News headlines startle us when they report that children's toys contain toxic lead. The same holds true when photos emerge of factory workers and miners suffering human-rights abuses.
Outrage builds because consumers expect companies to operate responsibly. Everywhere.
Government and industry regulators require that manufacturers make safe products and run safe workplaces. Manufacturers that fail to do so risk incurring heavy fines and getting barred from selling products or bidding on multimillion-dollar contracts.
Manufacturers must comply with and file reports of safe and ethical practices about their own facilities. Likewise, they are held accountable for how their suppliers conduct business and source their materials like minerals and chemicals.
For example, companies look to show that their products do not contain conflict minerals. Gold and tungsten are considered conflict minerals—today's equivalent of "blood diamonds"—if they bankroll militia groups that exploit children and adults in war-torn countries.
Yet, keeping track of every supplier, regardless of location, is complicated, time consuming and expensive.
Manufacturers used to have employees manually update supplier data and track whether materials or products were compliant and ethically sourced. Or, companies scrambled to find consultants to generate compliance reports and explain increasingly stringent factors for achieving compliance. In Ottawa, the founders of start-up company Assent Compliance recognized an easier way for manufacturers to comply: software and expertise.
During a networking session in 2012, a fellow entrepreneur recommended that the founders approach the National Research Council of Canada's Industrial Research Assistance Program (NRC's IRAP) to take their company to the next level.
Alliance for compliance
Assent's team keeps pace with regulatory changes for clients. After subscribing to Assent's software, manufacturers gain access to vast supplier data, regulatory and industry expertise, and a responsive support team. To save clients' time, Assent's inexpensive software communicates directly with manufacturers' existing systems used for purchasing, inventory, shipping, factory operations and even human resources.
"We supported Assent in building that efficient connection, an application program interface or API to their clients' systems, to let Assent connect to major enterprise management systems and grow from there," says Grégory Fruchet, an industrial technology advisor at NRC's IRAP. NRC's IRAP also contributed to Assent's compliance inspection software, survey generator and custom forms, as well as anti-human trafficking software.
Assent's software becomes an essential part of how manufacturers monitor and report on their business, whether they make cellphones, medical devices, lightbulbs or toys. Suppliers of raw materials for those manufacturers often become Assent clients too, because they submit compliance data on behalf of their manufacturing clients. Assent engineers designed the software so it can be resold and bundled with other software products that suppliers already use.
Fruchet and his colleagues advised Assent executives on ways to hone that business model with channel partners, govern a growing company, and hire youth to help recent graduates gain work experience.
"Over the past five years, IRAP has helped us on almost every level, as a major resource and partner," said Assent's chief executive officer Andrew Waitman. "That support aided us in attracting talented staff and led us to commercialize three software modules that have since shipped, and now account for millions in revenues."
A knockout package
Waitman said manufacturers call the decision to choose Assent a "no brainer" for ethically responsible companies.
By 2015, more than 100,000 organizations relied on Assent to share data about conflict minerals alone. The company's nearly 200 employees serve clients, ranging from medium-sized enterprises to Fortune 500 companies like Corning and John Deere.
Venture funders see the firm's potential. In May 2016, Assent received a $20-million investment led by Boston's Volition Capital. Other supporters include the OpenText Enterprise Apps Fund, Royal Bank, Business Development Bank of Canada and NRC's IRAP. Once again, NRC's IRAP is in Assent's corner.
Waitman pulls no punches about future plans. He is tapping those venture funds to grow Assent's team, expand its international presence, and develop more software modules for new markets and clients. According to Waitman, the next age of Assent's ascent will be marked when Waitman takes his company public to trade on a stock exchange.