Photo: Toronto Mayor John Tory (left) discusses the Toronto-Waterloo Region corridor with Kitchener Mayor Berry Vrbanovic at Series 401.
The third annual Series 401 startup showcase kicked off Wednesday morning with some lively scene-setting from the mayors of two cities with skin in the game.
As the founders of 13 startups nervously filed into Ryerson University’s Sears Atrium for the Communitech/DMZ-sponsored pitch session, Toronto Mayor John Tory and Kitchener Mayor Berry Vrbanovic sat down for a cordial chat about the potential for growth in the Toronto-Waterloo Region corridor.
From transportation issues to courting the private sector to the very real role that city leaders can play in helping the tech community thrive, the conversation was a fitting preamble for the event, an invite-only startup showcase that offers investors a peek at fresh ideas percolating along the 401 corridor. Here, the Communitech Coles Notes on that mayoral meeting of the minds:
On improving transportation in the corridor
John Tory: Economic growth is going to come from all of the industries that are represented in Toronto, but it’s going to be driven by startups and companies that have a relationship to technology in some way or another. The challenge for us is to try to make sure we have the infrastructure in place to make that happen and to make sure that we’re a hospitable place for that element to stay here.
Berry Vrbanovic: It’s hugely important. Look at how our supercluster has been evolving. It’s clear there’s a significant tie between us and Toronto and, quite frankly, everything in between. We need to build on it. We look at some of the other corridors and clusters that exist around the world – in particular the Silicon Valley – there’s so much potential here but the one challenge that we have is the lack of adequate infrastructure from a transportation point of view.
J.T.: We’re going to try and make this corridor into something that’s real as opposed to a slogan. I think that on transportation there’s quite an open discussion going on that’s positive with the province.
B.V.: This is something we’ve been talking to the provincial and the federal government about (before and after the most recent election). From a provincial and a national perspective, we’re really well-positioned because there’s an alliance there now. I think this corridor can capitalize on the connections between Queen’s Park and Ottawa.
On improving digital infrastructure across the corridor
J.T.: I had one of the telecom CEOs in yesterday to talk about digital infrastructure. It’s something, as a former CEO of a telecom company, I’d boasted about… “Oh, we’ve got the best in the world here,” I’d say. But, as it turns out, we don’t. The pitch I made to that CEO? I said, “These are your future customers.” It’s very simple. What other pitch are you going to make to a Rogers or Bell or Telus? You’re going to say, “Look, these are your future customers. You wiring it up for them is going to mean they’re going to be your future customers, which is going to make you more successful and get a payback on your investment. So do it with an eye to this community rather than just hoping for the best with the banks or whatever.”
On how cities can work with disruptive business ideas
J.T.: I want to try and be the home of the game-changers and the home of the disruptors. And there a couple of ways cities can do that: One is to make sure your regulatory regime is such that it can accommodate those businesses; and secondly, we’ve got to convince 10 or 15 of our big companies in Toronto to become willing guinea pigs, willing to give an honest trial of the technology on offer. And based on the idea that a rising tide will raise all boats, that will create new businesses, which for the banks creates new customers, and opportunities for new technologies to shine.
B.V.: One of the beauties of looking at this from a corridor perspective is that we’ve already got a pretty strong startup ecosystem in Waterloo Region, and they need to be able to scale up and work with the kinds of big companies that John is talking about, and be able to scale up and serve the kinds of products into a larger market. But similarly there are times when the reverse needs to happen. There’s a real opportunity for us to capitalize on our strengths in the two regions.
On what city leaders can actually do to help the tech sector thrive
B.V.: We need to remove barriers from a government perspective, but then also be strong advocates with the private sector to ensure the right programs are in place. We need to be more risk-takers and we need to grow that startup capital scene.
J.T.: I entirely agree with Berry – and I don’t think you should underestimate the degree to which [city leaders] can be quite powerful advocates. We have a platform, we have access to the decision-makers elsewhere, we have access to government leaders, who meet with us all the time. We have access to the business people and banks and so on and we need to use this kind of access in the best possible way to help you. But we have to know the kinds of things we should be advocating on. We need to be armed with something where we can say, either privately or publicly, “We’re going to crusade on it.”
On how the Toronto-Waterloo Region corridor can succeed without siloing
B.V.: I’d return to John’s line about the rising tide lifting all boats. I think we complement each other. If you look at us as a corridor and the potential for growing it, there’s so much opportunity that exists here, and the fact that we have such different sized communities on either end of the corridor gives people more choices of where they can live, work and play. And that’s an asset.
J.T.: We need to maximize what can come from the corridor for the benefit of the Ontario and Canadian economy, because I believe from the bottom of my heart that what’s good for the Canadian and Ontario economy is what’s good for the engine of that economy, which is Toronto. So that’s why I’m interested in taking this corridor idea and making it real, because it will be of immense benefit to both of us. We just want growth and to have you (the tech community) become successful and stay in this region. And if you all stay in Waterloo, that’s fine with me because I know you’ll do lots of business and lots of things in Toronto and that’ll be good for Toronto, too. And I’d be happy with that.
This conversation has been condensed and edited.