Category Archives: Business & Commercialization Solutions

Pet food upstart looked to NC to help discover new markets

Politics and pet food don’t seem like they have much in common.

But when you’re a Canadian pet food upstart hoping to capture the Chinese market, politics can throw a kink in plans as much as the picky palate of a companion animal.

Just ask Robert Hales, plant and production manager at Niagara Pet Nutrition in Thorold, Ont. The high-quality dog and cat food producer’s business plan hinged exclusively on shipping to Asia, starting with China, before launching in the North American market.

Company ownership has expertise in the Chinese market, so it made sense to capitalize on that experience, their contacts and networks as more people in China adopt animals as companions, Hales explained.

“And a North American brand (of pet food) is much more preferred than a local brand,” he added.

Still, making inroads hasn’t been easy amid the political tensions between China and Canada, heightened by the case of the Two Michaels, and the United States’ extradition request of Huawei Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou from Canada, in 2020.

Add a global pandemic and the ensuing challenges it brings to travel and shipping, and “just as we were about to start production, our target market was no longer available,” Hales said.

That’s when Niagara Pet Nutrition connected with Research & Innovation’s Business and Commercialization Solutions (BCS) for help. The company knew it had to find other markets to enter, but it had no insight into where to start.

Hales knew NC’s research division had previously partnered with Iron Will Raw pet food on food safety protocols, so it made sense to ask the BCS to look for new markets for Niagara Pet Nutrition as well.

 “The college did a fantastic job… They exceeded everything. They worked within the timeline they gave us, and they gave the ownership group a lot to look at and digest.” – Robert Hales, plant and production manager, Niagara Pet Nutrition

North America seemed obvious. However, it’s dominated by a small handful of multi-national pet food companies and Niagara Pet Nutrition would need help connecting with customers, Hales noted.

“The company branding was developed and based on the Asian market so we were also concerned whether that would resonate with a North American market,” he said.

The research team of Paula Reile, research program manager; Garrett Zimmer, research lead; and students Michelle Anne Culpe and Karla Perez Islas, started their in-depth market investigation last fall and provided Hales with some key insights.

“More than branding, our recipes and ingredient listings fit well into the category we want to be in, which is high-end pet food,” Hales said.

The company also fit into the pet food landscape as a medium-sized player and, the research team discovered, Mexico was the North American market that held the most promise thanks to free trade and tariffing regulations, and logistics.

Additionally, the research team determined the company’s target market to be Generation X and Millennial pet owners rather than brand-loyal Baby Boomers. They could be reached via a multi-faceted marketing campaign that included an online and e-commerce presence.

“Some of the things that came out in their research, we weren’t aware of or had an inkling of,” Hales said. “It was better to have it from a secondary or third source saying whether we were barking up the wrong tree.”

Now as Hales awaits the finishing touches on Niagara Pet Food Nutrition’s production facility, he and the company’s owners are setting their sights on Mexico.

“The college did a fantastic job,” he said. “They offered everything they said they would do. They exceeded everything. They worked within the timeline they gave us, and they gave the ownership group a lot to look at and digest.

“It’s been well-received by ownership and there’s a lot that will benefit us at Niagara Pet Nutrition and the region’s economy when we get up and running.”

Visit the Business & Commercialization Solutions website to learn more about the capabilities offered by the team or discover how initial feasibility research is helpful prior to engaging with Research & Innovation for applied research projects.

NOW HIRING: Business Research Assistant position with our Research & Innovation team

Business Research Assistant

The Business Research Assistant will work on several applied research projects assisting small and medium sized businesses to solve real-world problems relating to marketing and promotions. The successful candidate will work individually and as part of a team to complete project deliverables. Some projects include, but are not limited to: promotions planning, market research, competitive analysis, and integrated marketing communications.

Click HERE to see the full Business Research Assistant job posting. To apply, please email your class schedule, cover letter and resume to [email protected] and reference posting ‘BC-22-01’ in the subject line.

The deadline to apply is Friday, February 4, 2022 at 12pm. 

We thank all applicants; however, only those qualifying for an interview will be contacted.

Sales & marketing rep credits time at R&I

Kate Jonker graduated in April 2021 from Niagara College’s Business – Sales & Marketing program. She was a research assistant with Research & Innovation’s Business & Commercialization Solutions team from October 2020 to April 2021. Kate is employed with Martek Supply Corp. in Burlington as a sales and marketing representative. 

