Hamilton: the next Waterloo?
Editor’s note: Last Fall I was contacted by Dylan C. Robertson, a journalism student creating a project called ONset to cover Ontario startups. In November of 2012 he published this article covering Hamilton.
Mohawk College sits atop Hamilton Mountain. A platform down the street overlooks the city‚Äôs aging steel mills and industrial downtown.
In the heart of the main campus, past its wind turbines and glass walls, Jerad Godreault, 21, types sporadically on his Macbook. He sits on an IKEA couch at iDeaWORKS, the college‚Äôs innovation hub that takes bright students with ideas and equips with them resources and know-how.
Godreault, a software development student, co-founded the medical app Imaginauts with his brother Leo, a nursing graduate. Their app tracks a patient‚Äôs prescription compliance by reminding them to take their drugs, and logging when they do. Doctors can monitor the data, which can suggest when in the day a prescription works best.
A born-and-raised Hamiltonian, Godreault is enthusiastic about his city‚Äôs ‚Äúnurturing, supportive community.‚ÄĚ He‚Äôs also a test case in a concerted effort to transfrom this municipality of 520,000 from a gritty steel town to a hub of medical tech innovation.
The iDeaWORKS lab is a concrete-walled room with tables of computers, multiple whiteboards and binders of information on co-op placements. Three-dimensional cardboard figures from video games hang from the ceiling, including Zelda‚Äôs Triforce logo and the Super Mario question-mark cube.
Godreault is sending messages to people he met at recent networking events. He‚Äôs asking for votes in Startoff Hamilton, a city-wide, month-long contest where start-ups pitch their idea to Hamiltonians, who vote for the best idea.
The contest, with $150,000 at stake, has attracted 27 teams. Stickers with 8-bit graphics promoting the long competition are peppered across the city.
Godreault is good at contests. In May, Mohawk College sent him to Vancouver, where he competed and won the e-Health 2012 Apps Challenge.
‚ÄúThat was really cool,‚ÄĚ says Godreault, adjusting his boxy, thick black-framed glasses.
The $3,500 competition required entrepreneurs to pitch their app to health software professionals. Judges grilled all nine teams, and Godreault says he was ready because his instructors prepared him for it.
‚ÄúWe learned how to pitch and get people interested and paying attention. I knew nothing about pitching,‚ÄĚ he says. ‚ÄúI‚Äôm a guy with an idea. They showed me how to make it work.‚ÄĚ
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Kevin Browne is on a mission to change the face of Hamilton.
As a 29-year-old computer science PhD candidate at McMaster University, his decade-long career has included a 16-month stint in Waterloo, Ontario‚Äôs tech mecca.
‚Äú[Waterloo‚Äôs] a nice place to live; good place to raise a family,‚ÄĚ Browne says. ‚ÄúBut Hamilton is home to me. And we have so much to offer.‚ÄĚ
Despite Hamilton‚Äôs low cost of rent, vibrant art scene and sizable downtown, it wasn‚Äôt enough to keep his tech colleagues from Mohawk and McMaster in town.
‚ÄúEvery year, I lost all my friends. They‚Äôd go for jobs in Toronto, Waterloo, New York, Silicon Valley‚Ä¶ It was very personally frustrating,‚ÄĚ Browne says.
In 2010, after years of the usual rotation, he asked a friend why he chose to leave Hamilton.
‚ÄúHe said you need a community; you need events and networks,‚ÄĚ Browne recalls. ‚ÄúYou can‚Äôt just create this out of thin air.‚ÄĚ
Determined to stop the brain drain, Browne gathered his friends together and launched Hamilton‚Äôs first DemoCamp in March 2011. Copied from the monthly Toronto event that kicked off in 2005, these one-evening mini-conferences involve a guest speaker and five software demonstrations.
Hamilton‚Äôs first event attracted 100 people, including unfamiliar faces.
‚ÄúI knew people were out there,‚ÄĚ Browne says.
Things snowballed. Within a year, Hamilton had multiple monthly and annual events, from networking and competitions to employee-employer matchmaking sessions.
In early October 2012, the city held its second annual Lion‚Äôs Lair event, a take on Dragon‚Äôs Den that sees 10 entrepreneurs compete for $100,000 in investment and contracts. Both events sold out, with over 500 guests and plenty of media coverage.
Browne‚Äôs initiative is only part of the story. Local colleges, universities, city planning departments and employers are taking an all-hands-on-board approach to making new technology a key part of Hamilton‚Äôs economy.
‚ÄúWe‚Äôre all on the same page and it‚Äôs not an issue to say ‚ÄėHey, I‚Äôm doing this event, do you have anyone who could help me out?‚Äô‚ÄĚ says Carolynn Reid of the city‚Äôs economic development department, which offers consulting, funding and promotion.
