Nearly nine months after city and provincial officials rushed to commit millions of dollars to construct new space for entrepreneurs and startups, Ottawa’s business community is still waiting to hear details on how that money will be spent.
© Joël Côté-Cright
Jason Flick, president of YOU i Labs and founder of Freakin’ Awesome Apps.
By David Sali
The public first learned in January of plans for a new 150,000-square-foot building, containing incubation space, meeting rooms and providing a location for commercial tenants and a new home for Invest Ottawa. Nine days after the vision was published in a report on the city’s website, the province announced it would pony up $15 million for the project, which is to be constructed on the site of a municipal public works garage at Bayview Yards, west of downtown.
The city said at the time that it is ready to match the province’s contributions with in-kind contributions, but hasn’t offered any updates since. In a recent statement to the OBJ, city officials said they will have no further comment on the project until another report is presented to the finance and economic development committee later this year.
Ottawa’s innovation hub is expected to be modelled after facilities such as the MaRS Discovery District in Toronto and Communitech Hub in Kitchener-Waterloo, where startups can meet with researchers and mentors in a space that attracts investors and professional service providers under one roof.
While government and economic development officials remain tight-lipped on their vision for Ottawa’s incubation facility, those connected to the startup community have their own thoughts on what should happen at the innovation complex.
First and foremost, the centre must make sure the city’s best entrepreneurial minds are leading its development, says Jason Flick, co-founder of YOUi Labs Inc. and a member of Invest Ottawa’s innovation subcommittee.
“If they just end up being a whole bunch of bureaucrats that can claim they built a beautiful office space, it will be a miserable failure,” says Mr. Flick. “There’s no shortage of entrepreneurs to step up, but they’re not going to go work for Invest Ottawa. These organizations need to be led by people who have so much money, it’s irrelevant. It’s because they want Ottawa to be a world-class city, or they want to make the next $100-million company.
Invest Ottawa "will never hold a candle to five minutes of Terry Matthews, or pick any entrepreneur in this city, mentoring a company.”
Others, however, see the hub as a one-stop shop for budding business minds.
“The bottom line is, it needs to become the locus of attention and activity for the entire startup community,” says Francis Moran, a local marketing and public relations consultant.
He adds that the incubator needs to be led by entrepreneurs with a big role for those who fund startups, but also with all the support services that entrepreneurs need – legal, accounting, HR, insurance, banking and marketing – either all under one roof or in a place where they are welcome to come and spend time.
It has to be a place where people can gather to bounce ideas off one another as well as have access to services and business education programs, Mr. Moran says.
“I can’t walk into Invest Ottawa at the moment and just hang out,” he said. “It’s not their fault – the building just isn’t made to do that. There is no space to do that.
“This needs to be a place where collisions happen, and by definition collisions aren’t planned. I don’t go to any of those other places (such as Toronto’s MaRS) and spend more than an hour or two before I bump into somebody to our mutual advantage. If you get the right gravitational pull, then you’ll get that.”
The centre could also play a valuable role in bringing Ottawa’s three “bubbles” – major tech anchors such as Alcatel-Lucent and IBM that employ the bulk of the workforce, universities that specialize in R&D and startups that have the highest growth potential – closer together, Mr. Flick says.
“If those three bubbles overlap more, which they don’t … if they just even communicate more, I guarantee you there will be a jump in GDP for Ottawa,” he says.
Consultant Luc Lalande, who specializes in designing community-based innovation programs, agrees. He says he’d love to see the complex include a “makerspace” – an area where digital fabrication, design and modelling tools such as 3D printers and laser cutters are available for free or at a very low cost to anyone with an idea.
He’s also pushing for open-source hardware platforms such as Arduino and an open lab where developers can test apps for free on various mobile devices.
“It would not only attract entrepreneurs, but inventors and people who want to acquire skills,” he says. “You create a real hive of activity.”
Still, the city and the various stakeholders in the building need to think carefully about what they expect the innovation hub to achieve before putting any shovels in the ground, says Ryan Stec, artistic director of Artengine, a downtown digital media arts centre.
“Money is attracted to bricks and mortar and the seductive idea of new architecture,” says Mr. Stec. “What exactly is the question that the city is seeking to answer with an innovation hub? Is a big building project the right answer to that question?”
It’s important for the hub’s builders to keep an open mind about their vision, he adds, saying he’d prefer the facility to have a “certain level of unfinishedness – the capacity for people invited into the building to kind of shape what the building is meant to be.
“The idea of a finished facility that will meet all the needs of all the people who want to come in is a bit of a fallacy. That’s never going to happen. There isn’t a checklist of things that will make it work for everybody.”
Recalling how a previous attempt to launch a similar facility in 2009 failed after the province withdrew its support, Mr. Moran says the city can’t afford to let another opportunity slip through its fingers.
“If you wait until you’ve got universal support in this town, nothing will happen,” he says bluntly. “The people behind it need to be bold, they need to be innovative – in short, they need to be all the things that a great startup needs to be. It won’t be perfect, it can’t be perfect, it will never be perfect. And in this town, far too often that’s the kiss of death. I sure hope that’s not the case this time around.”
Mr. Lalande says ideally he’d like to see the project get off the ground “within 18 months,” but whenever it happens, it must be done with the needs of Ottawa entrepreneurs firmly in mind.
“My main concern is that the city is going to look at other cities that have innovation programs and do a copy and paste,” he says. “I think that would be a mistake.”
Sidebar Tips from T.O.
A veteran of Toronto’s startup scene says the people behind Ottawa’s proposed innovation complex need to remember the cardinal rule of business: the customer is always right.
“Each initiative like this is going to find its own sweet spot within the community,” says Tony Redpath, a senior fellow who has worked at the MaRS Discovery District since its launch eight years ago.
“Each one takes on its own flavour. Do you need a makerspace? I don’t know. It depends on who the client companies are. The centre should be responding to what the clients need, not necessarily driving things and hoping that people will come.”
MaRS opened in September 2005 on the site of the former “College Wing” of the Toronto General Hospital as a place dedicated to helping innovative entrepreneurs build successful businesses. Fourteen private donors kicked in $1 million each to get the project off the ground, and the federal and provincial governments followed suit, contributing $20 million each.
Today, firms such as Merck and RBC lease space at market rates, and MaRS, which will soon nearly double in size to 1.5 million square feet with the opening of its Phase 2 building, is 98 per cent occupied. The profits it earns from tenants are invested back into programs such as free business courses to help entrepreneurs launch their own startups.
“In essence, we were our own developer,” says Mr. Redpath. “From day one, the model was we would only take tenants that in some way were associated with the innovative chain. That has given us the platform to go out and partner with different levels of government. Our mission of helping high-tech companies grow and succeed obviously resonates with what the province wants to see.”
Innovation hubs need credible businesspeople, and Silicon Valley North should have no trouble attracting a strong core of mentors to its facility, he says.
“I guess my attitude is if you’re trying to coach entrepreneurial startups to grow and become successful, self-sustaining businesses, it doesn’t hurt if that’s your own model,” says Mr. Redpath.
“That’s what will draw entrepreneurs to a location, because they know they will get to meet folks who’ve been there, done that, and whose advice they trust. Ottawa’s got a great pool of entrepreneurs there to draw on. That’s an asset that I would really hope would be brought to bear.”
After nearly a decade at MaRS, he says he has no doubts about the value of such a place.
“In the very beginning, we said we want MaRS to be a place where people come and they run into somebody and say, ‘I’ve been meaning to see you,’ ” he says. “It actually happens now.”