Tell us about where you work:

Martek Supply Corp. in Burlington is southern Ontario’s premier wholesaler for landscape products and construction materials. We provide customer service and expert knowledge to landscape contractors, general contractors and landscape suppliers. Some of our products that we sell include landscape lighting, audio, artificial turf, geosynthetics, landscape fabrics, drainage supplies, aluminum edging, site servicing supplies, pond supplies and surface drainage solutions.

Describe your role and what you like about it:

My job as sales and marketing representative is quite broad, and I’m involved in a number of different aspects of the company. Martek is a small business, so my role varies from inside and outside sales work, which includes answering the phone, working with contractors to find the right products for their projects, quoting, emailing, performing business development activities, coordinating deliveries, meeting with contractors and visiting project sites.

I also look after the marketing responsibilities, which includes managing social media efforts, promoting business events, coordinating website development and creating marketing materials like brochures and product catalogs, etc. 

I love my job because I appreciate the fast-paced work environment and the variety of work tasks that come with it. I’m constantly switching gears from marketing to sales and everything in between. For example, with a recent sales job, I had a customer that I brought in from a cold call and I worked with them on a project that required looking at the job drawings, quoting the correct product, and coordinating the ordering of the special product and delivery. A recent marketing project involves designing and updating our 2022 product guide that we’ll give out to customers at the next Landscape Ontario show that takes place every year in January. 

How has your experience with Research & Innovation helped prepare you for your current role?

R&I was a fundamental step in gaining real work experience that today assists me greatly in my job roles. Without that experience in market research and social media strategies I have my doubts I would work where I do today. Working at R&I allowed me to stay up-to-date with the most recent trends, social media strategies, marketing strategies and apply it all to help other businesses succeed in their industry. Today, I get to do all this in the landscape industry and help my company gain larger market shares, grow our social media platforms, perform product research and ultimately grow sales. 

A memorable applied research project during your time at R&I?

I was involved in many projects at Research & Innovation, and every project gave me more knowledge and expertise about the different topics I worked on. The most memorable project was working with Tatiana from Heartsease Nutrition. I was the research lead on this project, advising and guiding Tatiana when it came to target markets, competitive analysis, effective product shipping, social media platforms and sales strategies.

What led you to Niagara College in the first place?

I went to Niagara College because it was the only college that had a program focused on Sales & Marketing that was close to home. I was also the recipient of the Open House scholarship!

Most memorable experience at NC?

Because of the pandemic, my time at NC got cut short and I was only on campus for my first year of college. That first year was the most influential of my two years because I got to meet new classmates who became my friends, physically work on group projects, compete in marketing events and enjoy normal college life.

The most memorable experience was probably when my group and I pitched our Dragon’s Den new product (Pharma Drug Vending Machines). We spent long hours coming up with a product to pitch to the panel and we ended up doing very well in class.

I also really enjoyed hitting the gym and spending time at the Armoury with my college friends during that first year. 

“Working at R&I allowed me to stay up-to-date with the most recent trends, social media strategies, marketing strategies and apply it all to help other businesses succeed in their industry.… without that experience in market research I have my doubts I would work where I do today.”

Is there a particular mentor who influenced you?

Paula Reile was not only my project manager at R&I but also my mentor who helped me establish myself in my personal and professional development. In our weekly one-on-one meetings, she would provide helpful direction on projects but also listen and give guidance on an academic level. Paula was willing to listen to my concerns about finding a future career in a pandemic and help guide me in my job search. I have Paula to thank for a wonderful R&I experience; she truly did influence me in finding a career path that I love.

What advice would you impart to current research students or future alumni?

The best advice I can offer to any research student is to never be afraid to ask questions and bounce your thoughts off other research assistants or your project manager. Your best work can come from collaboration with others if you take the time to listen to other opinions. Meet with other teammates, ask questions, have brainstorm sessions and you will succeed in your projects.

After being in the workforce, what have you learned?

I think I have learned how important it is to build relationships with customers and coworkers. It is essential in sales to provide top-notch customer service and create trust with your customers/clients.

Proudest achievement since graduating?

Obtaining employment in an industry that I have a strong passion for and developing my knowledge in the workplace using the transferable skills I learned at R&I.

What are you passionate about at the moment?

I’m passionate about selling landscape products and providing the best possible customer service I can. I’m also passionate about my family life and boyfriend of three years, Joel.

Interests outside of work?

When I’m not busy at work, I enjoy sports, cooking and long walks. I play in soccer, baseball and volleyball leagues and I love watching the Maple Leafs hockey team. I am a big foodie and enjoy making recipes from scratch and sharing them with my family.

