By Henry Beckett, Client Services Manager at Innovation Factory
Last week, the Innovation Factory team attended the Ontario Centres of Excellence (OCE) Discovery conference at The Metro Toronto Convention Centre. The annual event brings together thousands of people who are part of Ontario’s innovation ecosystem – including entrepreneurs, government agencies, private investors, even Silicon Valley successes – to showcase leading-edge technologies, best practices and research in Ontario.
Representing our local Hamilton ecosystem were, among others, Innovation Factory, The Forge accelerator, Ridout Maybee LLP, McMaster University, The W Booth School of Engineering Practice, Mohawk College, and of course Hamilton Economic Development and the City of Hamilton.
Canada, like many nations around the world, is pushing hard to develop a structural, thriving entrepreneurial environment. Worldwide, nurturing the ‘entrepreneurial spirit’ is seen as essential to growing economies. So, Ontario invests heavily in supporting new innovative companies in the hopes that new jobs and opportunities will develop and improve the economic landscape for everyone in the province.
OCE Discovery serves as a showcase of what provincial money has produced. And based on what I saw at this year’s show, it has produced a LOT. This was my first OCE Discovery and I was amazed by the vast amount of entrepreneurial activity and its support structure thriving in Ontario. What seemed like hundreds of exciting companies, many of which get vital support through their journey from Regional Innovation Centres (RICs) like Innovation Factory, dotted the show floor with engaging displays and fascinating demonstrations. In this category were Innovation Factory companies Chipsetter, Start the Cycle, fred, Cinnos, EduCredu, Ranggo, and more.
Also striking at the show was the heavy presence of private investment. Angel Investors and venture capitalists abounded, sniffing out opportunities. Macroeconomically, right now is an extraordinary time to seek private funding because with central banks having flooded the world in liquidity in the wake of the 2008 crash, stock and bond returns are low and wealth levels at record highs, leaving millions of investors looking for new destinations for their money.
OCE also brought in heavy-hitters from Silicon Valley, the famous area around San Francisco that has spawned so many innovative global leaders like Google and Apple. Eric Ries, credited with creating the idea of the “Lean Startup”, gave an inspiring keynote interview about — among other things — listening carefully to customers while building your company, and Singularity University’s David Roberts gave a talk on disruption that to me was one of the best presentations I’d ever seen.
There was also a large international presence, with China dominating much of the presentation time on the second day, discussing partnerships and trying to demystify how to work with its government and companies. The world’s largest angel organization, the Keiretsu Forum, had two large booths open for entrepreneurs seeking investment. It’s hard to know how many deals were done, but certainly hundreds of conversations were going on.
An interesting moment that stuck with me from the conference was during a discussion with senior executives from Uber and AirBnB, one of whom is from Calgary. When asked how Canada can be more like Silicon Valley, they pointed to the difficulty with funding in Canada, getting almost unanimous nods of agreement throughout the room. But that’s a complex topic that deserves its own blog post.
So is OCE Discovery worth attending? Well, it depends who you are and what you’re looking for. If you, for whatever reason, want to be able to – in one venue – interface with the vast network that represents the Ontario entrepreneurial ecosystem, then there certainly is no better way to do that than to attend Discovery. You’ll find people friendly and open to conversations, and you’ll very likely come away with productive new relationships, ones that could prove critical to the success of your venture, whatever it may be.