EcDev Journal

Entrepreneurship Ecosystems: York Region Case Study

Posted on Monday February 13, 2017
York Region Ecosystem
York Region Ecosystem

By Lucas Chang

The phrase “it takes a village to raise an entrepreneur” refers to the importance of having public, private, and educational institutions support entrepreneurs as they ideate, plan, launch, and scale their businesses.  While it’s not impossible to do it alone, it’s much easier to start a business within a supportive ecosystem.

This article will explore how York Region’s ecosystem evolution and its success in supporting startups.

Working Definitions

For the purposes of this article, the following definitions are a few terms that may be unfamiliar to some readers, and will provide a reference point for the rest of the article:

Entrepreneurship ecosystem: The collective of organizations that support and help entrepreneurs across all stages of business startup and growth.

  • Startup: A new business whose future is not a given.  Unlike an established company, a startup is fighting to stay in business 12+ months out.
  • Entrepreneur: Someone who builds a business around solving a problem, whether they are for-profit or non-profit, or they are addressing a social issue.
    • Social entrepreneur: An entrepreneur whose business addresses a social issue.
    • Intrapreneur: Someone who behaves like an entrepreneur from within a large organization.
    • Makerspace: A facility that provides communal equipment (impractical to purchase for home use) and mentoring to help people prototype their ideas.
    • Incubator: An organization that provides startup businesses with mentoring, training, networking, and funding opportunities.  Often businesses apply to be clients and once accepted, work in a shared space.
    • Accelerator: Like an incubator, but they will be more selective with which companies they will help, and usually they will own a percentage of the company in exchange for their services.
    • Angel investor: An individual who provides funding early in a company’s development, to help the business get started.
    • Venture capitalist: An individual who provides funding to help a company establish or grow its revenue stream.  Often funds with a thesis in mind.

York Region Overview

The Regional Municipality of York includes 9 municipalities immediately north of Toronto and spans 1,762 square kilometres.  There is a strong and vibrant economy in the region, as indicated by these numbers: 

  • About 10% of the ~49,000 businesses in York Region are in information, communications, and telecommunications (ICT).
  • 20 of the 90 gaming companies in the Greater Toronto Area are in York Region, with a combined 100+ million downloads.
  • Sixteen Fortune-100 corporations are headquartered in York Region.
  • The average size of companies in York Region is 15 employees.

The region has a population of 1.1 million people, many of whom are skilled and many of whom commute to Toronto each day.  Commute times can range from 30 minutes to 1.5 hours in one direction.  The population is distributed across the 9 municipalities, which leads to some realities and challenges for new entrepreneurs.  In urban centres such as nearby Toronto, there are intersections where startup founders can connect organically – not the case in York Region.  Each municipality has its own business centre, so there is no natural place for entrepreneurs to collide and trade experiences and ideas with others from across the region.

Another challenge in York Region is reaching residents and businesses to build awareness of resources, tools, and events.  The local municipalities act as a channel for certain types of communications, but there are constraints on what they can share, so getting the word out about what’s available to help businesses and entrepreneurs remains a challenge.

York Region Entrepreneur Support Ecosystem

York Region’s ecosystem includes representation from all levels of government, educational institutions, community non-profits, and private enterprises.  Collectively, the ecosystem supports businesses across all stages: prototyping, starting up, finding funding, launching, scaling, and exit.  The ecosystem helps organizations find mentors for entrepreneurs and events, and even supports teens and pre-teens. 

This section provides examples of the organizations in this ecosystem.  For more overviews, please refer to this document (http://www.startupyork.ca/2016/10/17/new-edition-resources-that-help-entrepreneurs-in-york-region/) or this app for iPhone and iPad (https://itunes.apple.com/ca/app/yres/id1170155615?mt=8).

For entrepreneurs looking to prototype their creation, York Region is home to several makerspaces.  In Newmarket, NewMakeIt (http://newmakeit.yorkregionmakers.com) offers its members access to co-working space and tools such as 3D printers, laser cutters, and CNC tools.  In Richmond Hill, Y Lab (http://www.ylab.ca) hosts events to bring together people who share a common interest in robotics, makers, Ardiunos, ham radios, lightsabers, and other Things Technology.  Many of the libraries in York Region, such as the ones in Newmarket, Markham, Aurora, Georgina and Vaughan, offer 3D printers.  The Markham Public Library (http://thecavemarkham.blogspot.ca) operates a maker space focused on creative audio / visual arts, where patrons can borrow or lend recording equipment of various types.

There are many organizations that help people ideate and start a business.  ventureLAB (http://www.venturelab.ca) is the Province-funded Regional Innovation Centre that helps technology, health and social entrepreneurs bring their innovations to market, by offering the BUILD training program, 1:1 advisory services, clinics, conferences, investor meetings, and other events.  Seneca College’s on-campus incubator HELIX (http://www.senecacollege.ca/research/HELIX/) is open to both Seneca students and non-students alike, and provides mentoring and programming to help startups.  York University’s on-campus incubator LaunchYU (http://www.launchyu.ca) provides similar support to students and non-students.

