STELLARTON: A contest for aspiring business leaders has expanded across the province and is now open to contestants in such areas as Guysborough and Antigonish counties for the first time.

The Spark Innovation Challenge, which originated in Cape Breton in 2014 before reaching western Nova Scotia two years later, is now open in four different regions across the province, thanks to an investment of $400,000 from the federal government through the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA), in addition to an equal amount from each of the provincial government and the venture capital organization Innovacorp.

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As a result of this funding announcement, confirmed last week at the Nova Scotia Museum of Industry in Stellarton, a maximum of $200,000 worth of awards will be made available to winners in each of the four Spark regions: Spark Cape Breton, comprising the entirety of the island; Spark North, taking in Guysborough, Antigonish, Pictou, Colchester and Cumberland counties; Spark West, including the Annapolis Valley and South Shore regions; and Spark Halifax, enveloping all of Halifax County.

According to an ACOA release, the deadline for this year’s Spark Innovation Challenge is 5 p.m. on Thursday, September 21. Competing companies must have a new knowledge-based product or service with zero sales revenue since inception, and the funds awarded to winners will be used to support the completion of prototypes or preparation for taking the product or service to market.

“In order to grow a strong and sustainable economy, we must focus on encouraging small and medium-sized businesses to innovate, pursue the commercialization of research and development, and generate value-added opportunities,” said Central Nova MP Sean Fraser at the Stellarton announcement.

The Spark competitions have attracted a collective 138 submissions over the past three years, with 131 of these coming from Cape Breton, resulting in a combined 27 island-based winners from 2014-16.

In an e-mail interview with The Reporter, Innovacorp CEO Stephen Duff said the competition’s funding partners wanted to expand the Spark challenge to the entire province “to encourage innovation and the creation of new start-ups in every corner of Nova Scotia” with a specific focus on uncovering talent in the province’s rural communities.

“There is optimism… that the competition will spur long-term business successes,” Duff suggested.

“Each region has $200,000 in funding to award to Spark winners, along with a two-week boot camp from seasoned business professionals, including accounting, business development and pitching support. This will help position entrepreneurs to successfully bring their product to market. It will also prepare the participants to seek further investment and financial support to grow their companies.”

Duff cited a past Spark Cape Breton winner, the Sydney-based Click2Order food delivery service that began its life as the PizzaGO digital app, as an example of the successful business development that can occur for contest entrants.

“It’s exciting to bring the opportunity to all areas of the province,” Duff declared. “We’re really looking forward to seeing the new ventures Spark uncovers.”

For more information, visit the Web link: www.innovacorp.ca/spark.