Great companies are often founded by innovators with vision who see a need for a particular product or service, and Copernicus Educational Products Inc. is no exception. This Ontario-headquartered business is approaching thirty years in business but remains a pioneer in the field of education and continues the commitment of its founder George Phillips to making the world a better place.
“George was a teacher in Toronto,” says company President Kaylyn Belcourt-McCabe. “He took early retirement from teaching to start working in his basement on product ideas he always had. As a science teacher, he always had school products rolling around in his head of what would have made his classroom better.”
The first product George created in 1989 was the Science Block Kit which was intended to teach simple physics concepts to students in grades three to seven. George’s son Jim was still in college studying business but went to work full-time with his dad upon graduation in 1992, and the business kept on growing as new products were added.
The father-and-son duo complemented one another perfectly, says Belcourt-McCabe. “George was a very creative, eccentric inventor, and Jim had to be the disciplined ‘we need to make money to be a business’ element of the pair.”
George passed away in 2001, and Jim became the owner of the company. With a development focus on kindergarten to grade six, Copernicus expanded into other products such as simple teaching easels, dry erase whiteboards, book carts, and other products to make classrooms more effective teaching spaces. The company has an office and factory in Arthur, Ontario, and the company works with a factory partner in China that has a dedicated team of about fifteen who work solely on the Copernicus product line.
The company’s fifty-plus employees include people with backgrounds in industrial design, mechanical engineering, salespeople in Canada and the United States, marketing, customer service, purchasing and sourcing, manufacturing, fabrication, tool and die, and quality assurance. Much of the steadily growing company’s success, says its president, is due to its talented and dedicated staff.
“Our team, and I really can’t stress this enough, is the heart and soul of Copernicus,” comments Belcourt-McCabe. “Having the right people on the team has made all the difference for us because having an engaged and passionate team is helping us to do the things we are doing.” The company seeks staff who possess a curious mindset, constantly ask how processes and products can be improved, have a willingness to experiment and learn from their mistakes, value teamwork, and want to give back to causes greater than themselves.
Its many award-winning products are tested in classrooms for extended periods. The company receives feedback from students and teachers, and the information is used to make any necessary changes. The designs are tested and fine-tuned until each aspect is acceptable. According to the company, “We are not about developing the latest shiny thing or cool gadget. It is about listening and acting on what is really needed in elementary classrooms.”
The company makes a range of products that address the evolving needs of educators including storage for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) activities, teaching easels and carts for arts and crafts, sensory play, a variety of mobile solutions for technology, including 3D printers, virtual reality (VR) headsets and storage and charging for mobile devices.
Industrial design is crucial to product success, and few realize this more than Belcourt-McCabe who studied industrial design and started with the company after graduation in 2007. She has served in a number of roles and began managing the entire new product development team in 2011. In 2015, it was announced she would take over from owner Jim Phillips as president, and the transition was started when she became vice president and then president at the beginning of this year.
Coming up with product designs is an intensive investigative process. The company’s Idea Lab – an advisory team of about one hundred teachers, administrators, and district level staff – generates fresh ideas, tests prototypes, and gives critical responses to determine the value of products. Additionally, classroom visits are made to see what can be improved upon or done differently.
“Teachers, I like to say, are the ultimate ‘MacGyver’s,’” comments Belcourt-McCabe. “They have very limited budgets and will come up with a solution if they need something. Looking at those things they did themselves provides input for us.”
One example of the company’s continual innovation is the patent-pending Tech Tub collection of products. Tech Tubs are one of Copernicus’ best-selling product lines and are used for device storage of iPads, Chromebooks or other tablets. The line includes trolleys, carts, and Dual Duty Teaching Easels. Unlike drab grey storage carts, the Tech Tub line is bright, colourful, engaging, and flexible to adapt to the needs of the classroom.
When Copernicus was considering developing products for device storage, it visited schools and observed bulky, cumbersome carts designed to hold up to forty devices. In many instances, schools could not buy a whole set and may have had five or ten devices. With no budget money remaining for storage, they resorted to using milk crates or cardboard boxes to house very expensive electronic equipment.
