“Taking a bright idea and turning it into a thriving, sustainable company is tough. An entrepreneur might reap what they sow, but they first need fertile ground.” ~ Takara Small
Creating a viable startup is about a lot more than planting a seed, watering it and waiting. There is a lot of support, nurturing and, yes, even money, that needs to be thrown at an idea before it gets off the ground, let alone become profitable.
In the latest edition of Takara Small’s podcast “Tech Town”, the focus discussed is on creating a platform through which entrepreneurs can take their ideas and develop them with the help of people who are in the know. In the world of tech startups, there’s one solid way to get on the right path with an idea: incubators.
What’s an incubator?
“it’s an organization that provides office space, mentorship, and support to the next generation of tech entrepreneurs. It helps startups through that tough early stage where so many companies fail and sets them up for success.”
Tech hubs around the world, including Toronto, San Francisco and Dubai, have incubators—also known as accelerators—in place to nurture the startup ideas with real merit. Now Innisfil can count itself among those tech city giants. With a desire to attract creative, bright minds to the area and use that wattage to light up the future, Innisfil knew it needed to lend entrepreneurs a hand along the way.
And in their usual style of putting together viable partnerships versus reinventing the wheel themselves, the town decided to work with DMZ, one of Canada’s leading university based tech accelerators. While it’s usually only the larger tech hubs like Toronto that get the benefit of organizations like DMZ, a government program a year ago created similar partnerships with smaller communities, to try and grow technology and entrepreneurship in other places. Innisfil continued that partnership when the original plan was completed, continuing to place themselves as an innovative and creative place to live and work.
According to Innisfil’s mayor, Mayor Dolan: “We are so punching above our weight and playing with the big boys, and it really does make me very proud of our team.” That’s indicative of Innisfil’s position on growth and innovation, a vision that requires ambition and imagination.
Ryerson DMZ and Innisfil working together
Sherif El Tawil, director at Ryerson DMZ, the incubator working with Innisfil, had this to say:
“The town of Innisfil’s leadership has a bold vision to solidify Innisfil as a global leader in all aspects of life. And they’ve approached it in a multipronged approach that we’ve never seen anywhere in the world. So it’s attracting the right talent. It’s attracting the right programming. It’s becoming a platform for startups to test their municipal solutions to help improve the lives of residents.”
Instead of competing for tech talent in the traditional ways of larger hubs, Innisfil is working with DMZ to create a space that entrepreneurs are going to be proactively drawn to. Part of that is the lifestyle that Innisfil can offer, with a lakeside cottage atmosphere, affordable homes, all the amenities and still a stone’s throw from the GTA. But on the purely development side: “… to be able to tap into a bunch of really smart people who can program and who can provide some business solutions in real time, not like a three year development cycle that would be maybe more typical of some larger companies.”
With the addition of DMZ to this already amazing place, there is a level of offering that isn’t available in the larger hubs. While other big tech hubs like Toronto and Vancouver end up competing against one another for talent and ideas, Innisfil stands alone in their unique setup. The support that the township can offer to new and growing startups is unparalleled, particularly with the addition of DMZ Innisfil. Entrepreneurs can grow their businesses but also live a quality lifestyle. “These are attributes that the town of Innisfil has that other tech ecosystems don’t have, which makes it very, very special.”
DMZ Innisfil launched
At the time this podcast was released, thirteen startups had been accepted into the newly formed incubator. After an application and interview process, those thirteen companies are starting to leverage the expertise of people who have already walked the path of entrepreneurship successfully. People like Chris Adams, the entrepreneur in residence at DMZ Innisfil.
Chris’s speciality is in digital marketing and strategy and his involvement in a number of successful companies makes him the ideal person to mentor new startups through those early days.
