Where is Ottawa’s International Startup Festival?

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By Leo Valiquette

On Monday, Francis shared some highlights from last week’s International Startup Festival in Montreal, which of course raises the obvious question, why do we not have these kinds of events in Ottawa?

After a false start, serial entrepreneur and all around community booster Scott Annan has launched his Mercury Grove startup incubator. Over at Exploriem, Bruce Firestone and the team are ramping up the scale of their operations. And then there’s the whole reincarnation of OCRI as Invest Ottawa.

There is no shortage of activity in this city in support of early-stage and growing technology ventures. Isn’t it time to knit this all together with a signature event that would feature the best and brightest from locally and abroad sharing their insights with the Ottawa community?

It’s not like there isn’t a local appetite for something like an International Startup Festival. I can’t speak for last week’s event in Montreal, because I wasn’t there, but in March of last year I attended Accelerate Montreal and I was running into familiar faces from Ottawa at every turn. And not just startup entrepreneurs, but senior executives too from established, mid-sized technology firms — companies that are already active in overseas markets and understand the need to export or die.

We’ve blogged in the past about whether a growing tech company must have a presence in Silicon Valley or if it simply needs to have something of that culture embedded in its own DNA. At a local networking event for startup entrepreneurs last year a guest speaker from the Valley talked about the dynamics of being a small fish in a small pond versus being tossed into a large one. His view was that truly talented and innovative small fish are not going to be devoured in the big pond. Instead, they would flourish like never before given the resources they would have close at hand.

In other words, this esteemed speaker from down south was telling his audience, “stop screwing around in this backwater called Ottawa and go where there’s real action.”

There is certainly some truth in what he said. On the other hand, my first response (which I kept to myself), was “Bullshit!” If we subscribe to that school of thought, we might as well hammer the final nails in this city’s economic coffin and be done with it. If Radian 6 could build a compelling value proposition from a home base on Canada’s east coast and still maintain that Canadian HQ even after its merger with Salesforce.com, then world-class companies can certainly be built from Ottawa.

Or look at Shopify, an Ottawa-based company that has reeled in $22-million in VC at a time when most entrepreneurs continue to lament the lack of funding. Not only is it on a steady growth track, it has launched its own Build-a-Business program to foster other e-commerce startups.

In a recent study of the success and failure rates of more than 10,000 startups, professors Olav Sorenson of the Yale School of Management and Michael Dahl of Aalborg University found that startups perform better when they launch (and keep) their startups in their hometowns.

No. Our bright lights don’t have to pull up stakes and flee Ottawa to find entrepreneurial success, but they do need to tap into the expertise and insight of those who “have been there and done that.” They must go after the resources that will help them succeed, regardless of whether those resources are found in Boston, New York, Silicon Valley or Bangalore. Sometimes that means getting on a plane, or getting involved with an organization such as the C100. But other times, it requires a few enterprising individuals to step up and work together to bring the world’s best to our own doorstep.

Montreal has Phil Telio to pull together signature events like the International Startup Festival. Who’s going to be our Ottawa equivalent?

/// COMMENTS

4 Comments »
  • Bruno Morency

    July 18, 2012 4:29 pm

    I don’t mean to be rude or dismissive of Ottawa (there are seriously impressive startups there) but what’s more constructive, doing a similar event in Ottawa or joining the fun in a fledgling event that is barely a 2-hour drive away?

    One of the things I kept hearing is how people enjoyed the caliber of attendees. The event attracts many people we normally need to take long flights to meet. Shouldn’t we focus efforts on one strong, “can’t miss” event that anyone within a reasonable drive from Montreal benefits from? This year we had a bus from NY, a train from Toronto, and a nice group from Quebec City.

  • Francis Moran

    July 18, 2012 5:37 pm

    Bruno: I don’t think Leo is for one minute arguing that startups in Ottawa ought not to attend the International Startup Festival in Montréal. This city’s representation was front and centre at the inaugural festival last year, and even more so this year as, among other things, Ottawa’s own Openera won a passel of the top prizes. I look forward to being part of an ever-stronger Ottawa contingent at future iterations of this excellent, world-class event.

    Leo’s lament was more generic, and focused on the absence in Ottawa of a sector-defining event that pulls together as much enthusiasm, wisdom and talent as does the Startup Festival.

    We Ottawa entrepreneurs love going down the road to Montreal, Toronto, Waterloo and even Silicon Valley itself in search of inspiration and more. I don’t think we’re diminishing the quality of any of those places or events when we say we’d love to see some of the same in our own backyard.

  • Bruno Morency

    July 18, 2012 9:18 pm

    Hi Francis — It was great to see many familiar faces from Ottawa, both last year and this year. You’re also right that merely saying you’d love to see some of the same in your own backyard does not diminish the quality of other places or events.

    I was raising the question whether there’s really something to gain in having “some of the same” in Ottawa. Whether for an event aimed at, and attracting, an international crowd, a 2hr drive could be considered “our own backyard”. In other words, that maybe there’s actually more to gain in getting even more behind the existing event than doing another one yourself.

  • Leo Valiquette

    July 19, 2012 9:06 am

    Bruno:

    Thanks for your comments. Francis is correct. I was not arguing for Ottawa startups to have their own local event that would give them reason to skip an event in another city such as the International Startup Festival. The more events of this sort there are, the better, and having one of our own in Ottawa would help to create a positive energy and enthusiasm that you simply can’t by having to “drive two hours down the road.” But if, as you say, effort is better spent in having both cities muster behind one single event of this caliber, then I respectively suggest that it should rotate between Ottawa and Montreal. Which brings us back to the closing comment in my post — who in Ottawa is best suited to assume that role and work in partnership with the organizers in Montreal?

    Cheers
    Leo

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