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Toronto Startup Ecosystem Strategy creates symbiosis between the city's emerging ventures

Start-ups at Ryerson's DMZ.

Mini Maker Fair at the Brickworks

Mini Maker Fair at the Brickworks.

MaRS Discovery District on College St.

Start-ups at MaRS

New wing of the MaRS Discovery District in Toronto.

The city’s startups are a diverse and constantly growing group of businesses, poised to turn our city into a globally-recognized startup hotspot. Recognizing the need for a support mechanism that will help these businesses to learn and grow together, the City of Toronto has launched the Toronto Startup Ecosystem Strategy.

Think of the strategy like a BIA for the region’s emerging companies: the City aims to provide support and networking connections to each individual startup, which will benefit the entire industry by establishing an overarching brand that unites them. The end result? A reinvigoration and common identity for Toronto’s startup culture, one the City can use to broadcast the region as a hub of innovation.

Toronto, which currently ranks eighth in the world for startup ecosystems, already has a well-developed business infrastructure. Budding entrepreneurs from the city’s eight universities and colleges can take their business ideas to incubators like Ryerson's DMZ and InCubes, and find support and mentorship at organizations like MaRS. Non-profit spaces like the Centre for Social Innovation, and events like the Maker Festival, help connect scalable business ideas to the venture capitalists that will help get those ideas to market.

Cross-pollination at all levels is a key part of the startup mentality. As an example, Brendan Dellandrea points to drone makers Dreamqii. Dellandrea, who is the Director of Marketing and Communications for Ryerson’s DMZ, says “The Fashion Zone [an incubator for fashion-related business] was in our space in the basement of DMZ. Dreamqii was right beside them, working on their product and their crowdfunding campaign. The folks from the Fashion Zone looked at this modular drone and said, ‘You know, this thing is going to need a carrying case,’ so they designed this beautiful backpack.” The Plexipack, a sleek hard-shell carrying case for the drone, is now available on Dreamqii’s IndieGoGo page. “It’s hard to imagine that happening if they hadn’t been sitting beside each other,” Dellandrea says. (Dreamqii itself is an incubator success story: its crowdfunding campaign raised over two million dollars, over ten times its initial funding goal.)

By launching the Startup Ecosystem Strategy, the City of Toronto wants these success stories to become common. Chris Rickett, the Manager of Entrepreneurial Services for Toronto, says that the Strategy marks the city’s re-entry into a leadership role. For years, Toronto has had a track record of supporting local startups. For example, the popular Toronto Food Business Incubator has outgrown its original 2,000 square-foot home. It recently received $500,000 from the city of Toronto to expand its facilities to a 20,000 square-foot facility, which will include a 24-hour kitchen, a wide variety of culinary tools, and access to business plan analysis and mentors.

Now, the city wants to do more. “There’s a lot going on, and we don’t always speak with the same voice,” says Rickett. “There are 50-plus business incubators in Toronto, and tons of success and interesting things happening, but the word doesn’t really get out.” The Strategy was set up to help that change. The City of Toronto’s role will be threefold: as catalyst, the city will create opportunities for startups and their projects to thrive, and shoot for the right political climate to foster support; as collaborator, it will act as a matchmaker for potential ecosystem partners and ensure the right people are getting into the right meetings; as funder, it will provide grants, sponsorships, and incentive programs.

But the Strategy’s aims are even loftier than that. In addition to industries like technology, food, and fashion—which already have well-established accelerators and incubators in the city—Toronto has its eye on sectors that don’t traditionally get the same type of support. For example, Toronto’s manufacturing industry is still a major player in the city’s economy, but it doesn’t have any incubators. That will change when two floors of an eight-floor Dufferin Street development are devoted to small-scale manufacturers growing up around the maker movement.

Perhaps the biggest shift will be uniting all these different and changing sectors under one vision. As Earl Miller, Director of Global Initiatives at MaRS says, “One of the most important needs that Toronto has right now is kind of coherent brand for its startups. We’re not saying that Toronto is the same as Silicon Valley, but we do need a common narrative that describes what we’re doing. It’s an umbrella for all us.” Miller sees the Ecosystem Strategy as having the potential to change Toronto in the eyes of the world, making it into a real magnet area for talent. “That can be start-ups who are from Hong Kong, Bejing, Chile, or Dubai, who want to come to the North American market.”

Because of their own experience as an incubator with Cossette Labs, Canadian marketing and communications agency Cossette was part of the city’s initial roundtable discussions about the ecosystem strategy. Cossette eventually went through a “leaner” brand-building exercise with the city, says Joe Dee, VP of Product and Technology Strategy. Starting with about 100 different ideas, the agency consulted with Toronto’s startup community on how to move forward, eventually winnowing down the results to the “Startup Here” identity. “Grow here and Invest here: we could really make it a call to action,” says Dee.

Dee and Cossette were mindful of the fact that Toronto’s startup community is made up of many different sectors. “What we needed to do during the process was remind ourselves that we weren’t just talking about tech companies. In Toronto, the startup ecosystem is quite diverse, and there are a lot of different people who would identify themselves as entrepreneurs.” Dee mentions the food and fashion incubators as examples of communities that would need to be reflected in the brand. “It was very important to us that the tone and the creative side didn’t just feel like digital technology. There are different ways to grow and invest and invest here.”

The next step will be launching a web portal and app, for both local and international entrepreneurs and investors, sometime this fall. The City’s hope is that Toronto moves up the ranks of global startup ecosystems, and that both talent and investors deepen their commitment to the city. As Dee sums up the strategy, “There are so many different pockets to this community, and we’re trying to get a unified vision of that it. The city has worked really hard to remain true to the community as they consolidate it.” 
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