“We want the entrepreneurs to live and be able to take advantage of the lake, the lifestyle, the biking, the outdoor activities, everything that a young individual or young founders need to thrive and also enjoy their lifestyle and at a very cost-effective manner as well. We know that Toronto could offer those exact same qualities of lifestyle. However, the rent and other kinds of costs of living have gone up recently in the Toronto area. And if you are trying to be young, nimble, putting your money more into the startup, then Innisfil does offer that place where you can live, thrive, and have that direct connection to the downtown Toronto tech scene.”
While a small town isn’t usually what people think of when they think of a tech hub, it’s precisely its ability to be flexible and to pivot with the needs of its citizens that makes Innisfil a great spot. Mr. El Tawil added this: “DMZ’s one layer to contribute to the success, it’s the support that the startups and entrepreneurs are getting directly from the town of Innisfil is really a game changer that we’ve never seen any municipality extend to the entrepreneurs.”
The town’s vision is solution focused and the willingness to work in out of the box ways makes it possible for a company to tackle a problem and address it, going from idea / inception to first iteration and feedback in a matter of a month. This is agility at a level that even many large organizations, never mind a township, can handle.
So what’s in it for the town of Innisfil?
On so many levels, taxpayers who are helping to foot the bill through the municipality for DMZ Innisfil are going to benefit from it. According to Mr. Adams:
“As jobs get added to each of these software companies, these individuals would need to either, A, buy a house, rent, they would be purchasing products and services within the community. This is a great way to establish economic development. And if you can reach a critical mass of the creative economy, the brand of Innisfil could also change over time, where the brand can be brought together with, “Hey, if you’re going to be in the creative economy, Innisfil is a great place to live because there’s multiple companies that are just like you.” And at some point in time, that can definitely start to attract more companies to Innisfil.”
Instead of trying to attract more traditional businesses, Innisfil is keeping to its vision of growing with the times, building on the need for tech, which is an industry that touches virtually every other industry in existence. Over time, Innisfil will become known as the tech hub that it strives to be, and will begin attracting more and more companies as a result.
Plus, the innovation that comes with fast growth can be leveraged to address issues that the town is experiencing. Like every other community, COVID-19 became the front and centre pressing concern for Innisfil these past months. While other places were struggling to figure out how to deal with certain manifestations of the pandemic, Innisfil, working with DMZ, put together a hackathon—an invention competition—to find some creative solutions to five specific problems and called it Hack the Curve.
“Innisfil gave the 31 participants five problems related to COVID that they needed help with, and the contestants proposed ideas and how to solve them using tech. John Gillam, and his company, Fractal SaaS, was chosen as the winner. The town was having problems with physical distancing at the lake as crowds were building up at the boat ramp. John’s software, Nice Launch, addresses that.”
Resources, like the public boat ramp, weren’t taxed too heavily in past seasons, but the pandemic created a lot more demand on the town to meet the new COVID related health and safety regulations. As these weren’t budgeted for by many small businesses, it was just an extra level of pressure on a small community, with long lineups to access the ramp resulting in low physical distancing and greater risks for everyone.
Nice Launch enabled the town to schedule launch bookings, eliminating the need for lining up and relieving the pressure. According to Mr. Gillam: “In the first couple of weeks, it was used by a couple of hundred residents and 2000 bookings getting scheduled. So that was really exciting, was to see that and to have such a good partner within the town of Innisfil to be able to bring a solution that quickly to help solve a problem.”
Lots of people have ideas for businesses, but most don’t know how to take the next step. With mentoring, training, and even financial help, operations like DMZ can pave the way for startups to become reality. “Maybe the next Bill Gates is lurking in Innisfil, but doesn’t know how to get their business off the ground. Taking a bright idea and turning it into a thriving, sustainable company is tough. And that’s what the town’s growth accelerator, DMZ Innisfil, is all about.”
Whether the next great tech success story will be founded in Innisfil remains to be seen but the tools and resources are there for the asking and some startup entrepreneurs have been answering the call, but more on that next time…
To listen to the full story, listen to the Tech Town Podcast.