Opinion: Hub’s death signals larger shift

So Ottawa’s long-sought Innovation Hub, the source of hundreds of closed-door meetings and hush-hush phone calls and anxious protagonists and multi-level governmental consultations, is apparently dead.

It’s a good thing, too, in many respects, for those involved. No doubt many were sick of media outlets such as OBJ pestering them about timelines, funding, and whether the $100-million project would ever get off the ground.

And as OCRI CEO Claude Haw notes in our cover story, various smaller incubators around town, such as Ian Graham’s TheCodeFactory, do a great job. The Lead To Win program has chugged along nicely since its reincarnation earlier this year. Bruce Firestone’s new Exploriem.org incubator at Lincoln Fields is another example, albeit fairly new. And there are others.

OBJ360 (Sponsored)

But in many respects, the death of the Hub – an epic similar to other Ottawa stories such as the light rail fiasco or the redevelopment of Lansdowne Park – seems to be about more than this individual project, or even about incubators or technology at all.

It actually seems, in many ways, to be very much about Mr. Haw putting his own stamp on OCRI after a few months of settling into the top job.

Which is fair enough, really. It’s probably accurate to say this happens in most organizations where there has been turnover at the top.

Add to that the lack of local private-sector interest to help fund it, and it becomes fairly easy to see why the Hub wheezed out a final death rattle this week.

But in my parting interview with former CEO Jeff Dale earlier this year, things seemed very, very different. He told me in late February that he “hadn’t heard one person tell me (the Innovation Hub) isn’t needed.”

Those are fairly strong words. And although Mr. Dale acknowledged OCRI has begun implementing many of the Hub’s planned functions anyhow, he added that small-scale efforts aren’t really enough, in his view.

“The Hub is meant to do all this on a larger scale,” he told me. “And the demand for a business acceleration space (in Ottawa) is huge.”

Apparently not huge enough, however. And for many people eager to see Ottawa’s tech scene recapture its lost vigour, the Hub’s demise should be a huge, if not unexpected, disappointment.

After all, Ottawa doesn’t exist in a bubble. Our city competes with other metropolitan areas for every inch of tech industry ground, and it’s hard to imagine a hot-shot startup locating here simply because the city is dotted with a clutch of low-capacity incubators (no disrespect to anyone involved).

Rather, they might prefer Toronto, where that city’s MaRS Discovery District provides almost a hundred thousand square feet of space – with another 900,000 planned – in which to connect tech entrepreneurs with business-savvy types.

Or Montreal, where the Centre d’enterprises et d’innovation de Montreal offers 53,000 square feet in a centrally-located facility.

Or Kingston, where Queen’s University has devised a sparkling new Innovation Park – along with that city’s economic development agency, KEDCO – in the downtown core. The first phase of that park, which has been operating since 2008, provides almost 100,000 square feet of space.

Or Waterloo. Or San Jose. Or … I think you get the point.

The only question is, when will Ottawa?

Get our email updates

Get up-to-date news about the companies, people and issues that impact businesses in Ottawa and beyond.