Those in the startup world may have seen USA Today’s cocksure proclamation in late May, that Kitchener-Waterloo (or the “KW Region”) is “the most vibrant technology start-up community in Canada.”
Such statements elicited a cross-section of response from Canadian entrepreneurs: some chuckled while considering the sheer volume of people, and by association startups, in cities like Toronto and Montreal. Others in favour of the piece argued that no metric can predict how a given area’s people will create businesses and support each other.
Kitchener-Waterloo is home to over 400,000 people. Well-known, successful startups reside there too, like Vidyard, Thalmic Labs and Bufferbox, which was acquired by Google in late 2012. Startup accelerators like VeloCity and Communitech’s Hyperdrive call Kitchener-Waterloo home, while Google has a satellite office. Last but not least, there’s also Blackberry, the large Canadian smartphone company that recently laid off 250 workers.
So what exactly makes Kitchener-Waterloo such a pulsating startup hub, one that would urge foreign media entities to place a metaphorical crown over its digital head? Taylor Jackson, a Waterloo-based filmmaker and photographer, didn’t have an exact answer—though he’s nearly done filming “Startup Community,” a new film set that seeks out to answer that question while also acting as a sort of time capsule.
“We’re really just trying to encapsulate the kind of time and state of everything here so that in five or 10 years everyone can look back and see where we were at,” Jackson told Techvibes. “It’s just a 30 minute conversation that someone can send and say, ‘hey, we’re from the Waterloo region and this is what we’re about.'"
Jackson, a photographer by trade who grew up in nearby Cambridge and later relocated to Waterloo, said that he’s made many friends in Waterloo’s startup community. "I’ve always been that outside observer of it which I feel is kind of where you need to be in order to tell a proper objective story."
It is hard to describe what exactly makes Kitchener-Waterloo so special and we’ll certainly be looking forward to Jackson’s answer.
Primarily there’s the cause-and-effect answer. How the University of Waterloo’s excellent computer science department and constant research innovation in the subjects of mathematics, nanotechnology and quantum computing are churning out thousands of brilliant graduates every year. For a decade now these young minds seemed to have gravitated towards the startup route more than any other universities’ alumni anywhere in the country.
There’s also the effect of a world-class, leading-edge telecommunications company in the formerly titled Research In Motion (BlackBerry). Despite its current status as a sinking ship trying desperately to compete with innovation kings Apple and Samsung, Jackson explained that Blackberry did a lot for Kitchener-Waterloo.
“Even though they’re not doing as well as they were they’ve created so many amazing people that when they part ways with Blackberry they go off and start their own startup, and maybe that startup grows and gets bought out or that startup becomes three more startups,” said Jackson. “I think that’s how we’re going to build something absolutely amazing here. That’s how we’re going to grow in the future.”
One of the more memorable stories from filming the documentary came from a 45-minute chat with Michael Litt. The CEO of Vidyard made headlines in March when the video marketing platform raised $6 million in funding from Omers Ventures, iNovia Capital, SoftTech VC and Jill Rowley. Jackson was enthralled with the entrepreneur as he described some of his earliest signs of entrepreneurship: selling fireworks to his classmates and paying others in fireworks to do deliveries on his paper route. “He has the knowledge of a 65-year-old guy wrapped into a twenty-something’s body,” said Jackson. “He’s always, to put it in his words, punched above his weight class. That’s always how he’s learned how to do things, by throwing yourself in the deep end and figuring life out.”
When prodded for a deeper answer of what the film may tell us, Jackson pointed to Kitchener-Waterloo’s culture of collaboration rather than competition. He said it “kind of lifts us all up to this next level.”
Many a critic or blogger have proclaimed that for Canada to move to it’s own “next level” or phase of prosperity, it must pour more resources into its still-young entrepreneurial culture. Seed stage innovation will turn to be Canada’s primary driver of economic success, some have argued. Jackson heard some of these same sentiments in his research for Startup Community.
“One of the guys we interviewed was Brandon Corman from the Network of Angel Organizations Ontario, and one of his quotes was that startups are how we build nations, and it sounded totally out of left field at the time,” said Jackson. “Over time I really started to see it that way. This is how you build something amazing.”
Startup Community continues to crowdfund via its IndieGogo page. Its projected screening date will be around September 16 while it should go public in January or February 2014.