Harnessing Hogtown’s Hominids for High-Tech Hijinks and Hubs


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Joey has a great article on making Toronto a great place to live, work and play. Becoming the next Silicon Valley, is that a realistic goal for Toronto.

“The frequent changes of jobs in the Silicon Valley necessitated and re-enforced the community of relationships that existed.” – Thayer Watkins

Unlike Joey, I have only lived in Toronto since 2001. I did not grow up here. I did not go to school here. I chose to move here because it was one of three places in Canada where there is a strong technology community and there is not a school of optometry (for those counting Vancouver, Montreal and Waterloo). I moved to Toronto from Austin, TX where there is a strong network of alumni. There are a large number of firms that have spawned out of the shadow of a few companies:

I’ve always wondered, where are the Toronto companies that spawn founders. “The derivatives matter most” has been a part of the TorCamp DNA since the beginning. Where is the metaphorical "Fairchild " that brings talent to Toronto and allows the creation of "Fairchildren ". It seems likely that a great spot to look would be at local successful, publically traded companies. Can you name big successful software companies that have started in Toronto? More importantly, can you name successful companies that have started because the founders were members of another “parent” company? Why has RIM or Nortel not created a strong spinoff culture?


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The good news is apparently one strategy for success is to leverage the “brain circulation” of individuals who have spent time iin Silicon Valley and other hubs return and build successful companies retaining their strong ties to US counterparts.

“The new Argonauts—armed with Silicon Valley experience and relationships and the ability to operate in two countries simultaneously—quickly identify market opportunities, locate foreign partners, and manage cross-border business operations.” – AnnaLee Saxenian

There are a large number of repatriated Canadians from software hubs in Toronto. This might be a better hope for new wealth creation in Toronto in the high-tech sector.

What is a vision?

We have a fascination with self-congratulatory bullshit efforts! Take a look at the gigantic disaster of TechWeek.to, this is an event that is based on the vision that Toronto “will become, and be acknowledged globally, as one of the 5 most innovative, creative and productive locations in the world for ICT research, education, business, and investment by 2011”[1]. What the hell does that even mean! It is unclear that the leadership of this effort even understand what a local technology company is, let alone have the ability to create “opportunities for new projects, new businesses, new sales, new hires and new business and cultural partnerships”.

I don’t think ICT Toronto represents a what I’d like to see for a vision for the Toronto tech community. It feels removed, bureacratic, and uninventive. It feels like a strategy used to attract auto manufacturers. And we all know how well that is working.

Joey has promised to share his vision over a few blog posts about his vision for Toronto.

“I'm going to talk about what it would take to build up Toronto as a high-tech hub and a livable city. Watch this space!” – Joey deVilla

I’m interested to hear Joey’s perspective. And I’m going to be thinking about what frustrates me and more importantly what I’d like to see.

What do you think needs to change to make Toronto a high-tech hub?

  • Greg Wilson

    <p>1. Funding channels that are willing to take real risks in the hopes of real rewards.</p><br />
    <br />
    <p>2. Effective working relationships between U of T and 416/905 companies that aren't already worth a billion dollars. (Profs don't come to *camp; startups don't engage with the <a href="http://www.peyonline.com/&quot; target="_blank">PEY</a> program– which admittedly still appears not to know about HTTP redirects. <em>sigh</em>)</p><br />
    <br />
    <p>3. Someone on city council (or at Queen's Park) to tell the powers that be how Silicon Valleys really work. (I nominate David; I'll even pay for a barber to make him presentable.)</p><br />
    <br />
    <p>4. A unicorn.</p><br />
    <br />
    <p>Odds are about equal on all four.</p>

  • http://www.third-bit.com Greg Wilson

    1. Funding channels that are willing to take real risks in the hopes of real rewards.

    2. Effective working relationships between U of T and 416/905 companies that aren't already worth a billion dollars. (Profs don't come to *camp; startups don't engage with the PEY program– which admittedly still appears not to know about HTTP redirects. sigh)

    3. Someone on city council (or at Queen's Park) to tell the powers that be how Silicon Valleys really work. (I nominate David; I'll even pay for a barber to make him presentable.)

    4. A unicorn.

    Odds are about equal on all four.

  • Alistair James Morto

    <p>'the vision that Toronto 'will become, and be acknowledged globally, as one of the 5 most innovative, creative and productive locations in the world for ICT research, education, business, and investment by 2011'</p><br />
    <br />
    <p>Seems clear enough to me.. if we were Michigan.</p>

  • http://www.peapod.ca/blog Alistair James Morton

    'the vision that Toronto 'will become, and be acknowledged globally, as one of the 5 most innovative, creative and productive locations in the world for ICT research, education, business, and investment by 2011'

    Seems clear enough to me.. if we were Michigan.

