In­no­va­tion: Con­nect­ing the Dots

Policy - - In This Issue - Au­dra Renyi

In May, 2017, Au­dra Renyi was awarded one of six Gov­er­nor Gen­eral’s In­no­va­tion Awards, a prize that rec­og­nizes and cel­e­brates “out­stand­ing Cana­dian in­di­vid­u­als, teams and or­ga­ni­za­tions whose ex­cep­tional and trans­for­ma­tive work help shape our fu­ture and pos­i­tively im­pact our qual­ity of life.” Renyi has worked in in­vest­ment bank­ing on Wall Street and vol­un­teered in Chad, Rwanda and Kenya. That range of ex­pe­ri­ence has in­formed her ap­proach to in­no­va­tion.

When I heard that the Gov­er­nor Gen­eral would be grant­ing me an in­no­va­tion award, it made me think, “What makes a prize-win­ning in­no­va­tor?” I cer­tainly never thought of my­self as one. And yet, I won the 2017 Gov­er­nor Gen­eral’s In­no­va­tion Award.

In­no­va­tion is not nec­es­sar­ily a patented en­gi­neer­ing so­lu­tion—a chose ponctuelle in French—but a po­ten­tially end­less se­quence of small steps, each solv­ing a small prob­lem on the way

to chang­ing the way big things are done. Each step al­lows you to by­pass a wall you have run into, forc­ing you to zig or zag as needed, but al­ways in the gen­eral di­rec­tion of your ul­ti­mate quest for the big change.

In­no­va­tion is not just game-chang­ing tech­nol­ogy or ma­jor sci­en­tific in­ven­tion. In my per­sonal jour­ney, in­no­va­tion has mostly been about con­nect­ing the dots. That is, tak­ing what seem to be dis­parate things or ex­pe­ri­ences and put­ting them to­gether, re-or­ga­niz­ing them to cre­ate a so­lu­tion that is ex­po­nen­tially bet­ter than the sta­tus quo. Con­nect­ing the dots might sim­ply mean link­ing de­mand with sup­ply. In our case, it was re­al­is­ing that there was a huge un­met need for hear­ing aids in de­vel­op­ing coun­tries; my goal was to find a way to sup­ply those coun­tries with the hear­ing aids they needed: qual­ity prod­uct at an af­ford­able price. That’s why I helped launch and grow World Wide Hear­ing, a non-profit fo­cused on pro­vid­ing hear­ing aids to chil­dren from the poor­est ar­eas in the world; and why I founded earAc­cess, a for-profit so­cial en­ter­prise that sells a Cana­dian brand of hear­ing aids called AC­CESS to lower-middle in­come pop­u­la­tions around the world.

The me­dia rarely speak of busi­ness­model in­no­va­tion. In my case, if the poor were to have hear­ing aids, a new busi­ness model was needed since all the old ones were fail­ing at this task. My in­no­va­tion process started with a big, global prob­lem: more than 466 mil­lion peo­ple suf­fer from dis­abling hear­ing loss; 80 per cent of these peo­ple live in lower- or middle-in­come coun­tries, and fewer than 1 per cent cur­rently have ac­cess to hear­ing aids. At an av­er­age price of $2,500, hear­ing aids re­main un­af­ford­able for most peo­ple, yet they cost as lit­tle as $50 to man­u­fac­ture. On the long road to con­sumers, hear­ing aids in­cur reg­u­la­tory and le­gal costs, ser­vice charges, war­ranty costs, distri­bu­tion fees and high profit mar­gins. Our in­no­va­tion lies in cre­at­ing al­ter­na­tive distri­bu­tion paths free of these costs and ob­sta­cles, and in pass­ing on the sav­ings to the end user.

To re­ally in­no­vate and make a dif­fer­ence, you have to be deeply aligned with your mis­sion and your pas­sion. In­no­va­tion ac­tu­ally trans­lates into a lot of hard work, so if you are go­ing to work hard, you might as well be work­ing on some­thing you re­ally care about. My best ideas did not hap­pen while I was med­i­tat­ing on a moun­tain. They came in mo­ments of in­tense pres­sure when we had to solve an ur­gent prob­lem and we needed a good so­lu­tion, fast. Nor can I claim that the best ideas came only from me: it was of­ten a team ef­fort of bounc­ing ideas off each other un­til we ar­rived at a vi­able so­lu­tion. Per­sonal men­tors, like the vi­sion­ary founder of the World Wide Hear­ing Foun­da­tions, Clau­dio Bus­san­dri, and my fa­ther, Pierre Renyi, were in­stru­men­tal in the co-cre­ation process and have pro­vided a sound­ing board for my ideas (not in­ci­den­tally, both have had to wear hear­ing aids since child­hood). Find­ing men­tors is key to help­ing you through what is of­ten a lonely jour­ney as an in­no­va­toren­trepreneur. Con­nect­ing with other en­trepreneurs and ex­chang­ing ad­vice and war sto­ries is help­ful in re­mind­ing your­self that you are not alone in your fight to make the world a bet­ter place. And, en­trepreneurs don’t ex­ist with­out fi­nanc­ing and I am ex­tremely grate­ful to Grand Chal­lenges Canada for their early and on­go­ing sup­port. They were cru­cial in al­low­ing us to make things hap­pen.

