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Centre for Peace Advancement supports peace entrepreneurs

As printed in The Marketplace - November/December 2017Paul 2 with Grebel logo backgroundHeidebrecht is energized by mentoring young people who are committed to change.

Paul Heidebrecht is a different kind of business coach.

Heidebrecht is director of the Kindred Credit Union Centre for Peace Advancement, an inter-disciplinary organization that takes multi-sector approaches to the advancement of peace.

In a region that has many organizations working to encourage and support business start-ups in a variety of sectors, CPA is unique. It is currently the only university-based program in the world supporting peace-building related start-ups.

 A program of Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, ON, the centre’s space was made possible by a $1 million donation from Kindred (formerly Mennonite) Credit Union. The centre is a natural fit at Grebel, home to Canada’s oldest Peace and Conflict Studies program.

CPA is agnostic about the best way to make an impact. It might be starting an NGO, or creating a social enterprise, or even developing a project that is best placed and implemented by an existing organization, whether a business or a charity.

Heidebrecht’s goal is “elevating somebody’s efforts so they can make some sort of systemic impact,” he said. “It could be through a venture that’s created, it could be through a venture that has failed, but has kind of moved the needle on a public policy debate.”

Working with start-ups is an amazing, enriching experience for Heidebrecht. “To be a part of these journeys, even for a short while, and to be able to point people, help them realign” is a tremendous privilege, he said.

“People are ready to fail, they are ready to learn, to turn corners and make progress. It is just breathtaking.”

Every week he comes away from a meeting thinking that the world is an amazing place, “and I get to know these amazing people, even for a short while.”

CPA works at supporting three kinds of activities: The Epp Peace Incubator, the Grebel Gallery, and collaborative efforts around research, training and community engagement. Participants include research fellows and a number of organizations that lease adjacent space.

The Epp Peace Incubator is named in honor of the late Frank Epp, a former Grebel president, and his wife Helen.

Plans for the Peace Centre go back at least 15 years, said Grebel director of advancement Fred Martin, who served as start-up manager for the centre at its inception.

Many of the incubator participants are graduates of Grebel’s Peace and Conflict Studies program. CPA “celebrates the entrepreneurial spirit in a way that reflects our (peacemaking) values, meeting the needs of our society in ways that use the talents of our students,” Martin said.

Heidebrecht regularly connects with students beyond the incubator. He teaches a fourth-year Peace and Conflict Studies course on engineering and peace to University of Waterloo (UW) engineering students.

“For Mennonites, plowshares ultimately matter more than swords,” he wrote in an op-ed piece in the Waterloo Region Record newspaper, challenging Communitech, an area technology lobby, to get more involved in PeaceTech.

“The world view that drove the development of Silicon Valley couldn’t be more different. The opportunity and challenge for all of us in Waterloo Region is to embrace and enliven a commitment to collaboration and peace-building, and I think there are promising signs that we can do just that.”

Fifteen ventures have been part of the CPA incubator in its first years, including seven currently in the program. Those early efforts are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of potential, he says.

Heidebrecht started at CPA in 2014 after spending five years as Ottawa office director for Mennonite Central Committee Canada, where he led efforts to advocate for government policy change on behalf of program partners working at relief, development, and peacebuilding.

He also did seasonal stints for MCC in Nigeria and Bangladesh. His educational background includes a PhD in religious studies from Marquette University, in Milwaukee, Wis., a master’s degree in theological studies from Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Ind., and a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from UW. His work championing innovation brings him full circle to his student days in one respect. He worked for the Waterloo-based Canadian Industrial Innovation Centre in his first job after graduating.

CPA works with firms that have gone past phase one or the initial discovery phase, putting wheels to an idea that has been shown to have merit. Ventures that can say “it looks like it’s got legs, I’m ready to take it to the next level.”

The next level is sometimes handing off learnings to an established organization rather than continuing as a stand-alone entity. Food Not Waste, an early CPA participant, was designed to use food that would otherwise be wasted. Success for that venture came in the form of the Food Bank of Waterloo Region adopting the best practices used in the Food Not Waste pilot.

Three alumni of the Greenhouse residential incubator program at the nearby St. Paul’s College (see story, pg 16) have been part of CPA as well. “We see them as a crucial part of the pipeline, or the funnel of incubators.”

Demine Robotics (story pp. 13-14) is perhaps the most intriguing and significant CPA alumnus. The company, which uses mobile robots to excavate landmines without detonating them, took advantage of several local incubators: CPA, the Velocity Garage in downtown Kitchener, St. Paul’s Greenhouse and UW’s Sedra Student Design Centre, which consists of over 20,000 square feet of space dedicated to design teams and student prototype projects.

Demine Robotics is the first solid example Heidebrecht can point to of the centre playing a part in the rollout of “PeaceTech,” thinking about technological solutions to peacebuilding. Another initiative he puts in the PeaceTech category is current incubator participant World Vuze, an online discussion portal that connects classrooms in various countries.

Three firms Heidebrecht has coached — Demine Robotics, Marlena Books and EPOCH, a skills and services marketplace that connects refugees and community members through a mobile platform, have won $25,000 awards in the UW Velocity pitch competition. In total, firms that have gone through CPA have won about $300,000 in seed funding in a variety of competitions to date. In mid-September, EPOCH pitched at the United Nations with former US President Bill Clinton in the audience for the $1 million Hult Prize.

Finding long-term funding to add staffing support may be one of Heidebrecht’s larger challenges. CPA is the only university-based incubator program in Ontario that doesn’t receive any government funding. That leaves him working to run an incubator with much less staffing than other incubators.

CPA recently received a $100,000 memorial gift from the Bauman family to establish the Barry Bauman Mentorship fund, to develop mentoring relationships for incubator participants, and to provide small seed funding for incubator participants.

One area company has stepped up to sponsor a “hot desk” — a shared workspace that startups can make use of — at the incubator. Heidebrecht is in discussions with other companies about possible sponsorships. “I think we’re well-positioned in some respects. The social innovation programming has been under-resourced, compared to the tech side.” ◆