Ashley Walker: Helping Programs in North America, the Nordics, Asia, and the Middle East To Articulate Their Impact on the Clients They Serve

The Evidence Network Inc. has over a decade of experience helping programs in North America, the Nordics, Asia, and the Middle East to articulate their impact on the clients they serve. The company was started because there is a gap in the way venture support programs are evaluated – the programs are designed to help ventures increase their knowledge, skills, and network but they are evaluated based on the revenues and jobs that are (or are not) created by the ventures. So the founders of TEN created a standardized and rigorous evaluation methodology, which enables deeper insight than traditional evaluations and facilitates the benchmarking of programs across key performance indicators.

Tell us about yourself?

My name is Ashley Walker and I am the President & COO of The Evidence Network Inc. (TEN), a boutique consulting firm that focuses on evaluating the impact of venture support programs. I joined TEN in 2013 following the completion of my Master’s degree at the University of Ottawa. I was drawn to the work of TEN because I loved the idea of helping to improve the way ventures are supported in Canada and abroad.

If you could go back in time a year or two, what piece of advice would you give yourself?

Be brave and believe in your own expertise.

Like a lot of people, in the past I have suffered from imposter syndrome, which led me to doubt my expertise. But the reality is that where most people only have experience with one venture support program, either because they run it or have participated in it, I have had the privilege to work with over 100 venture support programs. This has provided me with valuable and unique insight into the elements of support that actually drive outcomes for participating ventures. Being brave enough to really own this expertise has led to some exciting new clients for TEN.

What problem does your business solve?

Governments around the world, and certainly in Canada, invest billions in venture support programs. These programs provide entrepreneurs and startups with access to networks, training, mentorship, and capital in an effort to help them develop and scale more efficiently than they otherwise would. Yet, for all of this investment, little effort is made to understand which venture support programs are truly performing well and which are not. As a result, highly impactful programs can go unfunded, while less impactful programs receive funding year after year.

To address this, we help venture support programs articulate their impacts to their funders and stakeholders and we help governments understand which of their funded programs are most effectively enabling the advancement of innovation and contributing to the economy.

What is the inspiration behind your business?

TEN was founded by a husband and wife team that saw a gap in the innovation landscape – no one was systematically evaluating venture support programs based on the impact that each program was having on participating firms. The conventional approach to evaluating the performance of venture support programs is to tally up the revenues and jobs created by the firms that emerge from the programs and use it as an indication of the program’s success – the greater the participant success the greater the success of the program.

There are 2 problems with this:
1) Ambitious entrepreneurs and startups will seek support from wherever they can and often wind up participating in more than one venture support program, making it extremely difficult to know how each program impacted the firm
2) Entrepreneurs and startups enter these programs with pre-existing knowledge, skills, networks, and a business concept, all of which contribute to the success of the firm and none of which are fairly reflected when programs are credited with the entirety of the firm’s success

In essence, the traditional approach avoids the question of ‘what role did the program play’ or, put another way, ‘what would have happened in the absence of the program?’ which is entirely unhelpful if you’re trying to figure out which programs are truly performing well in supporting firms and which are not. To address this issue, we differentiate between improvements to firm performance that are a consequence of support services and funding, and improvements to firm performance that would have occurred in the absence of the venture support program.

What is your magic sauce?

Understanding the innovation support process and incorporating it into our rigorous assessment methodology. We understand that venture support programs are limited in their scope of influence. They can offer support and facilitate connections but at the end of the day they have no direct influence over the revenues generated or employees hired by participating firms. We honour this in our assessments by capturing the direct impact of a given program on the knowledge, skills, and networks of participants, as well as their indirect impact on the performance of participants. We do this by surveying participants directly and relying on their ability to judge the impact of the program.

Our assessments give the venture support programs and their funders invaluable insight into how the support provided is being internalized and ultimately translated into market performance by the firms. As a result, the programs are able to identify opportunities for improvement and the funders are able to make more informed decisions about which programs to continue supporting and which are in need of a course correction.

What is the plan for the next 5 years? What do you want to achieve?

Expand our reach to include more global innovation ecosystems such as South Africa, Singapore, Israel, and Estonia. Our methodology is particularly useful for governments trying to assess the relative merits of programs operating in diverse socio-economic environments or serving vastly different populations (e.g., main street businesses versus hi-tech scale ups).

What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced so far?

Finding innovative, forward-thinking governments and venture support programs to embrace this approach to evaluation. The traditional approaches to evaluating venture support programs, though problematic, are deeply entrenched so it takes time for decision-makers to come around to a new way of thinking.

How do people get involved/buy into your vision?

We want to work with innovative governments seeking to evaluate the effectiveness of the venture support programs they fund, as well as thoughtful programs seeking to understand how the support they provide is translated into results for participants.

Brian Howard: Providing Restaurants, Breweries, Wineries, and Cafes With a Complete Restaurant Management System All in One Package

Danial Aslanimehr: Leading Marketplace in the Art World