cession is risking decades of progress being lost. So we are focused on a she-covery: making targeted investments to support, empower and lift up women entrepreneurs. This includes an additional investment of $4.7 million in 17 projects we funded through the Women Entrepreneurship Strategy Ecosystem Fund, to support women entrepreneurs to navigate this crisis. We also invested $4 million to help women-led businesses recover through the RRRF.
  • In addition, since the start of the pandemic, FedDev Ontario has invested close to $15 million towards projects that directly supported the production of personal protective equipment (PPE) such as Level 3 medical-grade surgical masks and N-95 masks.

Do you believe the federal government has put in place enough resources and programs to help businesses across Canada during these challenging times?

  • Through its COVID-19 Economic Response Plan, the Government of Canada moved very quickly to implement a comprehensive and unprecedented response to the pandemic that includes significant support measures for individuals, families, businesses, communities and public health.
  • Last March, the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy was quickly rolled out to help businesses keep and rehire employees, and has helped 3.7 million workers maintain labour force attachments. The Canada Emergency Rent Subsidy was also announced to help SMEs cover part of their commercial rent or property expenses.
  • More than $100 billion has also been announced in liquidity supports for sectors and businesses, offering relief for operating costs. This includes the Canada Emergency Business Account that is providing interest-free, partially forgivable loans to SMEs. Loan guarantees and co-lending initiatives for SMEs are also available through the Business Credit Availability Program, as well as through the recently-announced Highly Affected Sectors Credit Availability Program.
  • A number of these measures have been adapted and enhanced over the last year to fill gaps in support and to ensure they meet the evolving needs of Canadians and businesses feeling the direct impact of the pandemic. Backstopping these supports, the RRRF is helping to ensure that businesses and organizations still in need of support do not fall through the cracks.
  • In the Fall Economic Statement, the federal government also made a significant commitment to support the Canadian economy as we begin to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic by announcing plans to invest between $70 billion and $100 billion in a growth plan over three years, as well as making additional funding available through the RRRF and introducing the Regional Air Transportation Initiative, being delivered by RDAs to support the recovery of regional air networks.
  • At the same time, as a regional development agency, we continue to invest through our core programming to support companies that are seeking to grow and expand in the COVID-19 environment. The innovation and resilience these companies are showing is what will get us through and position us for a strong recovery. Again I would encourage you to read about some of our pivotal projects.

What can you tell us about the recent programs that FedDev Ontario has launched to help Canada’s small business industry?

  • In addition to the measures outlined above that we have put in place to support hard-hit sectors and under-represented groups, RDAs will continue to be an important partner to help businesses and communities recover from the pandemic, adapt for growth, and create jobs. We also continue to deliver our three core program streams – Business Scale-up and Productivity, Regional Innovation Ecosystem, and Community Economic Development and Diversification – that were designed to:
  • help increase the number of high-growth firms in southern Ontario;
  • strengthen networks to build on areas of regional innovation strength;
  • increase the commercialization of new and innovative technologies, products or processes;
  • support business investment in the adoption/adaptation of leading-edge technologies; and
  • drive innovation in rural and smaller communities.
  • RDAs, including FedDev Ontario, also deliver national programs that foster inclusive growth, such as the Black Entrepreneurship Program Ecosystem Fund and elements of the Women Entrepreneurship Strategy, the Community Futures Program and the Canadian Experiences Fund, as well as targeted measures to support specific sectors.

Many entrepreneurs have shown true resilience during COVID-19 and have implemented innovative strategies to help remain successful. How important would you say it is for entrepreneurs to embrace innovation at the moment? How can it help them in the success of their company?

  • As I mentioned earlier, the COVID-19 context has accelerated digital trends that were gaining momentum prior to the pandemic. And as I continue to say, I have been so impressed by the resilience so many businesses have shown as they’ve pivoted to adapt during this time. Innovation and digital adoption, in large part, have been critical to the survival of businesses throughout this challenging period and will be key drivers of economic growth and recovery following the pandemic.
  • Productivity improvements that come from cutting-edge innovation, including technology adoption through Industry 4.0 practices and automation, allow SMEs to be more competitive and unlock growth potential. Likewise, the commercialization of new technologies by innovative SMEs is central to improving our competitiveness on the global stage. It is a catalyst for the development and growth of new businesses, high-value jobs, and long-term economic prosperity. It also enables businesses to compete in today’s digital, knowledge-intensive global economy.
  • The growth of knowledge-intensive and global industries, along with the creation of new technology, products, and processes, will enable Canadian SMEs to recover and compete. In addition, with clean growth becoming increasingly important, innovation will be critical to getting the most out of limited resources, fostering long-term sustainable growth, and achieving the Government’s commitment to net-zero emissions by 2050.

In your expert opinion, what’s the biggest challenge that entrepreneurs will face post-COVID-19?

  • Canada’s entrepreneurs often point to a lack of risk capital as a challenge for commercializing products, adopting technology, and increasing productivity. I think this has been exacerbated by the pandemic with businesses becoming more leveraged and Canadian venture capital currently down, especially for earlier-stage businesses. With business travel, conferences and trade show virtually on hiatus, further compounded by cross-border travel limitations, it is also more difficult for entrepreneurs to make the essential connections they need to grow their businesses and expand into new markets. And while we have seen an impressive pivot to digital engagements, this has still been a challenge for businesses in traditional sectors that are not used to doing business or serving their clients in a virtual environment.
  • This has also been a particularly challenging time for underrepresented groups – with existing barriers to starting and growing their businesses amplified by the economic challenges introduced by the pandemic.
  • Social distancing and other public health measures, while essential to our recovery from this crisis, have also introduced many challenges for businesses that are simply unable to service their clients virtually. This has also forced many businesses to cut costs as they put projects on hold and adjust to new realities.
  • Post-COVID-19, our world will no doubt look different. While the shift to more virtual platforms will certainly have benefits, it may also present challenges for employers looking to secure and retain talent. With our world becoming more and more connected, competition for attracting talent may be more complex coming out of the crisis.
  • FedDev Ontario remains committed to helping innovative firms find the capital, tools, and services they need to grow, and to fostering an inclusive recovery.

On a final note, what advice do you have for entrepreneurs who wish to grow their business during a global pandemic?

  • While the pandemic has been highly disruptive to the economy, there is also an opportunity for innovation. I think the global pandemic has accelerated some trends that we were already seeing such as telework, e-commerce, and an increased focus on automation. Certain sectors such as technology, healthcare, and cleantech still seem poised for growth as the pandemic has highlighted areas of importance for our health and security. Entrepreneurs who are able to offer innovative solutions in these spaces are well-positioned for growth. In addition, the pandemic has highlighted the need for businesses to be adaptive and reach their customer base and deliver their products and services in new ways.
  • While we have learned that we need to have contingency plans so that we are not solely reliant on supply chains that are outside of our domestic borders, we also must continue to support global trade. Southern Ontario businesses have benefited greatly from a global economy and we need to continue to support access and expansion of markets.
  • In the midst of this challenging time, I continue to be inspired by the innovation and strength that Canadian businesses have shown. Whether through quickly retooling to contribute to the call for PPE, pivoting business models to adapt to new realities, or introducing innovative solutions to continue serving clients, businesses and organizations have shown incredible resilience. It is this resilience and ingenuity that will get us through the pandemic and position us for a strong future. And we continue to be here every step of the way.
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