The company recognized a need and developed the original Tech Tub, a small, rugged ABS plastic carrying case that held six iPads with a power strip to charge it. Unlike the expensive bulky carts, the affordable Tech Tub could easily be moved around the school, was lockable, and could even be secured to a table for extra security. “It was a very different approach from what was already being done, and the idea came out of observation in the classroom,” says Belcourt-McCabe.
Copernicus stands behind numerous products that benefit education and is a great believer in creating a better future for youngsters. This has been a core value ever since the company was founded. Recently, it took this philosophy of giving back to another level when it became a Certified B Corporation, or B Corp for short, joining the ever-expanding community of companies around the world.
According to B Corporation, certified companies “meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose.” Companies must be ethical and accountable. According to the non-profit B Lab, B Corps “meet rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency… B Corp is to business what Fair Trade certification is to coffee or USDA Organic certification is to milk.” Copernicus decided to become certified because it believed it is responsible for making a better world and encouraging the same positive actions from other businesses – in other words, using business as a force for good.
Although the company was active in giving back since it was formed, it decided in 2009 to work toward societal and ecological objectives. The preliminary examination revealed that more had to be done, so the company hired its own social and environmental responsibility coordinator in 2017. “It was important enough to us that we should have somebody working on it full-time, helping us achieve those goals, always questioning what we are doing, and making sure that all of us are held accountable for our decisions,” says Belcourt-McCabe. The coordinator’s role also includes ‘greening’ the product line, reviewing the supply chain and recycling programs, creating donation strategies, and “everything involved in giving back.”
Areas that needed improvement were identified. New policies were put into place, and improvements were made to the company’s existing social and environmental initiatives. Through the process, Copernicus reached its goal of being a certified B Corporation company.
“We were very pleased when we became B Corp certified. It was a celebration at the end of last year,” says Belcourt-McCabe. She credits company owner Jim Phillips with emphasizing the importance of giving back as part of the company culture. “I think that’s really clear when you come into the building or when you speak to anybody here at the company, and we try to recognize that, as a manufacturer, we contribute to environmental problems by making ‘things’, and so we want to give back and try to reduce our impact any way we can.”
Belcourt-McCabe started with Copernicus as a fresh industrial design graduate and still enjoys coming to work every day and being surrounded by eager and inquisitive staff. From the beginning, she knew her work was about more than just making another pretty object; it helps teachers teach and puts students on the path to discovery. Today, as company president, this remains extremely important to her, and she believes that businesses cannot focus on profit alone, but must consider social and environmental responsibility as well.
“Beyond that, we believe you can take that mentality – become profitable, be a responsible company, partake in your community, do the right things for your employees – and still be profitable,” she says. “I really believe in that. Becoming a B Corp gave us the opportunity to prove we are meeting that level of commitment to social and environmental responsibility. We have a vision here at Copernicus that we can become the most socially-responsible company within the education industry. And as far as we know it, we are the first B Corp within our industry. That is really exciting for us, and we hope it encourages other businesses to look at the program, do the same, and question their own impact and what they can do, because the world needs that for us and our kids, and grandkids, and a future we can all enjoy in the spaces that we take for granted every day.”
Becoming a Certified B Corporation represents another step on the company’s journey to becoming a better corporate citizen. The business is taking on initiatives that extend far beyond Canada and reviewing the products it manufactures to try to make products as green as possible. Copernicus uses plastic injection moulding and is asking questions about using recycled plastics and redesigning parts to use less plastic.
At its Canadian operations, the company has solar panels that deliver twelve to fourteen percent of the company’s power consumption. In China, because of the pollution, the company realized that installing solar panels at this facility would have an even greater positive impact on air quality. The solar panels installed in China last year provide about sixty percent of the building’s power needs, and the company is investigating what else can be done to lessen the environmental impact of manufacturing. “If we can try to have an impact there and offset, in a small way, the fact we are manufacturing in China, then that’s a great way for us to look at doing it,” says Belcourt-McCabe.