If you could have a billboard message seen by many, what would it say?

Always do your best 110% of the time.

I-Comm student helps businesses thrive

Despite being a second-year business student, Mackenzie Haines credits his co-op with the Business & Commercialization Solutions (BCS) team for identifying the field in which he now sees himself working: helping businesses thrive.

“I feel like this position has really helped me to develop my professional skillset and develop a clearer vision of my career long term,” says Haines, a student in NC’s Honours Bachelor of Business Administration – International Commerce and Global Development program.

Alongside assisting small- and medium-sized businesses (SMEs), he points to one of the most interesting parts of his job as a research assistant with BCS: The uniqueness of each research project in which he’s involved. Every day and every project is different.

“I have worked on projects that cover the food industry, wine and spirits, horticulture products and the event and planning industry.”

In his role on the BCS team, Haines works on applied research projects to solve real-world problems relating to operations management, sales and marketing for SMEs. Projects include market research, competitive analysis, target market identification and marketing plans.

One of his favourite research projects was for an industry partner in the wine and spirits industry. He had the responsibility of carrying out the project entirely on his own.

“It was great being able to do such a comprehensive project myself because I had a chance to work on skills I learned during my in-class program.”

“I got experience doing an environmental scan of the industry, an analysis of potential competitors, a target market analysis, and I also looked at the packaging and promotional trends for the company,” explains Haines. “It was great being able to do such a comprehensive project myself because I had a chance to work on skills I learned during my in-class program.”

He and his business research team are currently working on a project for a partner in the event industry. A facility is looking to potentially update their business processes. “We are looking into new ways for this business to generate income and ways they can improve their current processes.”

Like many students during this past year, Haines has had to get used to the reduced presence on campus due to the pandemic. Besides interacting with other students, he misses the beauty of the grounds at the Daniel J. Patterson campus in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

His deep appreciation for the great outdoors fueled his first foray into college life when he enrolled in NC’s Horticulture Technician program – graduating in 2017.

While studying, Haines was hired as a research assistant with R&I’s Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre (AETIC) for a co-op placement. He was involved in an applied research project that saw NC build a sustainable vegetable garden for a restaurant at the nearby White Oaks Resort.

Haines and another co-op student designed the garden and placed soil and mulch in separate plots. “We grew a variety of vegetables and ornamental flowers, including okra, tomatoes, nasturtium, kale, borage and strawberries,” Haines recalls. “That was a really interesting project!”

After graduating, Haines worked in landscaping for a few years. During one off-season, he was working in retail, where he met a co-worker who was enrolled in the Business – International Commerce program at NC.

“When I decided I wanted to go back to school, it was because I wanted to expand my career options; I was tired of how seasonal landscape work was, and I was enjoying my retail job, so I considered business as an option.”

Haines lives with his girlfriend and their dog and cat in Hamilton. While he’s still passionate about plants and growing his own food, he has also been perfecting his cooking skills throughout the pandemic.

“I have started trying to get better and challenge myself to learn new and different recipes,” he adds. “My current favourite is Italian food, and I have been practising making fresh pasta recently.”

The two also make time to enjoy the outdoors to either hike or camp.

“Pivotal” research for new market

Bill MacDonald, coordinator and professor of NC’s Commercial Cannabis Production (CCP) program, and Greg Marsh, president at Northern Hemp Specialists, inside the CannaBunker at the Daniel J. Patterson campus in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

Agricultural company Northern Hemp Specialists Ltd. works with clients on finding organic solutions for growth and pathogen resistance for all plants, trees, ornamental flowers and even vineyards. More recently, they’ve found a customer base from medical and recreational cannabis growers, a sector that requires chemical and solvent-free organic soil products.

Today, the Toronto-based company is intent on revolutionizing the horticultural and agricultural industries with its latest technology. Named Mor-ganics, Northern Hemp Specialists describes the living soil products as “100 percent organic and which significantly boosts plant yields and eliminates pathogens,” says Greg Marsh, Northern Hemp Specialists president.

And while Northern Hemp Specialists is successfully selling Mor-ganics in Canada, they have their sights set on the growing United States market and beyond. First, they needed a thorough understanding of various growing markets and looked to the Business & Commercialization Solutions (BCS) team at Research & Innovation for in-depth market research.

“We needed to assess the risk of doing business in the United States and beyond, and to determine the viability of distributing our Mor-ganics in the U.S., by doing a detailed market analysis of the organic soil supplement industry for all types of agriculture,” explains Marsh.

