Silicon North is Booming because of… Blackberry?

blackberry-z10-1-500x433When Blackberry imploded a few years back cutting half its staff and losing most of its market share, the general feeling in the Kitchener/Waterloo/Cambridge Tech-Triangle was, “Ruh roh… this doesn’t look too frikin’ good.”

Spring forward to today, and that doom and gloom has been replaced with a booming business sector, start-ups galore and streets packed with Lamborghinis, Austin Martins and Teslas

Reuters did a deep dive into it last week in a must-read article written by Sayantani Ghosh titled, BlackBerry’s meltdown sparks start-up boom in Canada’s Silicon Valley”

The troubles at BlackBerry Ltd, which fired more than half its staff and lost more than 90 percent of its market value as consumers shunned its smart phones, might have spelled disaster for the company’s hometown of Waterloo, Ontario. Instead, there are hot sports cars in the streets and new companies filling the refurbished office buildings.

More than 450 start-ups opened for business in the twin cities of Waterloo and Kitchener last year, more than four times the number begun in 2009. In the year ended April 30, 2013, more than C$214 million ($235 million) was invested in start-ups in the Kitchener-Waterloo area. Three years earlier, the figure was just $500,000…

Often, the new companies are being founded by former BlackBerry employees chasing their entrepreneurial ambitions in a community that’s Canada’s answer to technology hubs in California and elsewhere.

“For those who are trying to get a new tech business off the ground, get it funded, and not get lost in the shadow of Silicon Valley, Waterloo can be the best place to get your company on the map,” said Sean McCabe, vice-president of engineering at drone manufacturer Aeryon Labs Inc in Waterloo.

John Stix at Communitech

John Stix at Communitech

Entrepreneurs can also avail themselves of the Communitech Hub and its Hyperdrive seed-accelerator program that helps create scalable, venture investment ready businesses. Fibernetics’ co-founder John Stix works with Communitech by providing mentoring services.

“The wealth of talent in the region is truly remarkable,” said Stix. “Not just limited to these start-ups, our company gets bombarded by super-qualified people whenever we post a new job. It makes our hiring decisions more difficult  – but it’s a great problem to have.”

The Reuters piece concludes that this isn’t a flash in the pan either, that the Tech Triangle that encompasses Kitchener, Waterloo and Cambridge will continue to thrive essentially due to Blackberry’s demise.

Larry Smith, an adjunct associate professor of economics at Waterloo University, said BlackBerry’s success had overshadowed other companies and its reversal is now making them stand out.

While BlackBerry’s decline released a lot of talent into the local labor market, the region also has the infrastructure that makes it easy for companies to set up shop, he said.

The BlackBerry connection is also a form of assurance when backing the area’s start-ups. Executives who were part of BlackBerry’s success have experience of “scaling up” a business – a valuable asset for a start-up aiming to break into the big league.

BlackBerry’s decline has also made it easier for start-ups to hire and retain talent.

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About Gavin McDougald

Gavin McDougald has been working on and around the Internet since 1995. One of the original developers of The Sports Networks website, TSN.ca, he ended up as its Editor-in-Chief. An award winning writer, Gavin's work has been published on numerous sites like CBC.ca and NHL.com, as well as in papers such as the LA Times and Globe & Mail. Moving from online sports to Internet marketing in 2003, he's worked in a variety of industries including console gaming, online publishing, and now in telecommunications with Fibernetics. His focus is on the social media channels for both the Worldline and NEWT brands, blogging and corporate communications. Gavin has a BSc in Geology and a BA in Fine Arts from McMaster University.

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