The 150,000-square-foot building envisioned by the city and Invest Ottawa would be located at the Bayview Yards, the site of a municipal public works garage constructed in the 1940s.
An “innovation complex,” city staff in a report being tabled next week, “would help to meet the growing demands of new entrepreneurs in Ottawa” and be modelled after the MaRS Discovery District in Toronto and Communitech Hub in Kitchener-Waterloo.
Such centres typically involve surrounding startups with researchers and advisors in a physical space that attracts investors and professional service providers and ultimately helps create successful high-growth companies.
“The question now is, ‘How do you structure it in a way that it is affordable, accessible and helps drive more business and creates more jobs?”
Chance encounters and other forms of face-to-face interaction between entrepreneurs are a critical part of the innovation process that requires a bricks-and-mortar structure such as the proposed innovation complex, he added.
Mr. Lazenby’s views are dramatically different than those of his predecessor.
Claude Haw was heading what was then known as OCRI in 2009 when a proposal for a similar, $100-million downtown "Innovation Hub" was axed after the province withdrew its support.
In an interview at the time, Hr. Haw said “incubation is happening at multiple points around the city.”
“We are too big, too diverse and too spread out geographically to think everything is going to come together in one building.”
Some critics say creating new government programs overseen by bureaucrats offers a relatively poor return on investment. They argue scarce economic development dollars are better spent directly funding startups or the numerous business accelerators that already exist and are staffed by actual entrepreneurs.
Others, however, say entrepreneurs put startup capital to much better use when surrounded by mentors and productive work space.
Shopify’s chief platform officer, Harley Finkelstein, called the accomplishments of MaRS in Toronto “amazing.” Entrepreneurs have opportunities to bounce ideas off one another in addition to having access to in-house lawyers and educational seminars on subjects such as intellectual property and fundraising, he said.
He cautioned that an accelerator needs the buy-in of successful local entrepreneurs who must choose to drop in and hang out, as well as talk to early stage startups, if the initiative is to be of benefit.
“I love that competitiveness,” he said, arguing it makes accelerators think more critically about their program, funding and mentors to make sure their companies succeed.
The cost of the project is not yet known. Mr. Lazenby said Invest Ottawa’s current space at 80 Aberdeen St. in Little Italy costs most than $1 million a year to rent. The agency is asking the provincial government for $15 million in funding, while the city is prepared to offer $15 million worth of in-kind contributions.
The startup space is expected to be subsidized by established companies leasing office space inside the building at market rates.
“Other technology companies may want to be close to some of the brightest minds in Ottawa,” while banks and law firms may be attracted to the “exciting new business opportunities,” Mr. Lazenby said.
City staff are asking councillors to support the innovation complex in principle and include it in the long-term development plans for the area.
Mr. Lazenby said it would “be a while” before ground is broken and that the next steps lie with the city. He added Invest Ottawa has no interest in being “distracted” by directly managing a construction project.
“We’re just going to be the grateful and excited tenants when the time is right.”