Opinion: Whole lotta incubatin' going on

Yesterday's startups help breed tomorrow's potential

Scott Annan stands at attention at the front of Mercury Grove’s open-concept office space, holding up his hands for quiet.

He’s perched on a milk crate for a foot or so of extra height, and the ball cap on his head casts an exaggerated shadow against a creased projector screen behind him.

A clutch of young entrepreneurs, software developers and other high-tech mavens, who have each turned out for a Democamp event at Mercury Grove, fall silent.

“I think that, here in Ottawa, we have the best entrepreneurs and talent anywhere in Canada,” Mr. Annan announces, to thunderous approval from the crowd.

Democamp events allow fledgling entrepreneurs a chance to pitch their business ideas to a knowledgeable group. Luc Levesque, founder of TravelPod and a past OBJ Forty Under 40 recipient, looks on from deep within the crowd. A few spots down from him is Favequest’s Allan Isfan.

“And I think most of them are in this room right now,” continues Mr. Annan. “One of the great opportunities we have is to get together and collaborate with each other, and also support each other. Because being in a startup, and being an entrepreneur, is a very difficult thing.”

Mr. Annan would know. Himself a recent OBJ Forty Under 40 recipient, he runs two interrelated businesses – Mercury Grove, a web strategy firm, and professional networking company Network Hippo – and is heavily involved in the startup community.

But he’s also recently opened up his new Bank Street office space to entrepreneurs of all stripes, in the hope that collaboration will breed success for the larger group.

Anyone – and Mr. Annan emphasizes the “anyone” part – wishing to get their entrepreneur on is welcome to drop by and set up shop.

“I see (Mercury Grove) being an open-sourced community of startup entrepreneurs,” he explains, estimating the brick-walled, art-infested and multi-tiered space could host around 25 or 30 busy entrepreneurs at once. “They would not only use the facility, but also use other members in the space to bounce ideas off one another, and hopefully create better products.”

It’s all part of a growing trend in Ottawa’s technology grassroots: the creation of business accelerators within the office spaces of already-viable technology companies, many of them who just a few years ago were startups themselves.

“What we’re seeing is kind of a new generation of incubators and accelerators,” he says. “And it tends to be people with a degree of experience, with a shared space.”

If this sounds similar to what the folks at Shopify have been doing recently at their ByWard Market office, that’s because it is. The E-commerce firm, which dare I say has over the past several months gained official “media darling” status, has helped incubate at least two young companies this year in Avitu, an online advertising firm, and Groupon competitor Koopon.

Avitu, which consists of a few University of Ottawa students, moved out of Shopify when school started up this fall. The company has since secured a small space in the university’s Technology Transfer and Business Enterprise building.

But representative Brennan Loh says the experience was about much more than free rent. He says he and his colleagues still visit the Shopify office regularly for mentorship and guidance on all fronts.

“I can talk to Harley (Finkelstein) about business development. (My colleague) can talk to (chief technical officer) Cody (Fauser) about the technical side. And (our other colleague) can work with (chief design officer) Dan (Weinand), to go over user experience and that kind of thing.”

But there’s other, less visible startup incubation and mentorship happening in Ottawa’s grassroots, if you scratch below the surface.

Take former Fidus executive Mike Alam – as it happens, another recent OBJForty Under 40 recipient (I’m sensing a bit of a theme here) – who earlier this year started up his new business, Valydate, within Fidus’s west-end hallways. The company performs integrity analysis within schematic designs - essentialy, Valydate discovers and points out design errors early in the hardware development cycle. Fidus specializes in product development and design.

The synergies between the two, explains Mr. Alam, are obvious.

"For us it wasn't the rent, or the space,” he says. "We do something complimentary to Fidus, and something that they could incorporate into their own offering as a differentiator."

He’s now sharing office space on Leggett Drive with another firm, but says the relationship with Fidus worked well during his firm’s first six months because of the reciprocity between the two companies.

“The most valuable part was access to an active sales team, which is key for a company as small as us. And having the ability to bounce ideas off of engineers in our industry helped guide product development.”

Which really, when you whittle it down, is the same thing Mr. Annan is going for over at Mercury Grove.

“I think we can learn a lot from each other, especially when you mix people who are at different levels of success with their businesses,” says Mr. Annan.

“Instead of sitting in your little corner trying to save the world, why not be surrounded by people trying to do the same thing?”