The company noticed there was no ventilation system at a supplier producing hydraulic cylinders used in one of its products, and workers were complaining of headaches from the fumes. Copernicus purchased an air filtration system for that factory, even though the company’s purchases from the supplier were declining as that particular product line was changing. “We still invested in that system for the benefits of their employees,” she says. “Not just when they’re working on Copernicus products, but any product.”
The company aims to give at least one percent of its sales to social and environmental causes that it believes in, and over $220,000 was donated towards these causes in 2017. Other initiatives include sponsoring the Nature Conservancy of Canada, the World Wildlife Fund Canada School Grants, giant panda conservation projects in China, and Jane Goodall Institute of Canada’s Roots and Shoots program, which works with children to teach them what they can do to make a difference within their communities.
The Copernicus Trees for Schools program started in 2009 on Earth Day. Since the project began, over 165,000 seedlings and 6,500 wildflower packs have been donated to elementary schools across Ontario. The company is extending the program this year in partnership with Trees for Guelph, which sends a seasoned tree planter out with students to help plant trees in public spaces.
The company is serious about preserving Mother Nature for future generations. The property upon which Copernicus sits, and the surrounding ninety-acre parcel, has been designated a nature preserve. This means the land can never be developed. The company has also purchased and donated four hundred acres of wilderness land which contains provincially significant wetlands to the Muskoka Conservancy to be protected and preserved for future generations.
Along with these programs, the company also sponsors its local food bank and participates in EmpoWErment Day at the Upper Grand District School Board. In China, the company provides basic necessities and school supplies to three schools every year and has purchased water filtration systems to be installed at those schools to provide clean drinking water.
Copernicus’s product development focus is on kindergarten to grade six. Although some products can be used by higher grade levels, including high schools, the company prefers to maintain its focus, and feels there is plenty of opportunity in the current market. The company’s key markets are Canada, the United States, and Australia, but its products are also sold in Europe, Mexico, and Asia through a dealer network. The company greatly values input from its dealers, which work directly with schools and receive valuable feedback that is passed back for further consideration. Additionally, dealer partners create awareness by working with school boards and districts to demonstrate products.
The company has a website with product descriptions and downloadable catalogues to get the word out about its offerings. It advertises through social media channels, e-mail blasts and often attends trade shows and participates in end-user marketing. It is constantly bringing new products to schools; recent innovations include the mobile virtual reality (VR) storage cart, and the mobile virtual reality (VR) storage tub. The virtual reality storage cart is sturdy, lightweight, and easy to move with two handles, has plenty of room for headsets and USB hubs, and can hold thirty sets of VR devices. The tub is being released in time for this school year. This rugged, lockable tub holds ten sets of VR devices and headsets, has a ten-port USB charging hub and Wi-Fi router, holds a teacher’s tablet, and boasts many other features.
Copernicus Educational Products has received many awards for its work and is the proud recipient of the Learning Magazine’s Teacher’s Choice Award (2008) for its Royal Reading Writing Centre. In 2013, and again in 2014, the company won Canada’s Outstanding Employer Award from The Learning Partnership which runs Take Our Kids to Work Day.
“We were awarded that two years in a row, which was really a proud moment for us,” says Belcourt-McCabe. “Other companies that were winning that at the same time as us were the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), which was humbling.”
Additionally, the company has received awards from dealers in categories including best new product and best service. “It’s not a huge national award, but to us, when our dealers are giving us an award like that, it means a lot.”
Copernicus is looking into other areas, including STEM solutions and improvements to its Tech Tub line. And after almost thirty years in business, the company shows no signs of slowing down, as it continues to produce quality, long-lasting products while helping the planet. As a certified B Corporation, Copernicus hopes to encourage other companies to follow suit and examine their impact on communities and the environment. “The more we can all start to consider that business can be a force for good and give back, the better. That’s what makes us happy and gives us a sense of a greater purpose.” For more information on this dynamic company and possible employment opportunities, visit copernicused.com/contact/careers.