He points out that because his Mor-ganics brand is unique to the agricultural and horticultural industries, a marketing plan was “pivotal” to help prepare for the next goals and strategies for a U.S. or international product launch.

The BCS team completed extensive research, first tackling a competitive analysis to understand how the company’s product would adapt to the competitive landscape. They also assessed risk factors, geographic trends, and completed a targeted market analysis after an environmental scan.

“The energy and positive attitude from the research team to leave no resource unexamined to get us the answers for this marketing study were superb,” Marsh notes. “They became a welcome part of our corporate team.”

“We needed to assess the risk of doing business in the United States and beyond, and to determine the viability of distributing our Mor-ganics in the U.S. by doing a detailed market analysis of the organic soil supplement industry for all types of agriculture.”
~ Greg Marsh, president, Northern Hemp Specialists

The BCS team created a distribution strategy to assist Northern Hemp Specialists with breaking into new markets while overcoming challenges and barriers that represent a business threat. The company was provided with resources to make ideal connections with partners that could be beneficial for sharing infrastructure, labour and expertise.

“The research made us critically aware of the various levels we can access within the market with both wholesale and retail offerings,” says Marsh, adding that the team also highlighted potential regulatory issues.

Marsh says Northern Hemp Specialists will now incorporate the valuable marketing research data into their business plan and prepare for their international launch in 2022.

This project received support through the Niagara College-led Greenhouse Technology Network (GTN), as funded by the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario (FedDev Ontario).

Visit the Business & Commercialization Solutions website to learn more about the capabilities offered by the team or discover how initial feasibility research is helpful prior to engaging with Research & Innovation for applied research projects.

How to commercialize a pizza sauce

Entrepreneur Ryan Nava purchased Welland’s Tailgates Bar and Grill in the fall of 2019. It soon became a popular spot for sports, live entertainment and pizza and wings.

Of course Nava couldn’t have known that in a matter of months, the world would be gripped by a health crisis and pandemic lock-downs in the food service industry.

“It was devastating! I had bills to pay; my house was on the line. I didn’t know what to do,” he recalls. 

While the community rallied behind Tailgates when they started a take-out service, Nava still needed something more to keep his business afloat. His idea: commercialize a grocery line, starting with his restaurant’s famous pizza sauce.

Tailgates has used Aldo’s Pizza Pie Sauce after Nava partnered with his friend, the creator of the sauce recipe. Nava agreed to purchase the supplies and use his food-safe kitchen to jar the sauce. 

“Everyone loves this sauce,” enthuses Nava, who also started selling pizza-making take-home kits, complete with dough, sauce, cheese and pepperoni.

While his idea made sense, Nava required a thorough understanding of what it takes to commercialize and enter the grocery market. He looked to the Business & Commercialization Solutions (BCS) team at Research & Innovation for professional expertise navigating these unknown waters.

The business research team conducted a high-level market scan, investigating the sauces industry in Canada, its growth, trends and if any gaps exist in the marketplace. Researchers also analyzed the purchasing behaviour of the target market for the pizza sauce.

Nava also received packaging trends within identified markets and potential distribution strategies, with a list of possible distributors. 

“The team did price matching with other sauces on the market, and it showed that we are very competitive,” explains Nava. 

“It definitely shows that a lot of time and effort went into gathering and compiling the information for this report…it’s been a great experience.”
~ Ryan Nava, owner, Tailgates Bar and Grill

Looking at the capabilities of Tailgates Bar and Grill, the team compiled a comprehensive final report to help successfully guide the company through the commercialization process. The report covers all stages necessary, including large-scale manufacturing and distribution. 

“It definitely shows that a lot of time and effort went into gathering and compiling the information for this report…it’s been a great experience,” Nava says, adding that he likely would not have found the time on his own to do such extensive research.

 “A lot of other small businesses would want this type of research but never have the time. Yet it’s important to find out who their competitors are or if their pricing strategy is right, or if they could promote themselves better.”

Eager to learn and navigate the regulatory process of food production prior to proceeding to a co-packer, Nava says he’s looking forward to an upcoming project with the experts at the Canadian Food & Wine Institute (CFWI) Innovation Centre.

The market research project received funding through the RBC Future Launch Program – a $500-million Canadian initiative aimed at helping young people access meaningful employment through practical work experience, skills development, networking and access to mental well-being supports and services. 

Visit the Business & Commercialization Solutions website to learn more about the capabilities offered by the team or discover how initial feasibility research is helpful prior to engaging with Research & Innovation for applied research projects.