The Paradox of Choice


Crowd at AccelerateMTL photo by Chris Arsenault

Photo by © 2011 Chris Arsenault

I love what is going on in Montreal.

It’s nice. It’s concise. It’s clean. There is choice but it’s not overwhelming. It feels like there is a consolidated effort to make Montreal the hub for startups and technology in Quebec. There are other activities and groups but there seems to be a core group of influencers, activities, and events where high tech entrepreneurs can go to find others like them, potential employees, potential investors, etc.

I look at Ontario and I am concerned. We have what should be the building blocks for a great entrepreneurial soup. And we’ve seen some spectacular successes (Bumptop, Sysomos, Pushlife among others). But there is a lot of noise. Efforts divided between regions.

Turning up the volume

Volume goes to 11 by John Watson

Photo by © John Watson

I’m not suggesting a “one ring to rule them all” strategy. There are grassroots efforts, there are provincial government efforts, there are local economic development efforts like:

It leads to the murky waters that are the entrepreneur community and support infrastructure in Ontario. There is no segmentation. There definitely isn’t self-selection. They use similar words to describe their activities: entrepreneurship, startups, technology, media, growth, etc. As entrepreneurs there is a paradox of choice about who to listen to, where to go for advice, support, mentorship and guidance.

We started StartupNorth as a way to document our experiences finding, using, evaluating other startups in Toronto and across Canada. It was a way to connect with others interested in startups, emerging technologies and business models, and to talk about the things in a context specific to Canada.

I realize that the Ontario Ministry of Research and Innovation (MRI) has added to the entities designed to enable entrepreneurs. They are trying to “spread innovation” through out the province via the university commercialization networks.  The  ONE network that has centres in Waterloo, KingstonGuelph, Halton RegionDurham Region, Hamilton, Toronto, St. Catherines, North Bay, Sudbury, Ottawa, Mississauga, London, Markham and Windsor. The program is separate but deeply tied to the collaboration between business and academia.

  • Waterloo = University of Waterloo + Wilfred Laurier University
  • Kingston = Queen’s University + Royal Military College
  • Guelph = University of Guelph
  • Halton Region = Sheridan Institute of Technology & Applied Learning
  • Durham Region = University of Ontario Institute of Technology
  • Hamilton = McMaster University
  • Toronto = University of Toronto +  Ryerson University + OCAD
  • St. Catherines = Brock University
  • Sault St. Marie = Algoma University
  • North Bay = Nipissing University
  • Sudbury = Laurentian University
  • Ottawa = University of Ottawa + Carleton University
  • Mississauga = University of Toronto Mississauga Campus
  • London = University of Western Ontario
  • Markham = York University + University of Toronto Scarborough Campus
  • Windsor = University of Windsor

It’s interesting that California with an estimated population that is 3.7 times larger [1] than Ontario[2] has less innovation hubs than Ontario (12 in California to 14 in Ontario). (Sure from a per capita GDP calculation, Ontario is higher (Cdn$43,847 vs US$38,956) but it’s probably not entirely a relevant metric unless you’re a politician which I am not).

Photo by postbear eater of worlds - Some rights reserved CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

I’m wondering if rather than satisfising constituents with perceiving innovation benefits for votes, that we need to look toward innovation, education and economic growth programs that benefit citizens. I keep wondering what we are missing because of the existing programs and repackaging of programs for Ontarios entrepreneurs. Look at the job creation from a single venture firm, Union Square Ventures has portfolio companies with over 557 open jobs around the globe (128 are in NYC + Brooklyn). This is job creation. It’s focused on creating new positions, in a variety of rolls, that hopefully will attract new talent to the location.

Everyone loves to hates Toronto

Let’s all hate Toronto. It’s not uncommon for Canadians to dislike Toronto. But I don’t hear the same disdain for Montreal or Vancouver. But maybe that’s because I don’t live with their large gravity well pulling me closer. I choose to live downtown in Toronto because it’s where I want to be. I understand the lifestyle choices that others make to live elsewhere. There are days when the traffic, the people, the crazy, all get to me, but I love the collision of people, cultures, and ideas (go read Richard Florida for more thoughts on the Creative Class).

Are we missing an opportunity to raise the profile of Ontario companies because we don’t want to embrace the fact that Toronto is one of the major technology/media hubs? Are we diluting efforts by spreading the love and effort across 16 regions?