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the challenge contest

Ian Hill is president of Dilts Piston Hydraulics Inc. in St. Catharines, Ont.Glenn Lowson/The Globe and Mail

People often envision lobsters and red houses when they think of Nova Scotia. Rebecca Taylor, president of Pearl & Daisy Natural Soap Co. Inc. in Londonderry, N.S., wanted to add handmade soaps to the list of things associated with her home province, so she created a line of products inspired by the forests, mountains and seashores of the East Coast.

When she found out recently that her company was among 10 regional winners in the Small Business Challenge Contest sponsored by The Globe and Mail and Telus Corp., Ms. Taylor felt she had just been given a big push toward her goal.

"It gives me a great sense of regional pride, a sense of excitement, because what we are building in this company is something that represents our region," says Ms. Taylor, whose five-year-old firm sells made-in-Nova-Scotia soaps through more than 170 retailers across Canada and the United States.

It's also an impressive accomplishment. The Challenge contest, now in its fourth year, received more than 1,000 entries from across the country in 2014. Four semi-finalists were selected from this large pool of contenders, and one company – Vancouver Island Salt Co. – took the top spot to win a grand prize of $100,000.

"There were so many great entries to choose from," says Suzanne Trusdale, a Challenge judge who leads the small business solutions sales channel at Telus. "There's amazing innovation happening among small business in Canada, a lot of great stories from entrepreneurs who are really passionate about their businesses."

This year for the first time, the Challenge is also giving regional recognition to 10 businesses from the country's Atlantic, North, West and Central regions. Each regional winner receives a prize of three business devices.

"I'm excited about the phones because I have an old smartphone that doesn't give me the capability to do all the things I want to do on social media," says Ms. Taylor, whose company recently won an innovation award for a natural insect repellent that it developed and is now commercializing.

In addition to representing different parts of Canada, the regional winners cover a vast spectrum of businesses that ranges from a sled-dog ranch and coffee roaster to plastics fabrication and loudspeaker manufacturing.

Ian Hill, president of Dilts Piston Hydraulics Inc. in St. Catharines, Ont., says he threw his hat into the Challenge ring with hopes of winning money to fund a technology upgrade that will merge Dilts's back-end office system with software used by a hose and fitting supply store he recently acquired.

"With the new company's software, you can run a [request for quotation], put in a work order and invoice in two minutes – it's amazing," says Mr. Hill, whose company produces winches used in ships that ply the Great Lakes Waterway. "The Dilts software package, on the other hand, leaves a lot to be desired in quoting and work orders but it's the best I've seen post-invoicing."

While Dilts missed out on the grand prize, Mr. Hill says entering the Challenge contest provided a valuable exercise in defining what his business really needs. "It made me write down our concerns," he says. "It brought to light the deficiencies and what we need to do to address them."

For Denise Gagné, senior managing editor at Themes & Variations, based in Red Deer, Alta., being chosen as a Challenge regional winner confirms that her idea to deliver her company's products online is a good one.

Themes & Variations publishes curriculum material for teaching elementary music classes in Canada, for kids in kindergarten to Grade 6. With the current delivery model, schools order CDs of the songs they want to teach from the company's website. Ms. Gagné's plan is to allow teachers to download the songs and other teaching material right from her site.

"Teachers and children will be able to interact with the material once it's online," says Ms. Gagné, whose long-term vision is to make music lessons accessible to all young children in the country. "And we know that anything that is more interactive and visual will have more appeal to children."

Web delivery of its products will also make it easier for Themes & Variations to sell to markets abroad, says Ms. Gagné. Even without the $100,000 she had hoped to win from the contest, she is forging ahead with her plan. Themes & Variations recently received a grant from National Research Council Canada. Not enough to cover the entire cost of building a new website, says Ms. Gagné, but enough to get started.

"We're self-funding the project, which I think is a necessity for us to remain competitive," she says. "And next year we might enter the Challenge again and win the grand prize."

And the Challenge contest regional winners are:

  • Muktuk Adventures Ltd., Whitehorse, Y.T.: This sled-dog ranch and bed and breakfast offers sledding expeditions and tours that explore Canada’s North.
  • Peregrine Plastics Ltd., Vancouver: Serving clients such as Lululemon and Aritzia, Peregrine is a plastics fabricating business that makes custom displays and merchandising fixtures.
  • Dog Quality Enterprises, Canim Lake, B.C.: Helps improve the quality of life for older dogs with products such as dog diapers, traction socks and strollers.
  • PK Sound, Calgary: Makes high-performance loudspeakers and provides services such as sound engineering, equipment installation and rentals.
  • Themes & Variations, Red Deer, Alta.: It’s one of Canada’s largest publishers of curriculum material for teaching music to kids from kindergarten to Grade 6.
  • Dilts Piston Hydraulics Inc., St. Catharines, Ont.: Focusing on the Chinese shipbuilding market, Dilts manufactures winches used in ships that travel the Great Lakes Waterway.
  • Crate Designs Ltd., Chesley, Ont.: Family-owned business makes high quality, sturdy wood furniture using only sustainably harvested wood and natural finishes.
  • Las Chicas del Cafe, London, Ont.: Wholesale specialty roaster of Nicaraguan coffee was founded by two women who come from four generations of coffee growers.
  • Pearl & Daisy Natural Soap Co. Inc., Londonderry, N.S.: Its handmade natural artisan soap and personal care products are inspired by the East Coast.
  • Advolve Media Inc., Winnipeg: Advertising firm develops promotions using interactive mirror technology backed by software that quantifies ad results.

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