When the technical mind behind Radian6 approached Mariner Partners chairman Gerry Pond with his early idea for “anomaly detection” software in 2006, the former CEO of NBTel says he had no idea where to begin.
“I wasn’t aware of how to do incubation in those days, frankly,” he says.
That didn’t stop him from supporting Chris Newton in forming Radian6, the Saint John, N.B.-based firm that became a leading brand in social analytics and was acquired by Salesforce.com in March 2011 for $326 million. Newton’s original idea for his Web-scanning software was to help law enforcement monitor blog activity to track down missing children or identify pedophiles. But Mariner’s executives guided the early startup in a different direction, through the guise of Propel Saint John’s Launch 32 incubation program.
“We quickly moved into public relations in the early days,” Pond recalls. “As a technology… it was architected properly. It never had to be reworked.”
The rest is history. Radian6’s exit by acquisition is often pointed to as the model of success by those in Canada’s tech startup scene. It has remained located in Saint John and has grown its headcount since the acquisition. Just as Radian6 is winning accolades for its innovation success, so too is its hometown.
Saint John is one of three Canadian cities ranking among the top seven finalists for this year’s Intelligent Community Forum. The ICF recognizes communities that provide examples of economic and social development through investing in information and communications technologies (ICTs). The last Canadian city to win top spot was Waterloo, Ont. in 2007 – but with Saint John, Quebec City, and Stratford, Ont. in the running, Canada has its best chance yet to again win the title.
Saint John has a good shot at it. The city, population 195,000, is being hailed by the ICF for quickly adapting from a manufacturing-based economy to a services-driven centre targeting ICT, life sciences, tourism, and energy. Playing a part in that shift has been Mariner’s incubation efforts to support tech startups in Saint John. The Propel Saint John initiative has grown to focus on the entire Atlantic region as Propel ICT, and is searching for the next Radian6 with its Launch 36 program.
Pond has helped build one thing that many communities are still reaching for, says Louis Zacharilla, the co-founder of the ICF. A good infrastructure for angel investment and venture capital funding.
“Traditionally many Canadian companies have to go to Silicon Valley to get their funding,” he says. “This [Propel ICT] is allowing them to tap into homegrown sources of funding.”
Founded in 1888, NBTel served as a hub of innovation during the 1990s as the company practiced internal incubation, says Trevor MacAusland, executive director of Propel ICT. After it merged into Bell Aliant in 1999, many NBTel executives left to help form startup firms. After a 2006 report on the “DNA” of Saint John’s ICT eco-system from the University of New Brunswick showed firms that included those executives had a high degree of success, some of them got together to form Propel SJ.
After the Radian6 success, the mandate was upgraded from Saint John to the entire region.
Brian Jackson is the Associate Editor at ITBusiness.ca.
Propel ICT launched its revamped accelerator program, with the goal of launching 36 tech startups in 36 months, last October. Its program focus is on mentorship rather than providing office space, pairing entrepreneurs with senior business executives. Participants take part in a five-month program, designed to have a product ready for market launch at its conclusion.
“We provide a safety net for aspiring entrepreneurs,” MacAusland says. “We help mitigate the risk of going out and doing the startup.”
Canada’s “Original City” made the ICF top seven for many more reasons than just Propel ICT. The University of New Brunswick has the oldest computer science program in the country running since 1967. The economy created 1,515 jobs in the ICT sector in 10 years. Bell Aliant completed a fibre-to-the-home project to supply hi-speed Internet to residents and businesses.
But it’s the people of Saint John that have turned those technological assists into a thriving innovation eco-system, Zacharilla says. “There’s a level of community benevolence among people that have done well,” he says.
Saint John will find out if it’s the ICF winner during the organization’s conference held June 6-8 in New York City.
Building a company on an environment of trust is crucial to its success, Pond says. Providing entrepreneurs with confidence to have integrity will give them the power to accomplish things.
“It’s showing interest in people in a genuine fashion. It’s giving them some rope and letting them experiment a bit,” he says. “But you don’t throw them in the deep end without teaching them to swim.”
Propel ICT’s mentors often visit high schools, and even elementary schools to talk about entrepreneurship. They also meet prospective entrepreneurs teetering on the edge of leaving the safety of a 40-hour per week job and starting their own firm, helping them to validate their business concept.
MacAusland points out the incubator has done it all without government assistance – it’s 100 per cent run by the private sector. “It gives us the flexibility to align with the interests of the private sector instead of driving government agenda,” he says. “Entrepreneurs come to us with an unbiased opinion and we don’t hold back.”
To meet their goal of launching an average of one company a month for the next three years, Propel ICT will need a bit of luck. Luck of the sort Radian6 had when it entered the market, Mariner chairman Pond recalls.
“Our timing was perfect,” he says. Radian6 entered a social analytics market with 25 competitors – that number has grown into the hundreds in recent years – and quickly signed up two big-name clients. It was able to get its first big international deal with Weber Shandwick, the New York-based public relations firm. Soon after, it signed Dell Inc. and expanded into marketing and customer relations services.
“You can’t transfer confidence, it’s something you have to build,” he says.
Six years after Radian6 was hatched as a startup, Pond now knows a thing or two about incubation.