Feature: Fledgling startups eager for help

Creating prototypes, finding clients, building revenue streams, getting to scale – starting a business isn’t easy. It can all be very daunting, especially to a new entrepreneur.

That’s where accelerators and incubators come to the rescue.  

With plentiful business resources, mentors and a healthy knowledge base, these organizations are there to help both fledgling startups and established businesses hit their marks.

“It’s that old saying, ‘Children aren’t raised by just parents, it takes a village,’” says Patrick White, director of operations at L-SPARK, a Kanata-based incubator and accelerator for enterprise software startups. “It’s the same kind of thing with a company, it takes a whole community. Someone is always going to be able to point to that company that was able to do it without any help” but often that’s not the full story, he says.

L-SPARK had 175 applicants for its second cohort and selected nine in total. But local companies looking for mentors and resources are not limited to programs in Ottawa only.

Take Zighra, for example. The online and mobile banking cyber security company ended up looking to London, England to find the accelerator best suited to its needs.

The company recently joined the Barclays Accelerator, which is sponsored by the British banking and financial service company. Yes, that Barclays, the marquee sponsor of soccer’s English Premier League.

Zighra beat out 700 other applicants from around the world to nab one of the 10 coveted spots in the latest cohort of the fintech-focused program. Barclays provides tools, equipment and facilities to help members get their services to market as well as mentors who offer companies advice on everything from networking to pitching.

“One of the reasons we went to (the London-based accelerator is) because it was sponsored by Barclays. It had a brand behind it,” says Vipin Menon, head of growth and partnerships at Zighra. “We wanted to expand into the Euro market, we wanted a beachhead. Getting us into Barclays gets us into the hands of champions that can … take down the barriers of entry.”

Menon believes some accelerators can function as a sort of an “MBA 101,” which is great for first-time entrepreneurs but not so much for veteran company-builders. He believes that whether an incubator and accelerator is necessary to help a firm grow all depends on the company and its specific needs.

UNIVERSITY VS. INVESTORS

Tony Bailetti, director of Carleton’s Technology Innovation Management master’s program and the school’s Lead to Win accelerator, sees such programs as “advanced courses” for budding entrepreneurs.

UBI Global, a Swedish benchmarking organization, recently ranked Lead to Win as the seventh-best university incubator and accelerator program in North America. The program has incubated startups since 2002, and companies from the five years leading up to 2014 that were part of Lead to Win generated more than $19.3 million in sales in 2014.

Bailetti draws a distinction between academic programs such as Lead to Win and industry-based services such as L-SPARK.

“We all complement (each other, but L-SPARK is) run by investors, they take equity,” he says. “The university, we don’t do this.”

But to Bailetti, there’s no competition between the two. In his eyes, there’s more than enough room for many more incubator and accelerator programs in the capital.

“The demand in Ottawa is huge,” he says. “The (incubators and accelerators) that are in place right now cannot cope with it. The more we have the better.”

One new entry into the field is the Founder Institute. The Silicon Valley-based organization is dedicated to helping entrepreneurs who maintain a day job but wish to explore their own business ideas in their off-hours. Co-director Stefan Celeski calls the Founder Institute an organization for “part-time entrepreneurs.”

While the group hasn’t officially confirmed it is setting up shop in the capital, Celeski says it will probably launch in the fall. White believes it will be an important addition to the Ottawa ecosystem.

“One of the issues is (L-SPARK is) only focused on enterprise (software-as-a-service companies),” he says. “Tony (Bailetti) has done some great stuff with respect to the academic world. Startup Garage (at the University of Ottawa) is as well, but I think we need something in the middle. And Founder Institute is a great piece being added.”

White says he doesn’t see the Founder Institute as a competitor to L-SPARK. Like Bailetti, he thinks there is a place for many different kinds of incubators and accelerators. He says some could focus on prototyping and validating, for example, while others could concentrate on how to scale a company and still others could emphasize client acquisition strategies.

“We’re not trying to compete against each other, we’re trying to elevate everything,” he says.

“I think there’s room for other players. It’s like a marriage. We give somebody a mentor two days a week. That is a marriage. Not each incubator/accelerator is going to be a perfect fit. You have to go find out what else is out there and find out who is the perfect fit for you.”

And this is just the beginning when it comes to such programs in the Ottawa area. Invest Ottawa offers a host of services to help get new businesses on their feet, and the city is home to a number of other accelerators and incubators that are all aiming to improve the startup ecosystem.

“I think that Ottawa has done a wonderful job,” says Bailetti. “We have Invest Ottawa, we have L-SPARK, we have Lead to Win. This is a major inter-organizational commitment to make Ottawa a magnet to attract entrepreneurs.”

Get your applications ready. 

“The demand in Ottawa is huge. The (incubators and accelerators) that are in place right now cannot cope with it. The more we have the better ...  I think that Ottawa has done a wonderful job. We have Invest Ottawa, we have L-SPARK, we have Lead to Win. This is a major inter-organizational commitment to make Ottawa a magnet to attract entrepreneurs.”