Your turn, Toronto-Waterloo.

The ingredients are in place: Time to step up.

“The thing is, there’s no easy way to do this. No simple way to quiet the noise in your head, no proven method to earn the respect and applause of your family and friends, no guaranteed approach that’s going to insulate you from heartache.

This might not work.

It might not be fun.

I hope you’ll do it anyway.”

Seth Godin, from What To Do When It’s Your Turn (and it’s always your turn)

The Toronto-Waterloo corridor is having a moment. On the Waterloo end, one only needs to take a walk through downtown Kitchener to observe the progress of the last few years. Bars, restaurants and storefronts are situated alongside newly minted startups, growth-stage tech companies, and office outposts for global tech giants. And momentum continues to build across the Waterloo Region thanks to three things: government support, institutions committed to innovation, and the intrinsics that make the Region uniquely great. With these ingredients in place, and the corporate landscape continuing to mature, it’s seemingly not long before the Toronto-Waterloo corridor becomes a top international innovation and technology hub. But first we need to overcome the inertia of thinking we don’t have the ingredients, acknowledge there remains work to be done, and recognize it’s our turn to drive the necessary change.

Investment, Infrastructure, Innovation and Intrinsics are propelling the Toronto-Waterloo tech corridor ‘moment.’

Investment

Startups and large tech companies alike are operating here in the corridor and both are scaling rapidly. More and more startups are evolving into growth-stage technology companies, from companies with 50 million users and little funding to companies with established market presence closing eight-figure and nine-figure Series B, C, and D rounds of funding. Companies like Google and Amazon continue to expand activity in the Region, and Shopify’s presence in Waterloo is expanding to over 700 strong. Most importantly, alongside growth there is creation with new startups continuing to emerge and evolve the ecosystem. The ecosystem of companies small and large provides an economic foundation and it’s up to the founders of tomorrow to build on top of it.

Snapshot of companies. Check out The Corridor to learn more about the 5,200 local startups.

Government and Infrastructure

Legislation and regulation are often at odds with enterprise — the opposite is true in the Waterloo Region. The recent budget announcement from Prime Minister Trudeau includes $950MM pledged to the creation of superclusters, of which the corridor is likely to receive a significant portion. And as part of a broader strategic initiative the Canadian government introduced a Global Skills Visa, creating a two-week expedited process for employers to bring high-skill workers into Canada. The next step in infrastructure improvement is connectivity. Investment in two-way, all-day GO service has already been announced, and there’s significant talk of a high-speed-rail being built to connect Toronto and Waterloo. Locally, Waterloo Light-Rail-Transit will be up and running in 2018. Downtown is being transformed with numerous high-rise projects under construction or planned and staples such as new hipster coffee shops, and restaurants.

Settlement Co. in Downtown Kitchener: Coffee Roaster, Eatery and Meeting Place (image: Settlement Co Instagram)

Institutions

The presence of world-class institutions, from research institutes to startup incubators, enables the Toronto-Waterloo corridor to tackle the most complex of problems. The recently announced Vector Institute is just the latest in Canada’s AI expansion, following in the footsteps of the region’s expertise in Quantum Computing (through the Perimeter Institute and IQC). And remember that list of new and emerging startups? Many wouldn’t exist without places like Velocity, and the soon to be opened Catalyst137. The unique combination of expertise in the region enables the founding of startups built around artificial intelligence, deep learning, mechatronics, hardware, quantum computing, and robotics. They give us an edge in specific verticals and “frontier tech” areas in which we can be truly world-class.

Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, Waterloo (image: Perimeter Institute)

Intrinsics

There’s often talk of Toronto-Waterloo becoming the “next Silicon Valley,” but I believe the Valley is more inspiration than aspiration: the Waterloo Region can be great on its own merits. It starts with the supportive community, especially within the tech sector. Everyone is willing to help out anyone — we’re incredibly lucky to have this mindset be the norm. Next is diversity, which I’ve touched on before. The Waterloo Region has an extensively diverse population: nearly 25% is foreign-born, there are 189 unique ethnic origins, and at least 1% of the population speaks one of seven non-national languages. Finally there’s the fact talented people are ubiquitous. Canada has the highest proportion of adults with a post-secondary education in the OECD, and more STEM graduates every year in Ontario than the state of California.

LinkedIn’s Toronto office, complete with beavers and Canadian geese (photo: OfficeLovin)

Time to take advantage of the moment

It’s an exciting time to be here building things in Toronto-Waterloo. Collectively, we’ve never had the level of momentum and excitement that we have in the community here today. But we are not there yet. The Waterloo Region has few ‘unicorns’ and is home to none of the global technology giants (e.g. Google, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft). The ingredients are here, but we need to keep going, and that’s going to require more people stepping up and taking their turn.

Next Generation of Founders

Although we have the right ingredients in place, 77% of University of Waterloo engineering students still plan to go to California after graduation — we have to dispel the ‘Cali or Bust’ mentality and break from the mindset that remaining in Toronto-Waterloo is settling for second best. If talented would-be founders chose the promises of California over Toronto-Waterloo, where will the next generation of startups come from?

Check out Startup North and their commitment to building a strong ecosystem of Canadian entrepreneurs.

Experience Coming Home to Help

Along with keeping talent and continuing to recruit from abroad, this moment should be a clarion call to the estimated 350,000+ Canadians in Silicon Valley that the corridor is ready for what you’re willing to give it. And we need you. We don’t have a deep talent pool of experienced executives who have scaled growth-stage companies into global giants. Without this talent the overall ecosystem will struggle to reach the next level.

Changing Our Mindset

While our intrinsics are strong, our ambitions may be too small. All too often we opt to settle for winning the Canadian market or cashing out early instead of battling to be #1 in the world. We have to push one another to take risks, to leverage the ecosystem as a launching pad for opportunity, not a safety net.

Take Your Turn

Overcoming these hurdles isn’t going to happen on its own. While we have a great community of people working hard to make this corridor great, continued progress depends on more and more people stepping up. It’s easy to be an armchair quarterback and point out the shortcomings and gaps in the ecosystem. It’s a lot harder to jump in and help push this train farther down the tracks. Sometimes hard things are worth doing. You might fail. Success is far from guaranteed. But you’ll probably learn a heck of a lot more trying than you would otherwise, and you’ll push the needle on making this place we call home great.

To those graduating and considering moving south, to those already in the Valley and considering coming back, or to those from around the world who want to be part of building a great community — it’s your turn:

Start the next Airbnb, Google, or Blackberry. Here.

Help an early-stage team get off the ground.

Join one of the aforementioned scaling startups here, and help them turn early traction into a global success.

Or help evolve the ecosystem and drive change in other ways: start a non-profit, open a coworking space, invest in local businesses, raise a VC fund, open a new restaurant.

It’s your turn.


Thanks to Karamdeep Nijjar, Mike McCauley, Sarah Marion, Antoine Nivard, and Jay Shah, who contributed to the list of interesting early-stage startups in Toronto-Waterloo.