While Hamilton officials keep limited data on how many tech start-ups are based in the city and how many people they employ, figures point to growing innovation sector. At least one tech patent is filed from Hamilton each week, and the city‚Äôs digital footprint can bee seen through the hundreds of stickers and 17,000 unique voters logged in October‚Äôs Hamilton Startoff competition. CBC launched its first digital-only branch in the city this spring after radio frequencies weren‚Äôt available.
A big force behind this shift toward new technologies has been Innovation Factory, a non-profit, provincially funded organization that connects start-ups with investors and resources. It even mirrors the tech industry‚Äôs penchant for unconventional spelling: iF.
In less than two years, iF counts 350 start-up clients, half of which work in information and communications technology. That gives Hamilton‚Äôs tech industry roughly a fourth the heft of Waterloo, a city the province started investing in as a tech hub in the 1960s.
If building a tech base from scratch is a challenge, fighting negative impressions is no cakewalk.
‚ÄúI never thought of living in Hamilton until I actually explored the city. It differed in every way from my first impression,‚ÄĚ says Keanin Loomis, iF‚Äôs chief advocate who has lived in Waterloo and Washington, DC.
‚ÄúThe people are friendly and really down-to-earth. I fell for the city.‚ÄĚ
Start-ups have followed a similar path, like REfficient, an online marketplace where businesses can buy and sell surplus inventory across seven countries. Founded in Mississauga, the company moved to Hamilton last year to save 30 per cent of their business costs and rent, and hasn‚Äôt looked back.
But Loomis says Hamilton can be dwarfed by its proximity to Toronto, and long-held perceptions linger.
‚ÄúWhen people from Southern Ontario hear Hamilton, they see the steel mills along the QEW,‚ÄĚ says Loomis.
The other route into Hamilton is through Hwy. 403, which passes by the McMaster Innovation Park, a red-brick building in the city‚Äôs west end where researchers and entrepreneurs share workspaces and ideas.
‚ÄúSteel‚Äôs important to our economy and our identity, but we‚Äôre so much more,‚ÄĚ says Reid, from the city‚Äôs economic development department. ‚ÄúPeople have to come and see the city for what it is.‚ÄĚ
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It‚Äôs a windy Thursday night in October and The Winking Judge, a microbrewery pub operating in a Victorian house, is bustling.
Upstairs, a group of about 30 techies is chatting big ideas. Some are in their 20s, but most are mid-aged. Almost all are male. Unbuttoned cardigans are in vogue tonight, as is pumpkin-flavoured beer.
It‚Äôs the one-year anniversary of StartUpDrinks, an informal monthly evening where ideas, business cards and craft draught flow.
‚ÄúI can‚Äôt think of a reason to leave the city,‚ÄĚ says Steve Veerman, a software developer for Postmedia who was raised in Hamilton. ‚ÄúYou have events like tonight, and a bunch of stuff that Kevin [Browne] got going and some sort of tech culture here.‚ÄĚ
Outside his day job, Veerman is working on Eventity, an app that crawls through buzz on social media and to map out what‚Äôs popular in the city. Tonight, he‚Äôs also hawking for votes for the online Startoff Hamilton competition.
Over the course of an evening, two strangers will come up with an idea for an app and write it on a napkin, a young entrepreneur will land a job interview and almost everyone will discuss the city‚Äôs monthly outdoor art crawl that happened earlier that week.
‚ÄúFrom what I can see, we‚Äôre blossoming as a city,‚ÄĚ says Duane Hewitt, a biologist by trade who‚Äôs hoping to expand his consulting work into mobile health technology. ‚ÄúHamilton‚Äôs sort of the best place for health-focused work.‚ÄĚ
Many of the projects discussed at this month‚Äôs StartupDrinks have a medical focus. Hamilton is where most North American eHealth records systems are designed, and the city hosts medical competitions like Apps for Health.
Healthcare has long been the city‚Äôs second industry after steel, propelled by decades of health research from McMaster, the province‚Äôs largest medical school. Through new technology start-ups, health is remerging as Hamilton‚Äôs raison d‚Äô√™tre.
The city‚Äôs switch to health innovation echoes the path travelled before by Kitchener and Waterloo, two cities that pivoted from insurance companies and manufacturing to mobile innovation over the past two decades.
Communitech, a Waterloo non-profit similar to Hamilton‚Äôs iF, estimates that 30,000 people are now employed in more than 1,000 tech firms in the Kitchener-Waterloo area, with new ones popping up at a rate that doubles every year.
Just as Waterloo start-ups brought the city‚Äôs focus to mobile innovation, Hamilton start-ups are looking to make waves in medical technology.
‚ÄúA lot of my clients have health-related businesses. I guess health is sort of our bridge into the tech world,‚ÄĚ says Tim Miron, an accountant who works with many start-up clients. He points across the bar to some entrepreneurs he‚Äôs been chatting with, all in their 20s.
‚ÄúWe‚Äôll get there through these guys.‚ÄĚ