Ottawa tech acceletor stumbled on early-stage financing – OCRI chief

By Francis Moran

In Part 1 we spoke with Bruce Lazenby, who is less than three months into his new job as president and CEO of OCRI. These days, the only constant is change as the organization works to remake a tarnished image under new leadership, with the support of a mayor whose election platform focused heavily on boosting economic development throughout the region.

Lazenby acknowledged how OCRI has fallen short in terms of serving the needs of young entrepreneurs, the need to better work with this group, and how it must engage with the broader community. We spoke about a new culture of collaboration with other stakeholders across the city, such as the universities and privately run business incubators, and the long overdue launch of Ottawa’s first accelerator centre.

Tackling Ottawa’s funding gap

However, Lazenby acknowledged that a lack of early-stage financing for area startups remains the “fly in the ointment.” We pick up where we left off with his views on this issue.

“One of the things I am hoping to do is to get access to more private money,” he said. “If a company needs $25,000, it’s pretty hard to get. That’s something we’re going to try and figure out. A few ideas right now are that we may try and get a few high-net-worth individuals to contribute to a smallish fund that maybe we’ll administer as part of the selection process (for the accelerator) and they’ll actually take equity in a company.”

While we concur that it’s time for those individuals who have made their money in this town, however they made it, to pony up, many of them are not equipped to carry out the necessary due diligence. Lazenby acknowledged that he must still get a formal program put together which he can take to potential investors.

“I’ve talked to some of the guys who could write cheques, and they’re going ‘yeah, OK, I understand what you’re thinking, this is possible,’” Lazenby said. “But until I can say, ‘Here’s the program, this is what you get;’ it’s really hard to say, ‘Will you write a cheque?’

“What I am telling people is that, ‘I am not suggesting you do this for charity. This isn’t a noble thing to do. This is a smart freakin’ investment.’”

In addition, Lazenby is eager to see Premier Dalton McGuinty follow through on a campaign promise to create a 30-per-cent tax credit for private investment in qualified companies, something that is already meeting with success in B.C. and Saskatchewan. He emphasized that it is an investment which would provide a solid return in the form of job creation and new taxes.

“My suspicion is that he’s going to say, ‘We’ve looked at the books, can’t afford the program,’” Lazenby said. “I am trying to work hard with his office and others to make sure it does happen. Because if we invite people to participate, carefully, and do a program where we’ve done a lot of the vetting, and there’s an incentive on top of that, I think we can knock the logjam down the river a fair bit.”

This is the kind of advocacy role, Lazenby acknowledged, where OCRI must join ranks with its counterparts in Waterloo and Toronto to petition Queen’s Park with one voice.

What about companies that are past the startup phase?

Launching the accelerator centre and creating some kind of investment pool is all good for early-stage startups, but what about those later-stage companies that are growing their businesses and perhaps expanding overseas?

“From a clustering point of view, we still want to maintain the cluster concept, and we want to reinvigorate some of the clusters,” Lazenby said. “So again, we have got people here whose job it is to do that … it’s their job to make sure that the community gets together, finds ways to work together and all that stuff.”

He emphasized that OCRI does work one-on-one with companies on specific opportunities.

“We’ve just spent some time today with a company that’s signing a joint venture with a China-based development partner, because they’re going to get that organization to promote their product in China. They’ve been working on it for a while. We helped facilitate that conversation.”

Lazenby is also looking at improving the networking aspect of OCRI’s various events. One approach which OCRI is already implementing is “conversational tables,” in which each table at an event is identified with a specific topic, such as China, patents or wireless. A table captain ensures introductions are made around the table, each attendee has a few minutes to introduce their business, and the conversation focuses on the designated topic. In this way, Lazenby said, attendees walk away with four or five qualified business contacts.

Mayor Jim Watson as co-chair of OCRI

There is no shortage of commentary over what role government should, or should not, play in a commercialization or business accelerator program. It’s often argued that, while government has an important supporting role to play, decision-making authority should reside with veterans from the private sector who have well-earned battle scars. Lazenby, however, is positive about the mayor’s involvement as co-chair of OCRI since it will help open the dialogue for cooperation with other organizations in towns focused on economic development, such as the Ottawa Chamber and Ottawa Tourism.

“We’ve got more money, which gives us more capacity, we’ve got a stronger board, I think, now co-chaired by the mayor and a private sector guy, Jeff Westeinde,” Lazenby said. “If you’ve met Jeff Westeinde, you know he’s not going to get bullied by anybody and the mayor has made it really clear that he’s not calling the shots. And if you know me, I don’t get bullied easily either. Jim and I met earlier before I took this job, and I said, ‘This is my vision, this is where I want it to go,’ and he’s on board.”

What will stand as evidence that OCRI has changed for the better?

From Lazenby’s perspective, the evidence is already stacking up.

“Did we come out of the cold on Queensview Drive and into a building that looks like it’s going to be a technology something? Check, done,” he said. “Are we talking a different collaborative approach with our partners? Ask Bruce Firestone (of, ask Tony Bailetti (of Carleton’s Lead to Win program), ask some of the other guys, they’re going to say, ‘Yes.’ Do we have a plan to get an accelerator in here? Yes – first one ever in Ottawa. Are we going to have companies in there in January? Wait and see – I hope so. Are we going to create an opportunity for companies to raise $25,000 or $50,000 through some sort of a fund? Wait and see.”

What about internal restructuring?

The first and most obvious example of OCRI’s new direction was its decision to spin off the Ottawa Network for Education, which operated, among other things, a school breakfast program.

OCRI’s internal operations are also being reshuffled under two functional arms – Invest and Trade Ottawa, which largely include what until now have been known as OCRI Global Marketing, and Innovate Ottawa, known today as the Regional Innovation Centre (RIC). Both of these arms are in need of new managing directors. OCRI has retained a local executive search firm to find suitable candidates.

“So right there, those two key roles are going to be new people,” Lazenby said. “I am really hoping that we find people who are so compelled by the opportunity – to be the first ever managing director of this or first ever managing director of that – that we’re going to get people who are taking a pay cut to leave their fantastic jobs and come to work for us.”

Ultimately, whatever additional changes will occur at OCRI, either in terms of programs or staff, will be determined by its performance against measurable results, but it will take time.

“Are there more companies getting more investment, creating more jobs – bottom line,” Lazenby said. “Am I going to turn that around in six months? No.”

Francis Moran
Francis Moran
Francis Moran is principal of Francis Moran & Associates, a consultancy that provides business-to-business technology ventures with the strategic counsel required to make their innovations successful in a highly competitive marketplace. Francis can be reached at [email protected].

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