Propel - The Idea Whose Time Has Come

August 23, 2021

“Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come.” - Victor Hugo.

This quote came up in a meeting (on zoom, of course!)  this week, and immediately it brought me back to January 2018 when I first joined Propel. We had no idea then that the vision we had for Propel would position us so strongly today amidst a global pandemic that is sending many companies spiraling as they attempt to determine new ways to work. 

Propel’s new CEO, Barry Bisson, had only been at the helm for a few months but he had spent countless hours traveling Atlantic Canada to speak with anyone in the ecosystem who would meet with him about Propel.  From our first meeting together in 2018, Barry saw an opportunity to improve and update Propel’s delivery model and product offering to better reflect the needs of the ecosystem.  We spoke with our board who were fully supportive and we proceeded to put together a proposal outlining our plans for our funding partners.  We needed to get their support of our plans to refresh our programming and delay our upcoming spring cohort to allow us the time and energy to focus on the journey we were about to embark on.  Thankfully our funders were supportive of the idea and allowed us the flexibility we needed to begin working on the new model. 

We spent many days and hours discussing how and what we should change in an effort to be relevant in the market and provide value to both founders and funders, which is no small feat.   Propel’s previous model involved admitting a group of founders (also known as a cohort) in central regions in each province and traveling the Entrepreneurs in Residence (EIR’s) and speakers around to each cohort location to provide programming. This model was both costly and inefficient from a resource perspective, not to mention extremely challenging in the winter months when mother nature would intervene and programming plans would get wiped out.  As luck would have it our Demo Day that year, designed to wrap up the current cohort before we took a break to re-imagine the programming, was stormed out not once but 2 times! Looking back, perhaps that was a sign of support for our crazy idea!    

We casually tossed around the idea of doing some programming online to reduce the burden on our speakers and EIR’s. It started out with us thinking we could record our speakers and give the founders access to the videos.  It seemed simple enough and would help us substantially reduce travel time and costs.  We would still do some things with our EIR’s in a cohort fashion but the main speakers would be done virtually. One of our board members who had experience in developing courses offered to connect us with one of his Instructional designers to help guide us in the creation of our new programming.  Soon we were immersed in learning objectives, learning outcomes and learning paths - all things that had never been part of Propel programming in the past.  We worked hard preparing the new programming when one day one of the EIR’s said what if we did the entire thing virtually????

A virtual (online) accelerator was a new idea and definitely not something that had been done in Atlantic Canada before.  It was bold and would require intense work to take a program that was normally delivered face to face entirely online. We would need meeting software, a learning management system, a revision of the content …the list was long. 

We started to think about the benefits an online accelerator would have in the region. Founders would no longer be required to travel to central regions for programming, we could attract the highest caliber speakers from around the world to speak virtually to our founders and founders could access the content on their schedule versus making them adhere to ours.  The more we talked about it the more we felt this was not only a good idea but necessary to serve the Atlantic Canada Startup Ecosystem as a whole.  The bigger question was were we up to the challenge?   

We worked with our instructional designer, Esther Duncan (, to revamp our refresh to move things entirely online and we doubled down on our efforts to meet our target date with a new online programming offering.  In September 2018, we welcomed our first virtual cohort.  Since that time we have followed the principles of Build. Measure. Learn and have continued to expand and improve on our online accelerator programming.  

In the fall of 2019 during one of our program evaluation meetings, we began to discuss the idea of transition from a cohort-based online model to a continuous intake model.  We knew that by virtue of our online accelerator we were reaching and helping founders from all geographic regions of Atlantic Canada but with our cohort-based model, they still had to adhere to our intake schedule.  Anyone who has ever been involved in a startup knows that ideas and business can occur at any time.  Once again we set out to update our programming to prepare for the ability to offer continuous intake as an option to founders.  This would allow us to now help founders Anywhere. Anytime. We were just getting set to announce this new idea when COVID occurred.  

While most companies began dealing with the idea of having employees work from home virtually, we were already there. All of the Propel staff have worked virtually using a variety of software tools since January 2018, so we were able to continue in a manner we were all accustomed to.  When many coworking spaces and accelerators had to shut their doors as a result of the pandemic, Propel was able to continue to support our founders and their programming in the same virtual way they had become used to through their work with us.  

As the world continued to come to grips with the pandemic, and our partners in the ecosystem were forced to temporarily shut down and close their doors, our CEO, Barry Bisson, suggested that perhaps there was a way that Propel, a leader in the online accelerator programming space, could provide assistance to other BAI’s in the region.  Barry reached out to all of the BAI’s in the region with an offer to help by allowing their clients to have access to our online programming while their facilities were closed.  As a result, we created branded programming for a number of BAI’s around Atlantic Canada allowing them to continue to support their founders in an online manner during these unprecedented times.  

Today, as we continue to admit new founders each month to our online accelerator, the quote from Victor Hugo “Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come” proves that sometimes it’s best to rise to the challenge and follow that crazy bold idea!