  • Chris

    <p>I've wrote a little snippet about Toronto's challenges as well, couldn't trackback properly for some reason :</p><br />
    <br />
    <p><a href="http://www.ragobeer.com/strategy_to_win/2008/02/torontos-techno.html</p&gt; " target="_blank"><a href="http://www.ragobeer.com/strategy_to_win/2008/02/torontos-techno.html</p>&quot; target="_blank">http://www.ragobeer.com/strategy_to_win/2008/02/torontos-techno.html</p></a&gt; </a>

  • http://www.ragobeer.com Chris

    I've wrote a little snippet about Toronto's challenges as well, couldn't trackback properly for some reason :

    http://www.ragobeer.com/strategy_to_win/2008/02/torontos-techno.html

  • Peter Childs

    <p>Toronto has a lot going for it & however I wonder whether it has the size to compete with established centers like Silicon Valley or the emerging hubs in India and Asia. </p> <p>As you've rightly focused on, connection (at a personal and business level) is what drives innovation and company formation (see Proximity Geography for studies on social and physical connection driving innovation). That is partly a function of creating opportunity to connect and partly a function of the diversity in the interests and businesses in the connection pool. And that diversity is largely driven by the number of people in the pool. </p> <p>Silicon Valley treats the world is its (diversity) hinterland. The emerging Asian centers use their size to similar effect. What both have is an incredible local pool of talent tied to International reach for ideas and trends. </p> <p>I think to reach the scale needed to compete we need to develop Toronto/Ottawa/Montreal into single community. This requires us to solve a number of issues like business structure, work flow, accountability and work and non-work collaboration that are likely to become critical to a global economy increasingly driven by specialization. (Assuming you believe as I do that vertically integrated companies will become less competitive as the global economy evolves) </p> <p>The other advantage is that each city has different core skills and business composition increasing the opportunities for innovation at the boundary of two disciplines.</p> <p>On the government front we need to an acknowledgement that businesses fail & and rather than managing to prevent failure (by supporting safe bets and uncontroversial programs) they need to embrace failure as a part of the development and learning process. We also need to celebrate successes, in part by acknowledging the failures that gave rise to it. </p> <p>In terms of helping the development of the T/O/M triangle government could support high speed video conferencing to allow events like DemoCamp run in each city to be 'attended' by parties in the other cities. This allows people to get a sense of what's going on in other cities and identify people and businesses that are mesh with theirs. To augment this programs to support a culture of collaboration & with models and training on working together while protect ones interests, etc. </p> <p>Another is supporting incubation through co-working. Fixing the roadblocks in licensing university & government research is another, and grants (hey if they did video links why not do a ResearchCamp & where researchers could discuss their work and its potential applications)</p> <p>Oh!! I've gone on enough & but I can't leave without chiding Ottawa's OCRI, which challenged by similar questions you raised in your post had decided that the program we need is to fix things is & get this & a marketing campaign to tell us the glass is really half full & not half empty.</p>

  • Stephen Giles

    <p>Toronto suffers from the usual Canadian need to self deprecate and look elsewhere. The Canadian media constantly looks South (particularly south west) for the next big thing. Part of creating a Silicon Valley north to my mind will start when things like Demo camp start getting some hype of their own. When it takes a guy like Albert Lai that many years to get the notice of the mainstream Canadian press shows that we need to do a much better job selling ourselves to the world.</p>

  • Michael O'Conno

    <p>Actually, Nortel has spawned any number of optical and wireless networking spinoffs in the Ottawa area. There are even spinoffs of spinoffs. Many of the best engineers in the Ottawa area are Nortel alums.</p>

  • http://www.petesview.net Peter Childs

    Toronto has a lot going for it & however I wonder whether it has the size to compete with established centers like Silicon Valley or the emerging hubs in India and Asia.

    As you've rightly focused on, connection (at a personal and business level) is what drives innovation and company formation (see Proximity Geography for studies on social and physical connection driving innovation). That is partly a function of creating opportunity to connect and partly a function of the diversity in the interests and businesses in the connection pool. And that diversity is largely driven by the number of people in the pool.

    Silicon Valley treats the world is its (diversity) hinterland. The emerging Asian centers use their size to similar effect. What both have is an incredible local pool of talent tied to International reach for ideas and trends.

    I think to reach the scale needed to compete we need to develop Toronto/Ottawa/Montreal into single community. This requires us to solve a number of issues like business structure, work flow, accountability and work and non-work collaboration that are likely to become critical to a global economy increasingly driven by specialization. (Assuming you believe as I do that vertically integrated companies will become less competitive as the global economy evolves)

    The other advantage is that each city has different core skills and business composition increasing the opportunities for innovation at the boundary of two disciplines.

    On the government front we need to an acknowledgement that businesses fail & and rather than managing to prevent failure (by supporting safe bets and uncontroversial programs) they need to embrace failure as a part of the development and learning process. We also need to celebrate successes, in part by acknowledging the failures that gave rise to it.

    In terms of helping the development of the T/O/M triangle government could support high speed video conferencing to allow events like DemoCamp run in each city to be 'attended' by parties in the other cities. This allows people to get a sense of what's going on in other cities and identify people and businesses that are mesh with theirs. To augment this programs to support a culture of collaboration & with models and training on working together while protect ones interests, etc.

    Another is supporting incubation through co-working. Fixing the roadblocks in licensing university & government research is another, and grants (hey if they did video links why not do a ResearchCamp & where researchers could discuss their work and its potential applications)

    Oh!! I've gone on enough & but I can't leave without chiding Ottawa's OCRI, which challenged by similar questions you raised in your post had decided that the program we need is to fix things is & get this & a marketing campaign to tell us the glass is really half full & not half empty.

  • http://stevegiles.blogspot.com Stephen Giles

    Toronto suffers from the usual Canadian need to self deprecate and look elsewhere. The Canadian media constantly looks South (particularly south west) for the next big thing. Part of creating a Silicon Valley north to my mind will start when things like Demo camp start getting some hype of their own. When it takes a guy like Albert Lai that many years to get the notice of the mainstream Canadian press shows that we need to do a much better job selling ourselves to the world.

  • Michael O’Connor

    Actually, Nortel has spawned any number of optical and wireless networking spinoffs in the Ottawa area. There are even spinoffs of spinoffs. Many of the best engineers in the Ottawa area are Nortel alums.