In­no­va­tion is also about fail­ing, a lot. And then fail­ing again. There were times when I be­came dis­cour­aged after re­peated fail­ures—at earAc­cess we strug­gled to find a path to mar­ket—but then I pulled my­self up each time and ploughed on, and even­tu­ally found a so­lu­tion. In­no­va­tion is 10 per cent cre­ative ideas and 90 per cent hard work, ex­e­cu­tion and per­se­ver­ance. I once heard a fe­male en­tre­pre­neur say that be­ing an in­no­va­tor is about “be­ing at peace with feel­ing con­stantly un­com­fort­able.” That is ex­actly how I feel ev­ery day: just when I think I have fig­ured it all out, some­thing else comes up, an un­ex­pected prob­lem need­ing a so­lu­tion. Once I ac­cepted the fact that that is the way most en­trepreneurs feel, I felt lib­er­ated.

In 2012, I was kid­napped in Ar­gentina—this was the pe­riod of the country’s eco­nomic cri­sis. It was what they called an “ex­press kid­nap­ping”—we were driven around Buenos Aires and then aban­doned in a slum at 4am in the morn­ing. I had only just ar­rived in Ar­gentina for a 6-month stu­dent exchange pro­gram. After that trau­ma­tiz­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, the ob­vi­ous choice was to go home and for­get all about Ar­gentina. How­ever, I de­cided to stay on for a full year in the country. It turned out to be one of the best de­ci­sions I ever made. The re­sult of stay­ing on was that I felt more re­silient in the face of what­ever life threw at me. Re­siliency and the abil­ity to over­come ad­ver­sity are use­ful qual­i­ties in in­no­va­tors.

It is a widely-held be­lief that to start an in­no­va­tive busi­ness, you need a bril­liant, earth-shat­ter­ing idea. That is not the case—in fact, most en­trepreneurs start busi­nesses

In­no­va­tion is also about fail­ing, a lot. And then fail­ing again. There were times when I be­came dis­cour­aged after re­peated fail­ures—at earAc­cess we strug­gled to find a path to mar­ket—but then I pulled my­self up each time and ploughed on, and even­tu­ally found a so­lu­tion.

in ar­eas where they have sim­ply seen gaps in the mar­ket; they seek to fill those gaps with­out a very clear idea about ex­actly how they are go­ing to do that. I started a com­pany with a back of the en­ve­lope busi­ness plan that com­pletely changed in a mat­ter of months (even weeks) and we piv­oted many, many times.

Peo­ple have asked me over the years, “How do you find your pas­sion?” The only way to dis­cover your pas­sion is to ask your­self what re­ally drives you; if you are not sure, then try work­ing in an area or start a project that gets you ex­cited. It can be a small side project, but the most im­por­tant thing is to just get started and start “do­ing”. You will learn along the way what you en­joy—and don’t en­joy—and that ex­pe­ri­ence will guide you onto the path that is right for you. The en­emy of in­no­va­tion is in­ac­tion. Per­son­ally, I would rather be crit­i­cized for some­thing I did than for some­thing I failed to do. And, de­spite all the chal­lenges, noth­ing

It is a widely-held be­lief that to start an in­no­va­tive busi­ness, you need a bril­liant, earth­shat­ter­ing idea. That is not the case—in fact, most en­trepreneurs start busi­nesses in ar­eas where they have sim­ply seen gaps in the mar­ket; they seek to fill those gaps with­out a very clear idea about ex­actly how they are go­ing to do that.

is more re­ward­ing to me than know­ing I’ve cre­ated some­thing that has made the world a bet­ter place.

There is no ques­tion that the fu­ture of a middle power like Canada lies in in­no­va­tion. It might not be widely known but Cana­di­ans have been very in­no­va­tive for a long time. Former Gov­er­nor Gen­eral David John­ston’s book “In­ge­nious” lists a huge num­ber of Cana­dian in­no­va­tions. And the GG’s In­no­va­tion Award is now there to rec­og­nize in­no­va­tors and foster new growth. So, come join us in work­ing hard at mak­ing the world a bet­ter place.

World wide Hear­ing photo

World Wide Hear­ing Ex­ec­u­tive Di­rec­tor Au­dra Renyi con­ducts a hear­ing test on a lit­tle girl in Gu­atemala. WWH has screened more than 45,000 peo­ple and pro­vided over 3,000 hear­ing aids world­wide.

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