For entrepreneurs not focused on technology or social enterprise, the Small Business Enterprise Centres (SBECs) serve Markham (http://msbc.markham.ca), Richmond Hill (http://BusinessRichmondHill.ca), Vaughan (http://www.vaughan.ca/VBEC), and northern York Region (http://yorksmallbusiness.ca) by providing business advisory services and training programs.  For entrepreneurs starting a business with an artistic focus, the York Region Arts Council offers the Artrepreneur Business Accelerator (http://www.yorkregionartscouncil.com/artrepreneur-incubator-program). 

For entrepreneurs looking for space, publicly-funded organizations like ventureLAB and the Vaughan International Commercialization Centre (or VICC, http://www.vaughan.ca/business/VICC) are options, as are privately-owned businesses like Skytek Office Solutions (http://skytek.ca/) and Village Hive (http://thevillagehive.ca).  The various organizations offer space for similar purposes (offices, meetings) but differ in focus and culture.

Several organizations offer funding opportunities.  Programs like Futurpreneur Canada (http://www.futurpreneur.ca), Starter Company (https://www.ontario.ca/page/start-company-young-adults), and Summer Company (http://www.ontario.ca/summercompany) offer grant or loan financing, in addition to mentoring, to successful applicants.  The Ontario Centres of Excellence (http://www.oce-ontario.org) offers financial opportunities to academics looking to commercialize their research.  Angel investor networks, such as the York Angel Investors (http://www.yorkangels.com) and Keiretsu Forum Central Canada (keiretsuforum.com/global-chapters/vaughan/), are active in the region.

For entrepreneurs growing their business, there are organizations that bring like-minded people together.  For example, Startup York Region (http://startupyork.ca) hosts 1-2 events each month where entrepreneurs can connect and network in a no-pitch setting, and share information and best practices with one another.  The chambers and boards in Aurora (http://www.aurorachamber.on.ca), Markham (http://www.markhamboard.com), Newmarket (http://www.newmarketchamber.ca), Richmond Hill (http://www.rhcoc.com), and Vaughan (http://vaughanchamber.ca) offer a variety of programs and events to bring business owners together. OnRichmondHill.com (http://www.onrichmondhill.com/index.php) hosts a weekly “cross-sector collaboration” meeting that brings together business owners who contribute to the local community.  The Business Women’s Network of York Region (http://bwnyr.com) connects businesswomen.  The Canadian Association of Marketing Professionals (or CAMP, http://canadianmarketer.ca) brings together marketing professionals to network and learn.

For businesses specifically looking to enter international markets, organizations including the Centre for Global Enterprise (CGE) at the Schulich School of Business (http://schulich.yorku.ca/centre-for-global-enterprise/) and the VICC provide support.

Events such as MedEdge (http://businessrichmondhill.ca/mededge/), OCE Discovery (http://www.ocediscovery.com), Startup Weekend (https://startupweekend.org), and the TAVES Consumer Electronics Show (http://taveshow.com) are held throughout the year, and bring business owners and entrepreneurs together.

For those looking to give back to the community by providing mentoring, many of the organizations already mentioned regularly seek volunteers.  Futurpreneur Canada, NewMakeIt, Seneca College HELIX, the SBECs, ventureLAB and the York Entrepreneurship Development Institute (or YEDI, http://www.yedinstitute.org) all look for mentors to help their members and clients.

For budding entrepreneurs in high school or elementary school, there are programs to encourage their interest and learning.  DECA Ontario (http://2016.deca.ca) runs workshops and competitions open to high school students interested in business.  The Y2 Entrepreneur Conference for High-School Students (http://y2labs.co/) helps students learn how to start a business, by bringing them together with entrepreneur mentors and coaches.

How the Ecosystem Works Together

The York Region ecosystem comes together in several ways: on events, weekly touchpoint meetings, and supporting businesses.

For events such as Startup Weekend York Region, bootcamps and design jams, and the Ontario Innovation Celebration, organizations in the ecosystem come together to plan and manage the events.

Each week, some of the partners meet to share information about programs, funding, training, and summits that might be of interest to other organizations’ clients and members.  At this weekly meeting, accomplishments of startup companies in the region are also shared, which helps build awareness of opportunities for other partners to help a particular startup.

This “sharing” of startup clients has been particularly helpful to companies, and has been a trend in the ecosystem.  A company will start with one organization, and as they evolve their business, new needs arise and new organizations step in to augment support.  The following are some examples of startups from the region:

  1. Pearl's Choice (https://www.pearlschoice.com/) offers a platform that helps people compare and choose a retirement home.  They started in late 2014 at Seneca College HELIX, where they received training and mentoring from local entrepreneurs.  By mid-2015, HELIX connected Pearl's Choice with ventureLAB, who started to provide additional support.  By August 2015, Pearl's Choice launched their website with support from both HELIX and ventureLAB, and they have been growing since.

 

  1. Classy Cyborgs (http://www.classycyborgs.org/) is a team of teens and pre-teens first who assembled in a FIRST LEGO League competition.  During the competition, they came up with an idea to help children learn to read Braille, accomplished by a program on an iPad accompanied by some hardware.  They were supported by ventureLAB, then Startup York Region, then York University's Lassonde School of Engineering, who helped the Cyborgs build a working prototype.

