Surprising surge in applications for Invest Ottawa’s startup bootcamp has officials scrambling

Nick Quain
Invest Ottawa is considering options to support the surplus of candidates applying to to its startup bootcamp, said Nick Quain. (file photo)

Layoffs in the tech sector and a growing interest in applied AI are just a couple of the reasons behind a recent surge in applicants at a local tech startup bootcamp, officials say.

Invest Ottawa’s Ignition bootcamp is a 10-week program to help startup founders workshop their ideas and create a solid business foundation, while connecting them with local resources. 

“It helps really early-stage founders, usually at the idea stage or early prototype,” said Nick Quain, vice-president of venture capital at IO. “We go through the fundamentals of building a tech startup, everything from customer discovery, business models, financing, sales, marketing, the whole thing.”

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According to Quain, the program typically receives around 30 applications for 15 to 20 open slots each quarter. 

But this past fall, 70 startups applied, and IO has already received more than 80 additional applications for the upcoming winter term that starts at the end of January. 

Quain said the program has never seen this much interest in the five years since it started. 

“We have a pretty good finger on the pulse of the typical number of startups (in the city),” he said. “But we’ve never had anywhere near that many applications. This next one might even hit 100 (applications).”

It’s created a challenge for the Invest Ottawa team, which Quain said isn’t used to dealing with this many applicants, let alone this many applicants of such high quality.

“The advisers rate the startups on a scale of one to five, based on their readiness for the bootcamp and whether they’re a good fit,” he said. “Last I heard, there were already 19 five-star candidates. Usually, all the four stars are getting in and threes could slip in there. Now we’ve got a situation where these advisers are like, ‘Oh my god, this person might not get in.’”

He added that Invest Ottawa has already started considering what other workshops and programs it could offer to triage the early-stage candidates who don’t make it into Ignition. 

Quain attributes the surge in applications to recent layoffs in the tech sector, something that historically generates waves of entrepreneurship. 

“There’s a natural balance that happens with layoffs,” he said. “When companies do layoffs and give people severance, a lot of those people have some time and have ideas for businesses and they see this as an opportunity. When there’s a bunch of people made available in the market, you see entrepreneurship go up.”

Also, more people have become aware of the resources available to them in Ottawa, according to Erin Seegmiller, senior manager of early-stage programs at Invest Ottawa. 

“Word of mouth is very powerful in Ottawa. We’ve really been able to get the Ignition brand out into the market,” she said. 

“A lot of people don’t realize how strong the founder-to-founder network is here. And we have huge advocates and great organizations in Ottawa, all working together to support these founders. Cities like Toronto or Waterloo won’t necessarily have the same early-stage programming that we have to hold founders’ hands to validate their business.”

Seegmiller, who oversees the Ignition bootcamp, said applicants come from all walks of life, from new grads to established professionals, as well as those who’ve decided to start a business on the side. 

She said there’s been a steady stream of startups in the digital health and educational technology space, but with this new surge, many are utilizing AI technology.

“I would say about a quarter of our applicants have some component of applied AI,” she said.  “They’re using AI to solve real problems, whether it’s creating real-time quotes in the construction industry or using AI to upskill new immigrants or students. AI has just been buzzing in all our applicants.”

While many of the early-stage startups who go through the bootcamp ultimately fail, Seegmiller said that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. 

“We’ve seen a lot of failure and we want to encourage that for founders,” she said. “Once they graduate (from) the program, they’re still very much in the Invest Ottawa community and they can access advisers and fellow founders. Often they make connections in the cohort. We’ve seen founders decide to join together and build a new company. The fail is a win because they can start something new.”

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