More than 80 local innovative technology entrepreneurs, coupled with 14 investors, occupied the space inside the Queen Street West Burroughes Building at the third annual AccelerateTO event earlier this week. The startup event attracted more than 600 people last year, but this year organizers opted to cultivate small groups of discussions among entrepreneurs and business mentors to create more of a collaborative atmosphere.
Included at this year’s AccelerateTO — an invite-only tech event — were two 40-minute round table sessions that gave innovators the opportunity to sit with like-minded investors, to pick their brain on common start-up quandaries, such as how should a small company negotiate when dealing with “big players”, whether or not to be in-your-face-aggressive when dealing with experienced companies and how to get feedback from your consumers during the embryotic stages of your start-up.
Volunteer and entrepreneur, Mani Fazeli, said past meetups have focused on funding and acquiring capital. “Fundraising is old. It’s always discussed. We wanted to be more valuable that. We wanted more quality this year,” he said. Eli Aleyner, volunteer and part of the start-up Xtreme Labs Inc. said they hand-picked the tables and paired up investors and mentors that related to the business. “Really, where else are you going to get this kind of access?” he said. “It’s so valuable. That’s what we want this event to be about.”
The AccelerateTO Series began as a community-driven celebration of Canadian technology entrepreneurs in partnered with the Silicon Valley-based C100 organization, partly to leverage their expertise and relationships to grow a new generation of global, billion dollar Canadian-led technology companies. But partly because Toronto is now being talked about as the “Silicon Valley of the North.”
Perhaps not right now, but the potential is growing, said Fazeli.“Toronto has a lot going for it. It’s Canada’s wealthiest city. It has a large diverse population. It has two of the largest universities in North America (Toronto and Waterloo). When you look at other great tech hubs — Seattle, San Francisco and New York — this formula is repeated,” he said. “If you live in a smaller city, adverse to risks or ‘failure,’ then it’s just not naturally going to grow. Are we New York yet? No. But things are slowly changing.” Last year a study conducted by Startup Genome researched which cities are more conducive toward building startups. In that report, Toronto surprised the tech world by being ranked fourth behind the cutting-edge hubs of San Francisco, New York and London. “People were surprised by our ranking, behind such great cities. We are slowly getting there,” Fazeli said.
Joseph Puopolo, founder and chief executive of Printchomp.com confirmed that the startup industry is inching toward being a bustling tech hub . “It’s definitely growing. I think we need more money, more mentorship. It’s definitely heading in a great trajectory, he said. Puopolo has lived in Toronto the past 10 years and before launching Printchomp.com recently, he used to shepherd companies between Toronto and Silicon Valley and only one month after his launch, his print business is seeing rapid growth. “Toronto is a great place to start up. It has pools of talent, lots of energy and we’ve had some wins lately. We need to be bold and more aggressive, but generally speaking things are going quite well.”
With events like SproutUpTO popping up all over the city, Toronto’s tech culture is only going to develop even further. Techcrunch will be in Toronto later this year as part of their Great Lakes Tour.
Ben Zlotnick, founder and chief executive of INcubes said the tech industry is now starting to refer to Toronto as the Silicon Valley of the north and events like Accelerate help connect the dots between investors from the south to innovators and thinkers from the north. “For startups, it’s the access to investors and mentors that you can’t get anywhere else. Especially on a round table. You are right there talking with them,” he said. “For investors, you don’t have to organize meetings and instead you can pick through 30 startups in the one place in a short period of time. I can only see this getting bigger.”
Justin Robertson is a freelance journalist from Toronto. His work has appeared in The Walrus, National Post and Toronto Standard. Follow Justin on Twitter @justinjourno