Monday, May 07, 2012

Moving ahead in London: New vision and leadership needed to fill the gaps

I had a great time in Waterloo on Friday, attending the rebirth of LaunchPad$50K, now run by the GTAN angel group, which means there are real investors on the judging panel (and in attendance) making actual investment decisions, the lack of which is always my first lament about most business pitch competitions.

"How are things in London?" was usually one of the first questions that came up as I bumped into a lot of old friends—this was my first time at a Waterloo event since moving to Strathroy—and that reminded me that I've never said anything here about my London experience.

I stepped down from my role at TechAlliance last November after 13 months. I was affiliated with the organization for a few more months—managing a project I had initiated that focused on small urban and rural areas in Southwestern Ontario (more about that in future posts)—but that wrapped up at the end of March.

The point I made repeatedly on Friday is that I didn't leave because of a lack of confidence in London's potential as an innovation and technology centre. If anything, it was just the opposite.

London has a ton of potential—which is what motivated me in the first place to uproot my family and make what was only my second big move (the first was from Toronto to Waterloo when I was 28 and single). That potential is now beginning to transform into reality. London is now starting to get the vision and leadership that it's needed for years to make it happen.

Unquestionably, there are major gaps that need to be filled, and some of them probably should have been addressed years ago. But we can't step into a time machine and go back, so the best we can do is start now. And that's what I've turned my attention to.

Thankfully, there are others who have also been working on filling those gaps. Two initiatives in particular—BizInc, the student business incubator at Western and Fanshawe, and UnLondon, which (among many other things) created the UnLab hackerspace—have shown how much can be achieved in a short period of time when you have that vision and leadership and drive. I quickly became a big supporter of both, and whenever I was asked what exciting things are happening in London, those were the first two I'd mention.

There are other grassroots initiatives in town that also hold a lot of promise, and some impressive new companies like Cyborg Trading Systems, Big Viking Games and Carbyn (now part of Synacor), among others that I'd better not try to name one-by-one. BizInc is connected to Western and Fanshawe—two fantastic resources that the city had never really tapped as a source of startups. The local office of NRC-IRAP deserves to be singled out as having done an outstanding job, particularly in the years when it had extra funding and was unmatched locally in its support of early-stage innovation-based companies. As well, there's a solid core of supporting services and infrastructure in London, which is becoming an increasingly vibrant and creative city (something I also got to see in Waterloo).

I had the opportunity to see firsthand where these exciting new initiatives were happening—who was looking ahead and who was looking back. Who was rowing the boat and who was coasting, or even rowing in the wrong direction.

I saw the potential and I also saw why London had fallen behind other cities in building an innovation and technology business centre. It was one thing to cede dominance to Waterloo Region, but we're now seeing other Ontario communities catch up. Even Waterloo wasn't that far ahead of London just a few years ago, but the gap has widened every year. It took Hamilton about nine months to surpass what it took years to build here—again, proof of what can be done in a short amount of time (it did take them a long time to get something going, but once they got it going, it really went). Guelph been making huge strides as well. We've been too satisfied for too long with mediocre results.

Vision and leadership matter. Being in touch with your industry matters too. Complacency is a killer.

And that vision and leadership exist in London. You'll find it in the people who brought us UnLab, PodCamp London, StartupCampLondon, Geek Dinner, Hello My Game Is, Lean Coffee London, Seed Your Startup, and the 100+ projects that BizInc has worked with. These are the kinds of forward-thinking initiatives London needs, and there's lots more to be done—and people eager to do it.

It would be great to see resources reallocated to these initiatives that are actually making big things happen. There are people at a grassroots level accomplishing a lot on shoestring budgets. Shoestrings only get you so far, though. They deserve our support.

I've been talking with many of those people over the last several weeks. There's frustration, but also an ambition and desire to make things better. The raw material has always been here but for too long we've had administrators where we need leaders. I hope what we're seeing now is a sign that a change has started.

After spending more than 10 years working to build the Waterloo tech community, I came to London with high hopes. Those hopes are still there and I'm looking forward to being part of the changes ahead.

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