Robin Nelson: His Ottawa-based roofing firm owns 35 patents. (Photo: Tony Fouhse) Robin Nelson: His Ottawa-based roofing firm owns 35 patents. (Photo: Tony Fouhse)

Robin Nelson isn’t your average distributor of construction equipment. He’s a trained architect who preferred working as a contractor, then decided to buy a roofing-supplies distributor. But growing competition convinced him distribution is a commodity game, and that he had to offer something different in order to survive.

“It’s hard for a small guy to have an edge in the marketplace,” says Nelson. “So, I decided to look for niche products that met needs that weren’t being served or weren’t being served well.”

Nelson’s Ottawa-based company, Roofers World, has over the past decade become an unlikely innovator, developing or licensing a host of new products in a sector in which hammers are still state of the art. There’s the Banana Knife, a bright yellow utility knife ergonomically designed to provide 60% more power to the cutting surface; the SnoStop family of anchors and railings that prevent snowmasses from sliding off roofs onto hapless (but possibly litigious) passersby; and the Red Ripper, an award-winning shovel that lets contractors tear shingles and nails off a roof in a single pass.

Nelson is convinced that his proprietary products—beta-tested in his Ottawa store and now being distributed across Canada and in parts of the U.S.—will more than double his sales over five years: “We’d like to be a major player in our category.”

Although “intellectual property” and “roofing” are seldom found in the same business, Roofers World owns 35 patents. Nelson says if he can’t protect a new product as IP, he won’t bother with it.

When Canadians think of innovation, they usually picture tech firms with white-coated teams producing new products in software, biotech and web apps. But innovation is a core responsibility for any business that wants to grow; competition is global, and your customers are always seeking better solutions and superior value.

But my sense is that most non-tech companies aren’t keeping pace with the need to innovate. It’s hard for them to sustain continuous improvement, given their lack of in-house engineering staff, compounded by the high cost of prototypes and market testing. Which could explain why Canada’s share of global R&D keeps sliding.

But there’s lots of hope for non-tech innovators. You can get federal funds to support innovative products, and there are people and programs waiting to link entrepreneurs and innovation. For instance, Nelson has drawn on the Industrial Research Assistance Program (IRAP) run by the National Research Council. It offers a range of assistance, from R&D coaching to funding innovation research. Most of IRAP’s 130 offices across Canada are in innovation hubs, such as local technology associations, scientific institutes, universities and colleges. And its staff are scientists who choose to work with business.

Nelson also swears by (not at) the Canada Revenue Agency for its Scientific Research & Experimental Development (SR&ED) tax-credit program for companies in any sector that spend money on R&D around new products and processes. SR&ED is the envy of businesses around the world, and its definitions of R&D for non-tech firms are refreshingly flexible.

And Nelson is also a satisfied client of the Regional Innovation Centre for Ottawa and Eastern Ontario, one of 14 RICs across Ontario. (There are similar entities in other provinces.) At the local RIC, run by the Ottawa Centre for Regional Innovation, Nelson enjoys coaching relationships with an entire team of experienced innovators.

“I’ve discovered all kinds of contacts and resources I didn’t realize were there,” says Nelson. “When you ask a question, they’re ready with the name of a lawyer or new supplier. And if I need something, it’s really easy to pick up the phone and ask for help.” He says the RIC team also is helping him explore ways to get more capital to speed his firm’s innovation agenda.

Bob Huggins is a publishing and technology entrepreneur who gives a few days a week to Ottawa’s innovation centre as a marketing and branding expert. He says the RIC has only a handful of clients whose businesses aren’t strictly technology-related—but they all leverage new technology to grow. “We don’t take fledglings,” says Huggins. “But if you think you have something that can go, we’ll put a few thousand dollars into it to see if it’ll fly.”

If you think your firm deserves this kind of help, contact a local innovation centre. Even if they don’t take you under their wing, they may steer you to a local entrepreneurship centre, college technology programs or other appropriate resources. “If people are interested, absolutely, they should call us,” says Huggins. “It’s way easier if you get to us earlier rather than later.”

According to Nelson, innovation does get easier. Now that Roofers World is known for its commitment to new products, Nelson regularly gets calls from inventors. “When you’re known as an innovator, new products start coming to you,” he says. “As our brand gets recognized, more and more doors open up to us.”

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