Google for Entrepreneurs (GFE) has been running its Exchange program at Communitech for seven AI and data driven startups from Australia, Canada, the U.S. and Brazil this week, and I just didn’t get it. I didn’t get GFE at all, even though Communitech has been a part of the program since 2013. It seemed to offer an incredible amount of value to everyone involved but Google. GFE’s mission is to “bring together startup communities and create spaces for entrepreneurs to learn and work.”
Genna McKeel, Partnerships Manager at GFE, explained that “our metrics as a team are jobs created and funding raised.” McKeel said GFE’s goal was to help startups “scale, hire more people, meet investors, raise funds and connect with industry experts and customers in different markets.”
But why would Google, a massive Internet company with one of the most recognizable brands on the planet, want to do that?
First, it seems really expensive. Google has physical campuses across the globe where people can work, and it provides financial assistance to communities like the Toronto-Waterloo Corridor that have existing infrastructure for startups. It recently announced a significant investment in Geoffrey Hinton’s AI team in Toronto, for example. I thought maybe Google wanted customers for its cloud business tools, but companies who qualify get $100,000 in credits for those as well.
It seemed so warm and fuzzy. I kept reading and hearing about how Larry Page and Sergey Brin were a garage startup once upon a time and passionately believed in entrepreneurship. Fair enough, but GFE is a large, global organization with a team running week-long immersion programs like this week’s at Communitech, enabling all kinds of entrepreneurship in tech. This represents a significant investment of resources. What’s the hope of a return?
It finally clicked for me when Kory Jeffrey, a Googler with deep roots in Waterloo Region, explained how Google sees the success of the Internet itself as a part of its business.
“Google is an Internet company in the most general sense of the term,” Jeffrey said. “The success of others leads to the proliferation of our own success. Floats all boats. Any time that tech companies are successful, we’re heavily invested in the Internet economy so that makes us successful in indirect and direct ways. It’s an investment.”
He gave the example of a shopping app. Incubating and mentoring a small startup company while it builds a shopping app doesn’t help Google directly, but if it goes on to become a large company that adds value to the Internet economy, that’s good for Google. If it’s incubated through the GFE program, it’s likely to make an awesome experience on Android as well. If you’re trying to make the world more technologically friendly, Google wants to help you.
Jeffrey also emphasized that the warm and fuzzies are no joke. He said that in the early days of Google “the company was successful based on a lot of mentorship they got in the Bay Area” because the Bay Area “is much like Waterloo in that you can get people’s time without paying for it.” Paying that gift forward really is part of Google’s ethos, he said, and is part of the explanation for the zeal Google has in approaching the GFE program. It shouldn’t be so surprising, since many Waterloo Region founders have the same ethos about fostering innovation and giving back to the communities that supported them.
The reason for the focus of the Communitech cohort of the GFE Exchange Program — AI, machine learning and data science — has more to do with the strengths of the Toronto-Waterloo Corridor than anything. Part of the GFE exchange was an ecosystem tour of some of Waterloo Region’s facilities with strengths in those areas: the University of Waterloo Quantum-Nano Centre, Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, Catalyst 137, the Communitech Hub and Data Hub, the Accelerator Centre and Velocity. The group also toured companies like Vidyard, Alert Labs, Shopify Plus and of course Google’s local office.
Part of what made this GFE Exchange cohort unique was that at Google’s Waterloo Region office, companies were paired with Google engineers for continued mentorship and support for the first time in the program’s history. It’s another example of the spirit of free collaboration that the Bay Area and Waterloo Region have in common.
When asked for a highlight from the week, McKeel points to a very Canadian trait: the frankness and openness of the discussion and advice.
“We talked with (James Slifierz) the CEO of SkyWatch, really talking about fundraising, lessons learned on how they’ve pivoted their company,” said McKeel. “We went to NetSuite and got insights into founder problems and how you resolve those, working with boards of directors and best practices… Really, the community has been so open with these entrepreneurs about their journey, so it’s exciting to have that takeaway.”