It’s fairly safe to say that I struck a loud chord with my post of a few weeks ago that took Ottawa’s major economic development agency to task for preferring cheerleading from the sidelines to playmaking that would actually move the ball down the field. It wasn’t quite the best-read post of all time; it ran on American Thanksgiving, a day that saw our blog lose most of our south-of-the-border readers who typically account for about one-third of our daily visitors. But it did garner one of the highest PostRank scores of all time, a yardstick that measures levels of engagement — comments, tweets and the like — around posts. With the exception of comments from the new OCRI CEO and from the head of OCRI’s marketing agency of record — neither of whom is exactly what you might call a dispassionate observer — every comment, tweet and other reaction I received applauded my characterisation and concurred with it. Some went even further with my analogy, with, for example, one widely involved local angel investor telling me yesterday that far from simply standing on the sidelines cheering, OCRI has often stepped onto the field to take the ball away and out of play from entrepreneurs and others who are trying to score real goals for the technology sector in this community.
In a long telephone chat the day after my post ran, new OCRI CEO Bruce Lazenby didn’t argue with much of what I had written. Indeed, he told me, in the two weeks between the time he knew he was taking on the job and the time it was publicly announced, he conducted what he called some “mystery shopping,” asking people far and wide in the community what they thought of OCRI. “You must have been just appalled by what you heard,” I said, and he didn’t disagree. Nor did he disagree with my statement that OCRI was “a terribly tarnished brand.”
Lazenby made it clear in that call and a couple of subsequent conversations that everything I wrote about, and particularly the comments I attributed to a senior OCRI representative who criticised economic development agencies in Kitchener-Waterloo, were already or would, under his watch, soon become very much a thing of the past. He persuaded me that as the new guy at the top of an organisation with increased funding and a reshaped mandate, he would be sweeping clean with a very new brush indeed.
It all sounded so good to me that I offered to come in and interview him about his plans for OCRI. He took me up on the offer. And so my blog managing editor, Leo Valiquette, and I sat down with Lazenby for about an hour earlier this week at OCRI’s new offices on Aberdeen Street in Little Italy. Following is part one of a two-part series of extracts, edited for space and cohesion, from the question-and-answer session we had with him.
The strengths and weaknesses of OCRI’s relationship with the technology community of Ottawa
When we asked Lazenby about how OCRI has been regarded by the local technology community, he made the valid point that the community is not homogenous. It is divided into two broad groups, he said, and OCRI has done a better job of serving one than the other.
The first is the middle-aged crowd of individuals with more established businesses who make those breakfast events in the west end. The second is made up of the 20 and 30 somethings who favour the Market.
“With the older crowd, it’s 7 o’clock in the morning at the Marshes,” Lazenby said. “With that (younger) crowd, it’s 7 o’clock at night at a bar in the Market – we’d better know that … one of our challenges in the early part of 2012 is to rethink that whole thing.”
He acknowledged that OCRI has done a good job of catering to that older crowd by running the same event programs, steered by the same executive committees. However, the outcome has been lack of fresh blood as the younger crowd take matters into their own hands to create networking events more to their liking.
OCRI does not necessarily have to bring these two communities together, which probably wouldn’t even be practical or productive, Lazenby said. Rather, the organisation must understand how it can better serve both communities and reshape its programs and services accordingly.
“I went to meet Harley and Toby (Harley Finkelstein, Tobias Lütke of Shopify) in their office a month ago and they basically gave me shit for 20 minutes,” Lazenby said. “They said, ‘Where have you been, why aren’t you paying attention to us? Why do we have to go to Montreal to join Founder Fuel when what we would really like to do is have something here that we can participate in?’ OK, shame on us for not creating opportunity for them to do that here. So that’s some of what we’re going to try and do.”
There are several facets to the issue, Lazenby said. First, how should OCRI create opportunities for beneficial linkages between these two communities? Second, what message should it take to each community and through what platforms, such as social media? Third, how must it rethink its relationship with other programs and initiatives that have sprung up across the city to fill the gaps others have seen in its programs?
From cold shoulder to collaboration
It is no secret that, in the past, OCRI has given other networking programs and business incubator efforts a cool reception. Not only will this change, Lazenby said, it already has.
“I met Ian Graham (of TheCodeFactory). He came into my office, sat down and I said, ‘Ian, my objective is not to put you out of business. My objective is to try and help you find more business.’ I had the same conversation with Bruce Firestone (of Exploriem.org), and with Tony Bailetti (of Carleton’s Lead to Win program). (This week), there are about eight of us getting together … and we’re going to look at the programs they are running, and we are going to say, ‘How can we complement that?’”
He acknowledged that OCRI has done a poor job of collaboration in the past to steer companies that were not a good fit for its programs, such as those offered through the Regional Innovation Centre (RIC), to other organizations in town such as TheCodeFactory or Exploriem.org. But this lack of collaboration has been an issue within OCRI as well. For example, if a life sciences startup came into the RIC, little effort was made to connect its founders with mentorship or other support from experienced individuals who were part of the Life Sciences Cluster.
Lazenby is also considering how that collaborative approach can also be applied to what could be considered the third community of Ottawa’s technology sector – post-secondary students. In a recent conversation with the dean of engineering at Carleton, Lazenby said he was shocked to learn there are 4,600 undergrads in just that one university’s various engineering programs.
“That is a huge cohort of people coming our way,” he said. “If we want to make sure they stay here and start businesses, we have to reach into the universities and get a hold of these guys. I met the president of the (Carleton) student association. He said that, just that day, the student entrepreneurial council had come to him and talked about how they could better manage their entrepreneurial desire within Carleton. You know what? I am pretty sure we never knew that organization existed and I know from his reaction that he didn’t know that we existed. So how do we reach into that community?”
At last, a startup accelerator centre for Ottawa
Lazenby is confident that OCRI has already made great strides in the right direction with its recent relocation to a more central location at 80 Aberdeen St., which also houses a number of technology companies, the Ottawa office of Celtic House Venture Partners, and representatives of other programs such as Ontario Centres of Excellence and IRAP.
The next big thing on the agenda is OCRI’s accelerator centre, which will offer 75 seats for use by qualifying startup companies. The call for applications is expected to be issued before the end of December. Bailetti is already filling 30 of those seats with young people from his program at Carleton.
The key to any successful accelerator, however, is the right blend of resources, mentorship and performance metrics to weed out the non-performers.
While the precise details are still to be ironed out, Lazenby says the model will likely be that participating companies get their room and board for free, (which includes work and meeting space, and office services) and pay a sliding scale for access to a range of professional services and mentorship, including finance, legal and banking. The program will be delivered by a mix of volunteer mentors and paid staff made possible through funding from the City of Ottawa.
“This program is going to say ‘customized to each company,’” Lazenby said. “It’s going to be a very aggressive program. So we’re not looking at companies that want to come in and vegetate. We’re looking at companies that want to come in and grow like crazy.”
While there will be no fixed limit on how long a startup can reside in the accelerator centre, it will be considered mandatory for them to partake of the mentorship and professional services being offered. They will also be subject to quarterly performance metrics. If they fail too many metrics a couple of quarters in a row, they are out.
While a certain number of companies will fade away due to lack of funding or failure to meet their marks, the preferred outcome, of course, is that they successfully graduate and need to relocate to accommodate their growth.
“The fly in the ointment here is going to be the financing,” Lazenby said.
In Part 2, we will talk more about Lazenby’s to do list for addressing Ottawa’s funding gap, how OCRI will work to support later-stage technology companies and how the organization will measure its success.