Innovation: Connecting the Dots


Audra Renyi

In May, 2017, Audra Renyi was awarded one of six Governor General’s Innovation Award, a prize that recognizes and celebrates “outstanding Canadian individuals, teams and organizations whose exceptional and transformative work help shape our future and positively impact our quality of life.” Renyi has worked in investment banking on Wall Street and volunteered in Chad, Rwanda and Kenya. That range of experience has informed her approach to innovation.

When I heard that the Governor General would be granting me an innovation award, it made me think, “What makes a prize-winning innovator?” I certainly never thought of myself as one. And yet, I won the 2017 Governor General’s Innovation Award.

Innovation is not necessarily a patented engineering solution—a chose ponctuelle in French—but a potentially endless sequence of small steps, each solving a small problem on the way to changing the way big things are done. Each step allows you to bypass a wall you have run into, forcing you to zig or zag as needed, but always in the general direction of your ultimate quest for the big change.

Innovation is not just game-changing technology or major scientific invention. In my personal journey, innovation has mostly been about connecting the dots. That is, taking what seem to be disparate things or experiences and putting them together, re-organizing them to create a solution that is exponentially better than the status quo. Connecting the dots might simply mean linking demand with supply. In our case, it was realising that there was a huge unmet need for hearing aids in developing countries; my goal was to find a way to supply those countries with the hearing aids they needed: quality product at an affordable price. That’s why I helped launch and grow World Wide Hearing, a non-profit focused on providing hearing aids to children from the poorest areas in the world; and why I founded earAccess, a for-profit social enterprise that sells a Canadian brand of hearing aids called ACCESS to lower-middle income populations around the world.

The media rarely speak of business-model innovation. In my case, if the poor were to have hearing aids, a new business model was needed since all the old ones were failing at this task. My innovation process started with a big, global problem: more than 466 million people suffer from disabling hearing loss; 80 per cent of these people live in lower- or middle-income countries, and fewer than 1 per cent currently have access to hearing aids. At an average price of $2,500, hearing aids remain unaffordable for most people, yet they cost as little as $50 to manufacture. On the long road to consumers, hearing aids incur regulatory and legal costs, service charges, warranty costs, distribution fees and high profit margins. Our innovation lies in creating alternative distribution paths free of these costs and obstacles, and in passing on the savings to the end user.

To really innovate and make a difference, you have to be deeply aligned with your mission and your passion. Innovation actually translates into a lot of hard work, so if you are going to work hard, you might as well be working on something you really care about. My best ideas did not happen while I was meditating on a mountain. They came in moments of intense pressure when we had to solve an urgent problem and we needed a good solution, fast. Nor can I claim that the best ideas came only from me: it was often a team effort of bouncing ideas off each other until we arrived at a viable solution. Personal mentors, like the visionary founder of the World Wide Hearing Foundations, Claudio Bussandri, and my father, Pierre Renyi, were instrumental in the co-creation process and have provided a sounding board for my ideas (not incidentally, both have had to wear hearing aids since childhood). Finding mentors is key to helping you through what is often a lonely journey as an innovator-entrepreneur. Connecting with other entrepreneurs and exchanging advice and war stories is helpful in reminding yourself that you are not alone in your fight to make the world a better place. And, entrepreneurs don’t exist without financing and I am extremely grateful to Grand Challenges Canada for their early and ongoing support. They were crucial in allowing us to make things happen.

Innovation is also about failing, a lot. And then failing again. There were times when I became discouraged after repeated failures—at earAccess we struggled to find a path to market—but then I pulled myself up each time and ploughed on, and eventually found a solution. Innovation is 10 per cent creative ideas and 90 per cent hard work, execution and perseverance. I once heard a female entrepreneur say that being an innovator is about “being at peace with feeling constantly uncomfortable.” That is exactly how I feel every day: just when I think I have figured it all out, something else comes up, an unexpected problem needing a solution. Once I accepted the fact that that is the way most entrepreneurs feel, I felt liberated.

In 2012, I was kidnapped in Argentina—this was the period of the country’s economic crisis. It was what they called an “express kidnapping”—we were driven around Buenos Aires and then abandoned in a slum at 4am in the morning. I had only just arrived in Argentina for a 6-month student exchange program. After that traumatizing experience, the obvious choice was to go home and forget all about Argentina. However, I decided to stay on for a full year in the country. It turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made. The result of staying on was that I felt more resilient in the face of whatever life threw at me. Resiliency and the ability to overcome adversity are useful qualities in innovators.

It is a widely-held belief that to start an innovative business, you need a brilliant, earth-shattering idea. That is not the case—in fact, most entrepreneurs start businesses in areas where they have simply seen gaps in the market; they seek to fill those gaps without a very clear idea about exactly how they are going to do that. I started a company with a back of the envelope business plan that completely changed in a matter of months (even weeks) and we pivoted many, many times.

People have asked me over the years, “How do you find your passion?” The only way to discover your passion is to ask yourself what really drives you; if you are not sure, then try working in an area or start a project that gets you excited. It can be a small side project, but the most important thing is to just get started and start “doing”. You will learn along the way what you enjoy—and don’t enjoy—and that experience will guide you onto the path that is right for you. The enemy of innovation is inaction. Personally, I would rather be criticized for something I did than for something I failed to do. And, despite all the challenges, nothing is more rewarding to me than knowing I’ve created something that has made the world a better place.

There is no question that the future of a middle power like Canada lies in innovation. It might not be widely known but Canadians have been very innovative for a long time. Former Governor General David Johnston’s book “Ingenious” lists a huge number of Canadian innovations. And the GG’s Innovation Award is now there to recognize innovators and foster new growth. So, come join us in working hard at making the world a better place.  


Audra Renyi is the executive director of the non-profit World Wide Hearing and the founder & CEO of earAccess Inc. She is a recipient of the 2017 Governor General’s Innovation Award.