Startup Day on the Hill: Canada should focus on startup communities, not an ‘innovation ecosystem’

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Financial Post | Ken Bautista, Special to Financial Post | Nov 27, 2014

Ken BautistaAround the world, cities are refocusing on supporting — not leading — startup community building initiatives. They’re realizing that if you want more elite players, you need a deep farm system led by entrepreneurs.

Government spends a lot of resources over-architecting grand innovation ecosystems and national accelerator networks to stimulate high-growth entrepreneurship in Canada. Unfortunately, a lot of grassroots, entrepreneur-led work in local communities often gets overlooked or downplayed.

Five years ago, we mobilized Startup Edmonton to bring together tech entrepreneurs in the community. At the time, we were unsatisfied with the hierarchy of economic development and incubator incumbents. We started organizing DemoCamps, Startup Weekends, and meetups, bootstrapped with our credit cards.

With momentum, city and business leaders provided seed funding to help us go to another level. We opened a 14,000-square-foot space in an old downtown warehouse that now hosts 150 events yearly, 170 resident members, and 50 companies.

Edmonton’s startup community is growing because of entrepreneurs leading, but it’s also working because local government understood how to be a supporter when it counted. In Edmonton, proof is overriding politics.

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Edmonton has a fast growing population, billions in development, and a hot economy driven by energy. We could ride this for the next 10 years without having to change a thing. Across the board, everyone is doubling down on talent, education, and entrepreneurship from the mayor to the CEO of Edmonton Economic Development, on down to the presidents of post-secondary schools and chief executives of startups and large corporations.

If you want startups, community should be the first goal for every city and town across the country. Yet, the national conversation about high-growth startups often devolves into: how Canadian venture capitalists don’t invest (which they are), how we need more top-down consolidation of incubator programs (which we don’t), how our schools aren’t outputting good enough talent (which they are), and how our founders need to be more ambitious like Americans (which is debatable if you look at successful founders in European communities).

Investing in community is simple. Free food and beer and a space to gather goes a long way at community meetups and hackathons. You can also fund staff to help entrepreneur-led community groups grow and scale. In fact, funds spent on national conferences should be redirected to mobilize local entrepreneurs working inside communities.

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