Toronto the good does a bad job of encouraging risk-taking entrepreneurs, especially when they stumble.
That was just one of the main conclusions to come out of Technicity, a diverse one-day summit that brought together some of Toronto’s brightest minds from both the private and government sectors to brainstorm on the state of the city’s ICT sector.
While the conference, now in its second year, included presentations from various speakers, attendees also had opportunities to actively participate in small “think tank” discussion groups, identifying main challenges in Toronto’s ICT industry and then suggesting ways to tackle them.
“We do not celebrate failure. We tell people if you fail, go in the corner because you’re now the lonely orphan. But if you’re successful, everybody will embrace you,” said one attendee in the breakout session on innovation and commercialization.
“How do we reward risk in this country without alienating the general public who feel that (government) subsidies are bad?” another participant asked in the same session.
Other participants in the session echoed concerns about the dearth of support and encouragement for entrepreneurs , with one suggesting Canadian investors (many of whom are based in Toronto) should set an example by taking more risks on startups themselves. Another suggested Canada as a whole should promote risk-taking culture in order to attract more entrepreneurial risk takers from other countries.
Also highlighted at the same session was the idea that Toronto tech startups need more than just investment, they need other crucial support too, such as experienced mentorship, help finding talent in non-technical areas like financial management and human resources, and peer support from other local IT firms and executives.
“People starting up (IT companies) can learn an enormous amount from people who have done it and that’s something that’s enormously challenging to do in Toronto because of the sheer size of the city,” said David Wolfe, who was also a key speaker at the event. Wolfe, the RBC chair in public and economic policy at the University of Toronto, took part in the brainstorming group following his speech.
And even increased investment from angels and venture capitalists wouldn’t be the perfect solution to help Toronto IT startups, the group concluded. Investors who only have money to offer, but not the right type or level of experienced guidance, don’t add enough value to really move emerging companies ahead, they said.
The three key themes of this year’s Technicity event, which was co-produced by IT World Canada and the City of Toronto, were live, work play – an acknowledgement that technology is now pervading (and being used to enhance) every area of people’s lives in Toronto and beyond.
In a panel discussion on the ‘live’ technology stream, all of the speakers hailed from companies or organizations focused on improving various facets of everyday life, such as healthcare, transportation and energy. Common issues raised by panelists included finding and retaining talent, locating affordable office and manufacturing space in Toronto (particularly downtown where both customers and workers prefer to be based), navigating regulatory hurdles without sacrificing precious speed to market, and staying on top of innovation trends that are changing more quickly than ever.
At the end of the panel, speakers and audience members homed in on one main idea of what should drive innovation: that technology shouldn’t be created just for tech’s sake, but to improve people’s lives somehow. The consumerization of IT is fueling this concept as the desire to improve mobile devices for personal use spills over into improved work use as well, said panelist Robert Burke, an account manager with Infusion.
“We should be building solutions that make work life really exciting and engaging. We should be making (people’s) work life also enjoyable (so they) have the same pleasure with technology they use at work as they do with the Xbox they use at home,” said Burke, an account manager at the Toronto office of New York software firm Infusion.
“If you don’t have a positive impact (on) people then you’re really in the wrong business,” added one audience member during the comment portion of the discussion. “All these things impact on people. We have to ensure all the innovation is channeled into having some positive impact on people.”