In the world of Canadian tech, there’s a tendency to focus on the big names, big money, and big cities. But this viewpoint overlooks the wave of innovation across Canada, where exciting things are happening in small cities at a pace matching their larger cousins – and under the radar to boot.
“We stopped thinking about Cobourg and we started to think outside the box.”
– Mayor John Henderson
A prime example of small-town tech development resides in Cobourg, Ontario, located between Toronto and Ottawa with a population of just under 20,000 people. The town’s flagship accelerator, Venture13, just celebrated its one-year anniversary, and with it, is demonstrating how to create a blueprint for scalable tech success in a rural community.
Before the creation of the accelerator, Building 13 was a worn-down structure in Cobourg’s northern industrial park that needed a major makeover. The town was dishing out $70,000 per year to essentially keep the building empty. It took a combination of factors – among them a partnership of organizations looking for shared operational space and a federal mandate to advance tech innovation – to transform the building into the tech hub it is today.
As Cobourg Mayor John Henderson put it, “We asked a very important question: could we do something differently? We stopped thinking about Cobourg and we started to think outside the box.”
The Mayor said integrating the accelerator into the community was part of the plan all along. “It has actually forced us to rethink the corporate management model and our innovation in Cobourg,” Henderson said. “We believe Cobourg can be instrumental in strengthening our competitive edge, and we can create our own innovation district for Eastern Ontario. This comes today because of powerful partnerships and a complementary powerful vision.”
Cobourg’s Innovation Hub
Building 13 turned into Venture13, a multi-purpose venue with a design focused on innovation, technology, and flexibility. There’s a makerspace that’s popular for kids’ summer camps, and a seminar hall that’s frequently booked for meetings or the occasional roundtable with local MPs. The main presentation hall has a shifting setup that’s hosted tech talks and fireside chats, and the VentureZone acts as a contemporary co-working space for early-stage tech-driven startups. Surrounding the Venture13 space in the building are community anchor organizations, such as the Northumberland Community Futures Development Corporation (CFDC) and a branch of the Cobourg Police Department.
The team was quick to point out to BetaKit that the purpose of the VentureZone space is to bring together entrepreneurs and innovators that may not have met otherwise, potentially fostering new partnerships. That’s another built-in benefit to building a successful accelerator space: not only are you nurturing local talent, but you’re also creating new opportunities and attracting new talent.
When it comes to fostering those opportunities, Venture13 has already hosted various pitch contests and competitions to support startup growth. One of them, “Pitch to the Chief,” features startups pitching effective solutions to the Cobourg police chief.
“It’s the synergy amongst the partners that makes this place so special,” said Cobourg Police Acting Chief Paul VandeGraaf. He explained that $5.6 million taxpayer dollars have been reinvested in the city due to these innovations saving on the cost of policing and, while he doesn’t quite understand AI or the adorable police robot created by CrossWing Inc., “we change for everyone’s benefit.”
Another pitch competition, the N100 Pitch Contest, is now biannual, with the most recent N100 winner, Argentum Electronics, receiving $250,000 in funding. Northumberland CFDC Executive Director Wendy Curtis referred to the events as “gamification in motion.”
“From a community organization perspective, we’re supposed to be taking the risks that no one else will,” she said. “And when you’re a startup, the banks aren’t going to be supporting you. Somebody’s got to step up and embrace you as being a crucial part of Canada’s future.”
Developing for the future
At its anniversary celebration, Venture13 announced a partnership with VentureKids, an initiative that gives kids access to free CSS, HTML, and Java coding programs, courses in entrepreneurial fundamentals, and startup training. The partnership, called VentureKids TECHimmersivE and launching in June, will cover costs for kids to travel to Toronto, train at Northeastern University, and get introduced to big-name companies such as Microsoft, LinkedIn, and Twitter.
“There are so many opportunities to bring the community together and see teamwork grow in a collaborative way.”
– Takara Small
Takara Small, the tech journalist and entrepreneur behind VentureKids (as well as a Cobourg native herself), believes that Cobourg’s talent is its best-kept secret.
“Small towns have the ability to grow and spread, and as you’ve all seen in Cobourg, there are so many opportunities to bring the community together and see teamwork grow in a collaborative way,” Small said as part of her keynote address to Venture13’s full lecture hall. “Cobourg and surrounding rural areas will be the magnet for future growth for the Shopify’s of the world.”
The new partnership with VentureKids wasn’t the only big announcement at the one-year anniversary celebration. The region’s MP, Kim Rudd, was on hand to inform the room that FedDev Ontario is providing another $4.5 million dollars to fund Venture13’s continued vision.
“The reason the money came here is because of the results that have been achieved. It’s not by someone filling out an application and saying ‘yes, I would like some more money, I have a good idea’ or ‘I’d like some more money because we’ve run out’. It’s because of the success of those achievements,” said Rudd.
Those achievements by the numbers: Venture13 has created 60 new jobs, hosted 292 events, and seen over 6,000 guests come through the building. With the velocity of “the speed of trust,” as Wendy Curtis put it, Venture13 stands to continue its growth as an arbiter of Canada’s small-town innovation.
“Venture13 now stands as a permanent hub to our vision for this region – to be a leader in the shaping of economic opportunity through key startup investments,” said Rudd. “Under one roof, we’re witnessing the collaboration that helped chart a course for dynamic breakthroughs that may even lead to global impact. The possibilities are, quite frankly, limitless.”
Images courtesy Venture13.