Sandwiched between the powerhouse high-tech areas of Toronto and Kitchener-Waterloo is a region that, despite being often overlooked, offers a wide variety of untapped innovation.
Halton Region is home to more than half a million people living in the cities of Burlington, Oakville, Milton, and Halton Hills. While the area is overshadowed by the more well-known city centres in the Kitchener-Waterloo-Toronto technology corridor, it wants the world to know that it has a lot to offer.
Spreading the news is Chris Herbert, founder of the B2B marketing company Mi6, Inc. and co-founder of Silicon Halton, a grassroots organization that has been developing a high-tech community in the region since its inception in 2009 through monthly meet-ups, peer to peer groups, and pitch nights. He says Halton is full of technology companies, tech-oriented entrepreneurs, and startup hubs whose employees enjoy shorter commute times and a high quality of life outside Ontario’s capital city.
“From my perspective, what’s drawing tech entrepreneurs and companies to Halton is, first of all, the cost of real estate and setting up and running a company here,” Herbert explains to ITBusiness.ca. “Toronto is expensive, but you can find much cheaper options if you move a little further out of the big city. There’s also a developer community here that a lot of people don’t realize exists. We’re not a sleepy little town; we’re a technically strong area with lots of room to grow.”
Much of the 600+ tech companies in the Halton Region are focused in the areas of industrial innovations, the Internet of Things (IoT), and telematics, which is the integrated use of communications and information technology for managing remote devices over a network.
Memex, Inc., for example, is a manufacturing software and industrial IoT (IIoT) company that has been a mainstay in Burlington, Ont. since 1992. It has been a global leader in the manufacturing machine-to-machine space for more than a decade, providing its customers with tools to help legacy non-digital systems communication and interact as if they were.
“We chose Halton because most of our employees live in the area and they wanted to live and work in the same community,” says president and CEO David McPhail, who bought Memex in 2008. “We haven’t regretted the decision – there are plenty of highly qualified candidates in our own backyard and there’s a lot of government support from local city councilors and federal members of parliament too. Together, we’ve been fostering an up-and-coming ecosystem of high tech companies and entrepreneurs who are starting to gel and share ideas that will only help future generations.”
Memex’s flagship product, Merlin, is the foundational hardware and software platform that the company says can improve manufacturing productivity by as much as 50 per cent. While McPhail says the company exports as much as 90 per cent of its technology, he’s keen on changing that.
“It seems like our neighbours to the south are bigger risk takers when it comes to embracing new technology and new ways of doing things, but I’m really trying to grow our Canadian adoption, particularly in Ontario with its strength in manufacturing,” he continues.
Inspiring the next generation
Another benefit of the area is the close proximity of post-secondary institutions and research facilities. Only one school technically lies within the Halton Region borders, Sheridan College’s Institute of Technology and Applied Learning, but there are 15 others within an hour’s drive, including McMaster University, Mohawk College, Brock University, the University of Guelph, and those in Toronto and Kitchener-Waterloo.
Taking advantage of the talent enrolled in and graduating from these schools is Geotab, Inc., an Oakville-based telematics company specializing in GPS fleet management and vehicle tracking. Founded by Neil Cawse in 1996, it develops, manufactures, and supplies fleet management solutions for both local and international Fortune 500 companies.
“We’re an end-to-end manufacturer, from the devices to the cloud-based platform to the data analytics, and we have over 750,000 vehicles connected to our infrastructure,” says Michael Branch, vice president of business intelligence at Geotab. “We have global offices and hundreds of employees but we’re still a family-run business that has the desire to work with local companies and support the regional ecosystem.”
Geotab has partnered with McMaster for numerous research projects on predictive maintenance and many graduates begin their careers at the company through co-op programs. Geotab also introduced a new university program this year with the University of Toronto where it supplies hardware devices for students to use for researching other applications.
“Our hardware is used for vehicle tracking but they have so many other applications. If a student wants to develop a new platform for monitoring cyber safety and needs five or six devices to test it out and gather real data, we give that to them for free as well as access to our support staff at Geotab. A couple professors have integrated this into their curriculums because it gives them meaningful, real-life experience,” Branch adds.
He says that collaboration has been key in facilitating a more open tech culture and transforming the Halton Region into a hub of tech-minded entrepreneurs and companies, which is in large part thanks to the work of Herbert and Silicon Halton.
The 1400-plus member organization launched a Tech Under Twenty program in 2015 to foster the next generation of tech talent and show them how to grow and succeed in the industry. Beyond networking, interviewing, and resume advice, plus several entrepreneurial pitching competitions, Tech Under Twenty has also expanded to include a summer internship program that places students in places like Geotab to hone their skills and gain real-world experience.
While Silicon Halton is working to enable more collaboration in the area and inspire youth, real estate broker and entrepreneur Richard Myers is giving entrepreneurs and startups a space to build.
Located in Oakville, Alternawork is a modern flexible working space for entrepreneurs and startup tenants. Its first phase officially opened in November 2017 and aims to build a community of companies and individuals under one roof that benefits everyone.
“We want to build a thriving community in an open funky office space,” the associate vice president at Cushman & Wakefield Ltd., a commercial real estate services company, tells ITBusiness.ca. “There are so many talented people and executives that live in the Halton area and want to remain here to run their business, so we aim to solve that need. The tech community here is much larger than we had first thought, so we found a large centralized building with great public transportation and highway accessibility.”
He stresses, however, that the 50,000 square foot Alternawork facility is not an innovation centre, accelerator, or incubator for startups, but instead more of a rentable co-working space.
“We’re not necessarily looking to get that one-person startup out of their basement or collect everyone sitting in a coffee shop brainstorming business ideas. We welcome them, but we also welcome companies from across the spectrum – big, small, it doesn’t matter. The common theme is tech,” Myers says.
Halton does have a regional innovation centre called Haltech, where startup and scale-up companies can apply to be part of a program that accelerates business growth. The Burlington Economic Development Corporation also opened an innovation centre called TechPlace in June 2017 that provides space, programming, mentorship, networking, and fundamental resources for growing businesses. There are a couple others, such as the Milton Education Village and Innovation Centre, Halton Hive, IoT Foundry, and investment group AngelOne, all trying to support and grow the burgeoning tech scene in Halton.
“As a community, having organizations that are willing to support others, collaborate, and build meaningful business relations are critical. A closed culture and frame of mind shouldn’t exist, and we’re seeing the tech industry move away from this, especially in Halton,” Branch concludes.
Between the growing tech companies, bright and motivated talent, comfortable living spaces, and a collaborative business community, Halton Region is making sure it won’t be overlooked again.