 

  1. Ubiqweus, producers of the “qBiq” which is a one-inch, Wi-Fi-enabled cube that can connect almost anything to the Internet.  Ubiqweus was borne from the Region's ecosystem, the co-founders first met at a Startup York event, reconnected at a NewMakeIt event (this meeting is where the idea for qBiq originated), and prototyped the qBiq at NewMakeIt and Newmarket Public Library.

Observations from the York Region Example

The ecosystem has evolved quite a bit over the past 2 years. 

During this time, the various organizations have learned how to take advantage of their respective strengths, and how to leverage the strengths of partner organizations.  Large private-sector organizations such as MNP (http://www.mnp.ca/en) started providing support and lending their expertise to the ecosystem.  New players, such as the Ideal Incubator (http://www.idealincubator.ca/), have come to the table and brought with them a new set of strengths.  Some players, such as the libraries, have evolved their offerings to bring new opportunities to the region.

Events that may have started with a particular organization or community in mind have been reframed as a cross-region event.  For example, Startup Weekend York Region was once exclusive to Seneca College, but today happens at both Seneca and York University, and is planned by a team that includes players from both schools, partners like ventureLAB, and entrepreneurs not affiliated with either school.

ventureLAB remains a hub in the ecosystem, but new hubs have developed.  The communities around Startup York Region, NewMakeIt, Y Lab, the York Angels, and others have been steadily growing, and now York Region resembles more of a network of networks, rather than an ecosystem revolving around one static set of players.

The evolution of the ecosystem has been helpful and responsive enough to support two emerging segments of entrepreneurs: social and youth.  While CommunityBUILD has become a lightning rod for helping social entrepreneurs and Y2 Entrepreneurship Labs done the same for youth entrepreneurs in the region, the ecosystem has been integral to support and incubate both segments.  For example, many of CommunityBUILD’s mentors and facilitators are drawn from York University, ventureLAB, and Startup York; and most of Y2’s volunteers are also recruited from the ecosystem.

What’s Next?

While the York Region entrepreneur support ecosystem has evolved significantly over the past 2 years, there’s still opportunity ahead.

New players continue to join and bring their networks with them.  The York Region District School Board and the York Catholic District School Board have started to attend the weekly partner meetings hosted by ventureLAB, and have been working with Seneca College HELIX, Startup York and Y2 Entrepreneurship Labs to provide students with more opportunities to hear and learn from entrepreneurs.  IBM welcomed ventureLAB, the Markham Small Business Centre, the York Angel Investors, NRC-IRAP, and other former tenants in the Markham Convergence Centre to one of their Markham campuses, and will undoubtedly increase their presence and contributions in York Region.

ventureLAB has been exploring how to support innovation in not just smaller businesses, but also in mid-sized companies.  Currently, the exploration of what role they could play is underway, and where the research and consultation takes them, and the ecosystem, remains to be seen.

The community of entrepreneurs continues to grow and connect with one another.  With more organizations seeking speakers and mentors, the entrepreneur community will have more opportunities to work with new entrepreneurs and innovators, whether they be youth, professionals thinking about starting a business, or members of the “Third Age” – people who have years of experience in large organizations and now are considering applying their skills to a passion or renewed purpose.  The ecosystem is becoming robust enough to support formerly underserved segments.

One of the largest challenges that York Ecosystem faces today is how to engage the broader population in York Region.  That is, how to engage the commuters living in the region.  On the other hand, many of the 49,000 companies in York Region are looking for talent (particularly for people with strong technical skills, and experience helping a company scale), and there is a robust ecosystem that supports entrepreneurs.  So far, Demand and Supply haven’t found a way to meet.  There are different ideas of how to connect people with opportunities and resources on a broader scale, but so far this has not been figured out.

Imagine how impactful it would be to bring people motivated to work closer to home with companies doing interesting things, in the region.  And then to bring people passionate to start a business together with organizations and individuals who could help them channel their energy.

The village in York Region has been changing as it’s been building, and its future is dependent on its users and support groups who will bring it to the next level.

About the Author

Lucas Chang (Co-Founder of Y2 Entrepreneurship Labs, Program Director of Startup York Region, Community Manager at PerfectlySoft)

After spending 15 years in corporate, Lucas Chang decided to try his hand in the open market.  Along the way, he co-founded the Y2 Entrepreneurship Labs, dedicated to helping teenagers learn about entrepreneurship and innovation, and the Entrepreneurs in Residence (EIR) speaker series, where entrepreneurs share their journeys and stories in TEDx-like fashion.  He is also a community lead for Startup York Region, (a chapter of Startup Canada), which brings together entrepreneurs from across the region.  Recognized as a shift disturber in York Region, he has been invited to speak about startups and startup ecosystems, in person, on the radio, and on podcasts.

Lucas is also responsible for overseeing PerfectlySoft’s daily operations, and working with developers across the globe to help them try Perfect and advance from enthusiasts to evangelists.

Lucaschang13@gmail.com