How two TD Ready Challenge grant recipients adapted during COVID-19

Like so many Canadian organizations, COVID-19 forced Seneca College's HELIX startup incubator to make big changes and do so quickly.

Seneca HELIX received a $1-million grant from TD as part of the 2018 TD Ready Challenge, and at the time the organization's plan was to develop Career Recharge, a new stream of programing to help individuals prepare for their future — whether that be re-entering the workforce, advancing in their existing field, changing careers, starting a venture or understanding the impact of technological change on the world of work.

But when the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, the Seneca HELIX team decided to apply the same entrepreneurial thinking they had been teaching their participants to quickly changing their workshop offerings.

"We had completed 80 per cent of our Career Recharge workshops and then COVID hit," said Chris Dudley, Director of Entrepreneurship at Seneca in Toronto. "We had to become ultra-agile for our participants as preparing to change careers can be challenging, even at the best of times."

Helping emerging entrepreneurs transition to new careers online

Seneca HELIX was granted the funding in 2018 through the TD Ready Challenge, an annual North American TD initiative providing financial grants to organizations that are focused on developing innovative solutions for the benefit of society.

At the HELIX incubator, before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dudley and his team would hold their Career Recharge workshops – which focused on topics such as how to build effective business relationships, to leveraging the power of AI to improve the effectiveness of business strategies – split between in-person and virtual sessions.

But after COVID-19 upended life across North America, Dudley's team shifted everything into the digital realm and created two new online initiatives to ensure the program's continued operation, and to cover topics that would help entrepreneurs keep their businesses running during the pandemic.

The first livestream workshop focused on teaching entrepreneurs how to set up a remote workplace at home, while ensuring mental and physical health remained a priority (all while potentially caring for young children). The workshop and a list of resources was saved online so that participants could experience the workshop on their own time.

The second initiative consisted of a series of 10 workshops that were created to help individuals develop new business ventures during COVID-19. These began by helping the entrepreneurs to identify areas of need in the marketplace, developing customer personas that linked to their potential audience, and brainstorming solutions for those customers.

Participants then created a prototype, a business model and learned to pitch their business idea to investors.  

More than 1,200 people registered for the two initiatives and received coaching and mentorship. This complete shift from on-campus learning to new online offerings, including the development of the new programs, was accomplished in the span of only seven weeks.

Entrepreneurial thinking for unprecedented times  

"All entrepreneurs are, at heart, problem solvers," Dudley said. "They bring a product or service to the market to help meet a need or a gap. We're proud to have been able to adapt so quickly so that we didn't stifle innovation, but rather catalyzed it to help encourage solutions to socioeconomic problems at large. Especially now during the pandemic." 

For another TD Ready Challenge grant recipient, however, the pandemic has meant taking a different course of action to find ways to continue helping create a positive community impact.

READ MORE: The 2019 TD Ready Challenge: Reshaping the future of healthcare

"We had to reevaluate our whole approach to point-of-care testing, which requires elective in-person visits with our care team," said Dr. Paul Komenda, Research Director for the Kidney Check program at the University of Manitoba, which was a 2019 TD Ready Challenge grant recipient.

"Our program is designed to screen, triage, and treat people living in rural and remote communities for chronic kidney disease, diabetes and high blood pressure, but COVID-19 prevented us from even entering these communities."

Prior to COVID-19, Komenda and his team had screening dates booked in the first community that would be a part of the University of Manitoba's program (on the lands of the Kinonjeoshtegon First Nation).

The team was days away from its first visit when the pandemic locked down the community as members of the northern Manitoba First Nation were worried about the spread of COVID-19. The community is remote, and for any families living in overcrowded homes in the area, contracting the virus could have devastating effects.

While the project was on hold, it was an opportunity for Komenda and his team to refine their program even further by becoming more knowledgeable on how to best engage patients in First Nation communities.

The 2020 TD Ready Challenge

The 2020 TD Ready Challenge is now open and accepting applications until August 13th with a total of $10 million (CAD) in grants available to charitable organizations and non-profits which are focused on this year's Challenge goal of helping to develop innovative solutions to help combat the effects of COVID-19 in Canada and in the United States. For complete details about this year’s Challenge, please visit td.com/readychallenge