Photo: Neville Samuell is a volunteer organizer for HackerNest events in Waterloo Region, such as this one on Nov. 11, 2013 at Vidyard in Kitchener.

What will it take to build an innovation super-cluster between Waterloo Region and Toronto?

It’s a question we should all get used to hearing in the months ahead, as leaders in both communities set out to find and implement the answers.

Those answers will no doubt include high-level plans involving multiple players for things like infrastructure for improved transportation (faster trains running in both directions all day) and finance (greater flow of capital).

But it’s also going to take a lot of basic work at ground level to really get things going. And that’s where groups like HackerNest come in.

Having first heard of the volunteer-run, non-profit HackerNest earlier this year, I only recently came to know why it exists and how it works, when Neville Samuell, the group’s lead volunteer in Waterloo Region, reached out to me.

“Our formula is relatively simple: no fuss, free beer, casual venues, etc.”, Samuell told me in an e-mail inviting me to a Nov. 11 HackerNest meetup at Vidyard’s downtown Kitchener office.

He had me at the free beer, but it was clear upon arrival that chilly night that there’s more to these kinds of events than meets the eye – namely, the potential for anything.

By keeping the proceedings painfully simple, HackerNest and other informal tech meetups enable the kind of messy, spontaneous relationship-building that underpins great startup communities.

“There’s really no agenda,” Samuell told me over the rising din of a growing crowd as it climbed well past 100. “What happens at every event is, we set up the beer, we invite people in, they get name tags, they talk to each other, and then we take a couple of minutes to pause for the cause; to just introduce the sponsors and give them a second to address the crowd,” he said. “And that’s it.”

For attendees, it’s a chance to swap stories, see into other people’s experiences, hash out common problems and hatch schemes, all of which will be fundamental to tightening ties between the Toronto and Waterloo Region tech communities. Venue sponsors, meanwhile, get access to a talent pool from which they might recruit.

As a University of Waterloo mechatronics engineering grad who splits his time between home in Toronto and work in Waterloo Region, Samuell is well-positioned to see the potential in a closer relationship.

“Maybe it’s just me, but I feel like a lot of the engineering stuff is happening in Kitchener-Waterloo, and a lot of the work done by people in suits is happening in Toronto,” he said, referring to the finance, sales and marketing side of tech. “But there are some really great incubators in Toronto; you’ve got Extreme Startups; you’ve got MaRS. There’s a lot of money in Toronto, so that should be funnelling directly into Waterloo, I feel.”

Toronto’s vibrant cosmopolitanism, meanwhile, acts as a magnet for talented young graduates, Samuell said.

“People like me who graduate, they look around in Waterloo [Region] and say, ‘This is a great city to work in, but where am I going to meet a girlfriend? Where do I go to party or go to the gym?’ It still feels like a very suburban kind of city.”

While this region’s upcoming light rail transit project and downtown improvements will help, a fast, reliable intercity rail service would ensure knowledge workers can enjoy the best of both communities, Samuell suggested.

“The transit link between the two cities is so bad,” he said. “I have tried doing transit between the two and it’s nearly impossible.”

Still, HackerNest’s early efforts are paying off with increasingly large turnouts and fruitful collisions for attendees from both communities, including Samuell himself.

Earlier this year at the group’s first Waterloo Region meetup, “I actually ran into a couple of people who were looking for a technical co-founder,” he said. “They were out of Toronto and they were searching for strong technical talent. They came back two months later and we talked again, and that time I was like, ‘I’ve got some time during the summer; I can work part time’.”

And so Samuell, who already works full-time at Waterloo-based Avvasi, agreed to join a startup called Bridgit as its part-time CTO.

“I never quit my day job, but I met them through HackerNest, and we kind of created that entire partnership, just through these kinds of events,” he said, adding that he successfully urged Bridgit’s founders to move their company to the Tannery in Kitchener after they completed an accelerator stint in Toronto.

HackerNest itself started in Toronto in 2011, “as a dozen nerds talking tech around a six-pack,” as its website says.

Since then, it has built a presence in Vancouver, Montreal and Waterloo Region, and has made forays into Seattle, Dallas-Fort Worth, Manila and Kuala Lumpur.

“There are a bunch of cities we’re moving into; it just comes down to finding the right sponsors and finding the right organizers,” Samuell said.

As Toronto-based founder Shaharris Beh told Betakit last month, the laid-back and inclusive flavour of HackerNest gatherings means they typically attract more than 90 per cent of those who RSVP.

“Everyone is welcome. We do not turn anyone away unless they are belligerent, really aggressive or just a douchebag,” Beh told the tech blog.

As efforts to build a Waterloo Region-Toronto super-cluster ramp up, future HackerNest events will undoubtedly have a part to play in nudging things along, one free beer at a time.

Anthony Reinhart is Communitech’s Director of Editorial Strategy and senior staff writer. View from the ‘Loo is a weekly look at the issues, people and events that shape Waterloo Region’s technology sector.