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Altering the Atlantic Canadian Business Landscape

Janice Landry

Under her mother’s deft guidance, she sewed her first piece of clothing when she was just six years old: a velvet Christmas dress.

Dr. Ellen Farrell, the celebrated and innovative entrepreneurship and venture capital specialist, researcher and professor at the Sobey School of Business, has always possessed a keen eye for alterations, patterns and detail. “I never put a single solitary thing on my back for the last 20 years that I didn’t alter in some way,” said Dr. Farrell, who has always deconstructed clothing to elevate it and make it more purposeful. This tendency to transform has morphed into tactical and strategic abilities which are now helping government and business leaders.

Connection, Cooperation and Competition

A visionary and innovator, Dr. Farrell’s groundbreaking work in mapping entrepreneurial ecosystems is shaping how we talk, think and interact.

Dr. Farrell is assisting government at all levels, mature firms, legal and financial institutions, universities, mid-level business, small start-ups and entrepreneurs to review how, and if, they are interconnected.

That interconnectedness, in what she calls the "entrepreneurial ecosystem," is generating headlines, and impacting industry jargon, ideals and practices around the world. “I just love how, in a very insidious kind of way, it has emerged and taken on a life of its own, where the language is being adopted by other people,” she said.

According to Dr. Farrell, the entrepreneurial ecosystem, “…starts in a geographic location and is the collection of organizations and individuals who are trying to advance the interests of entrepreneurship in a region. You start with a group that’s geographically located, maybe Halifax, Fredericton or St. John’s, whatever the case may be, but, my interest is: how far out does that reach? Who do they reach out to? How far [out] does it go? Look at Silicon Valley, look at the impact and reach they had. Well, what kind do we have? That’s where this originated.”

Dr. Farrell was commissioned by the Province of Nova Scotia to initially study and evaluate government-sponsored venture capital. “In thinking about how to do that, I concluded maybe we position venture capital inside everything that’s going on and we could see their impact.”

Dr. Farrell, and her colleague and research assistant, Nathan Dennison, now with Nova Scotia Business Inc., gather survey-based data which is plugged into software to map a stunning visual representation of their findings.

The striking charts resemble artwork. People repeatedly ask Dr. Farrell if they can purchase copies of her entrepreneurial ecosystem maps for their offices and boardrooms. The answer is always - yes. The charts cause a “visceral reaction” when people first see them; they typically get up out of their seats, lean over, and in, to get a closer look - as they try to interpret the colourful circles, (nodes) and lines (arcs) drawn over the maps.

The nodes represent the survey participants. The colour of the circles indicates the kinds of organizations represented. Their size reveals “the amount of connectivity. The size of the node cannot be influenced by the organization itself. The only way one can be a ‘big node’ is if a lot of people are reaching out to that organization,” Dr. Farrell explained.

The arcs, the straight lines drawn between the circles connecting them, are the communication and varied interactions between the parties. The lines also vary in colour, denoting multiple kinds of business inquires, requests and dealings. Dr. Farrell explains that simply surfing a website, or scrolling through information, does not equate to an interaction. Connectivity requires people reaching out to your organization, and your management and staff also connecting with others - to get business done and to help business grow.

Like artwork, the entrepreneurial ecosystem chart viewer may, or may fail to, see the bigger picture within the overwhelming amount of tiny details. Dr. Farrell, the lifelong seamstress, excels in seeing the forest for the trees. The bigger picture she has unearthed contains a clear message for managers and business leaders.

Need to Reach Beyond Your Borders

There are several major findings which result from her Atlantic Canadian entrepreneurial ecosystem maps. “Studying the entrepreneurial ecosystem and clusters of innovation reveal: it’s good to have a very tight-knit group, where people are reaching out to other people and you have a very vibrant area, but, that’s not good enough."

"You need to be able to be known and to be able to reach out to areas well beyond your borders. You can’t become a really well known and successful ecosystem if the other ecosystems in the world don’t know about you,” said Dr. Farrell.

What does this mean, exactly, for Atlantic Canadian business managers and leaders?

"We’re doing pretty good in the United States and Canada, (in terms of business connectivity). We’re awesome in Atlantic Canada, but we need to be known more. But, here we are, the closest of any region, of any point on the continent to Europe, and you could count, easily, on the chart, the number of ‘rest of the world’ connections that we had through this (survey and mapping). I believe that finding to be very important; a leading finding in that we have to - reach out more and further.”

The respected researcher intends to do just that; Europe is on her radar. “I would like to do similar work in comparative type economies that have successful and vibrant entrepreneurial economies. Scotland and Germany come to mind.  Our work is being modelled in Switzerland.”

What can business leaders do right now? 

As the data is refined and revealed, Dr. Farrell has three top take-a-ways for executives, managers and policy makers:

  1. "Do something nice for an entrepreneur: test a prototype, loan out your boardroom, give feedback when asked, decide not to exercise a non-compete clause, tell them the truth, allow them to use some expensive or specialized equipment, provide a couple of hours of engineering talent, give them some contacts, [or] provide them with industry insights, et cetera."
  2. "A constant supply of new entrepreneurs is essential to successful economic conditions."
  3. "Entrepreneurial ecosystems need outreach beyond our borders.  Take time to help an entrepreneur, make contact with a foreign or far-away contact."

Expanding the Map

Farrell now has the funding to include six Atlantic Canadian universities, who are participating in the entrepreneurial ecosystem survey: Saint Mary’s, Memorial University, University of New Brunswick, University of Prince Edward Island (UPEI), University of Moncton and Cape Breton University (CBU). “The mappings are constantly being updated. The last reveal [of data] was in Sydney in July at CBU. The next reveal will be…at the end of September by UPEI,” she said.

As her research widens, other clear “call-to-action” caveats are emerging: “…there needs to be more participation by the mature firms in the region to help; support that is costless to a mature firm is priceless to an entrepreneur.” Dr. Farrell explained.

"In super large organizations, they can be process-oriented. So, everybody has a job to do. 'I run that machine and that machine has to work.' I might be stepping over six problems to get to my machine. I get that. It’s not your role. That must be managed by an upper level with attention to, and dedication to: ‘Okay, we’re going to try and do something, in some way, to participate in the entrepreneurial ecosystem, or to try and make an outreach of our own."

The role of large organizations is NOT as a customer

Managers of larger or mature firms, with more resources, should assist one or two growing businesses, without becoming a customer. That is not the connectivity Dr. Farrell is measuring or advocating. “I’m not talking about large companies buying products and services from these smaller companies. I’m talking about being a supporter of a couple of initiatives where they may be able to help.”

She also urges small business to reach out to mature firms for assistance. Don’t be afraid to ask for support. Better yet, don’t neglect to ask. Cast your net wide. The resulting connections, between small and big business, are strengthening the overall Atlantic Canadian entrepreneurial ecosystem. "Managers [of smaller firms] are not reaching out to mature firms, like Emera. ‘Can I test this? Can one of your engineers help me with this?’”

Dr. Farrell’s findings also reveal mature firms are not as widely connected with one another as they could be. “There are quite a few mature firms around [Atlantic Canada] but we don’t see, when you have 1,000 nodes out there, we’re not seeing a lot of interaction. I’d like to see more engagement."