Leave innovation to business community, ex-Invest Ottawa startup mentor says

A former entrepreneur-in-residence at Invest Ottawa says it’s time for the city-funded economic development agency to get out of the business of promoting innovation.

“I think anybody who’s been in innovation in the last four years and watched the happenings at Invest Ottawa would refer to it as a dark age,” says Bob Huggins, a businessman and documentary filmmaker who is also a director at L-Spark, the Kanata-based enterprise software incubator and accelerator.

“There’s a real contradiction to think that an economic development group within a city somehow is innovative. That’s a huge mistake on the city’s part. I’m not sure why the city gets pulled into stuff like this.”

When it emerged out of the ashes of its predecessor, the Ottawa Centre for Research and Innovation, in early 2012, Invest Ottawa billed itself as a “one-stop shop for business.” After expanding the rebranded organization’s role, city council in 2011 approved a 53 per cent hike in the agency’s annual budget to $3.6 million.

The rebranded agency’s mandate included promoting the city as an innovation hub and attracting new investment, both foreign and domestic, to the capital. Mr. Huggins was one of the founders of its on-site accelerator, GrindSpaceXL, which offers mentorship, office space and services to fledgling technology startups and has since graduated more than 40 companies.

But the veteran tech executive, who mentored more than 200 companies as an entrepreneur-in-residence at OCRI and Invest Ottawa from 2009 until he left the agency in 2014, says council would be better off investing those millions of dollars into making the city a more liveable, attractive place for prospective entrepreneurs to settle and build the next great local companies.

“The city should stick to its knitting and foster an environment that people want to live in,” he says. “You could better spend that budget somewhere else.”

With its four major universities and colleges, a highly educated workforce and a thriving tech community led by ambitious, creative businesspeople such as Terry Matthews and Shopify’s Tobi Lutke, Ottawa already has a great foundation for success, Mr. Huggins says.

Companies like Shopify and Mitel were built by entrepreneurs who settled in Ottawa because they liked the city, he adds, and it’s those types of individuals, not government-funded agencies, who fuel economic growth.     

“All of the success and innovation is always driven by successful entrepreneurs that create wealth events, whether they be exits or capital events,” Mr. Huggins says. “How do we get more Tobis? Everybody (needs to) stick to the things that they do well.”

His comments come in the midst of Invest Ottawa’s search for a new chief executive to replace Bruce Lazenby, who stepped down earlier this summer after five years on the job.

“That person, whoever that may be, would have to be a seasoned entrepreneur,” he says. “We need somebody who understands what entrepreneurs live through on a daily basis. Hopefully, they find a good person.”

Mr. Huggins praises the strength of Invest Ottawa’s 16-member board of directors, which includes a variety of seasoned businesspeople such as Mr. Lutke and Jason Flick of You.i TV, and representatives from the city’s colleges and universities. He also says some Invest Ottawa initiatives – including L-Spark itself, which is a partnership between the agency and Mr. Matthews’ Wesley Clover International – have had a “positive” impact.

“Everybody’s heart is in the right place,” he says. “Everybody wants to do something positive.”

The organization doesn’t need to be scrapped, he says – its purpose just needs to be better defined. By “trying to be all things to all people” as both an innovation and economic development hub, Invest Ottawa will never excel in either role, he argues.

“It doesn’t work at any level. I defy anyone to show me an example of where it does, certainly in Canada and even the United States.”

Invest Ottawa co-chair David Ritonja, a vice-president at Nokia Canada, concedes the agency has suffered through some growing pains in adapting to its dual roles.

But he says the organization has also scored its share of major successes, adding districts like Kitchener-Waterloo, where the economic development and innovation functions are handled by separate agencies, face challenges of their own with that model.

“Quite often, they are not as aligned and work as well together as they could, and I think their industry suffers as a result of that,” he says. “To my knowledge, there’s still a strong focus and desire to maintain both in the same organization (at Invest Ottawa).”

Mr. Ritonja, who has been involved with OCRI and Invest Ottawa for almost a decade, says OCRI tried to fund itself privately in the past but couldn’t sustain those efforts.

“If it could be done through private means, I think everybody would be open to it,” he says.