Govt and startups speak candidly on how to make Toronto a world-class startup hub

The tone was tense and the food was good last week, as founders and government actors came together for a no-holds-barred conversation about the current state of startups in Toronto and Canada.

Founded by Sheetal Jaitly of TribalScale (disclosure: proud sponsor of BetaKit’s Ask an Investor series, ed.) “about a year ago,” the Founders Breakfasts are typically an informal gathering of founders at all stages — from fresh incubator graduates to multi-billion dollar exits — to meet each other and have honest conversations about what’s going on in the startup world.

This morning’s event was a bit different as Siri Agrell, director of strategic initiatives at Toronto Mayor John Tory’s office; and Mike Williams, general manager of economic development and culture for the City of Toronto, sat at a table in the centre of the room while they were peppered with questions ranging on all topics from Mayor Tory’s Israel mission to the touchy topic of American President Donald Trump.

Leveraging the city

The conversation kicked off on the relatively innocuous note of how startups can better leverage city programs – admittedly, some audience members didn’t even know all the programs available. Williams made the point that taking advantage of programs depends on where you are at in your career and your company. Some programs, like Starter Company, are intended for young entrepreneurs and offer more education (a multi-week training program) than money (up to $5,000). Other opportunities are industry-specific, such as an incubator for food processing startups and another for fashion startups.

“The key question [though],” responded Williams, “is how do I sell to the city.”

This is where Agrell jumped in, noting that Toronto “is a lab unto itself.” The city is so diverse that it is easy to test platforms, something that Agrell sees the government playing a role in facilitating, offering Ritual as an example. The food ordering app, recently launched a feature allowing users to buy tickets on the Toronto Island Ferry. The whole process took less than a day to set up, says Agrell, but other pilots may not be so lucky if current processes continue.

“We had a conference call at 3 p.m.,” she recalls. The Ritual team came with proposed solutions and responses to every problem thrown at them by city IT, and ultimately, “the program was announced at 10 a.m. the next day.”

Bringing the world to Toronto

Next on the docket was a review of two big missions Mayor Tory has taken to advocate for tech in Toronto: Israel and Silicon Valley.

“We need to recognize that Toronto is the third largest tech hub in North America…but we don’t feel the love from City Hall.”

Williams noted that a mission with the Mayor has two key benefits: bonding with other folks on the mission (other founders, investors, and policymakers) and the press coverage that travelling with the Mayor of Toronto carries. He added that on their mission in Israel, they were able to meet and observe 200 to 300 companies, something that could not have happened if the trip was done by a small group of individuals instead of a government body.

The objectives of the missions, too, were different, said Agrell. Where the trip to Israel was about showing Mayor Tory how the government can facilitate growth (Israel’s tech scene has been hugely supported by its government), while the Silicon Valley trip was about continuing the “return to Toronto” mantra for tech talent and startup founders. Agrell noted that the latter has been on the agenda now for almost a decade.

Talent and Trump

One mention of talent and the conversation immediately turned to the elephant in the room – President Donald Trump and his recent ban on immigration from seven countries in the Middle East and North Africa. While the ban has been stayed by a federal judge in the United States, shockwaves continue to be felt in Canada. Many founders feel a sense of duty for the government to help capture that talent – if only so Canadian startups can take advantage of the amazing talent that has been displaced or discouraged from going to the US because of the message sent by the ban.

The response from Agrell and Williams was clear: Canada needs to be welcoming. But everyone in the room acknowledged this issue is not as cut-and-dry as we would all like.

Instead of going head to head with President Trump, Agrell and Williams noted that the city government will look to bolster its current strategies of industry promotion (including Mayor Tory’s recent trip to LA to bring more movie and music work to Canada) and working to fix current systems to streamline creation and innovation in the city (such as looking at how to amend government processes so that pilots like Ritual’s can happen more frequently).

Agrell also warned about the potential backlash the tech industry could face if government only focused on city building and tech investment. “We need to bring everyone along with us,” she noted as she reminded the room of the necessity of thinking of rural areas and job displacement from technology innovation.

On that note, “every top company has talent problems, even Facebook or Apple. So what are we doing in Toronto to develop our home-grown talent?” asked an audience member. Williams and Agrell stepped back on this, acknowledging that education is the domain of the provincial government, and thus the City could not do as much as individuals like Agrell and Williams may want. However, both realized the necessity of working alongside colleges, universities, private schools, and the increasingly popular code bootcamp style programs to promote employment.

Building up Toronto

An issue that a couple of audience members brought up was the feeling that tech companies don’t get enough recognition in the city.

“We need to recognize that Toronto is the third largest tech hub in North America…but we don’t feel the love from City Hall,” said one audience member.

“We need a star system similar to the United States.”

The comments were well-taken by Williams, and Agrell was sympathetic, noting that the top comments in the City’s survey of founders is that they want government to be a vocal champion, highlighting the amazing work in Toronto while encouraging other top performers to come to Toronto and do the same.

Agrell stopped short of taking all the blame, instead pushing tech founders and the broader tech ecosystem to focus more on self-promotion. “We need a star system similar to the United States,” she said. “People don’t necessarily understand tech, but tech continues to get amazing coverage because people want to know more about Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, or other ‘celebrities’ of the US tech ecosystem.”

Jaitly echoed this statement, noting that Canadian culture isn’t always conducive to self-promotion and “tearing our shirt open to show the Superman crest,” but that in order to be successful going forward, we have to embrace being vocally proud of our work and achievements.

Photo via Twitter

Stefan Palios

Stefan Palios

Stefan is a Nova Scotia-based entrepreneur and writer passionate about the people behind tech. He's interviewed over 200 entrepreneurs on topics like management, scaling, diversity and inclusion, and sharing their personal stories. Follow him on Twitter @stefanpalios.

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