Do Business Accelerators Work?

Leaders of three Canadian business accelerators painted a very clear picture of what it takes to succeed—strong connections with the surrounding tech community, industry involvement, government support for sustainability, business models that don’t incentivize company founders to exit too early, and clear performance expectations of their client companies.

“When we started four years ago, a critical success factor was that we were a community-driven, industry-based initiative,” explained Jim Maynard, president of Wavefront, the Vancouver-based acceleration centre for Canadian wireless tech companies.

Speaking at the TechForum in Vancouver on Tuesday, Maynard said Wavefront’s founders consulted with big wireless operators and small companies to find out what their pain points and needs were and developed their model based on the industry’s input. Government support from the province of B.C. and Western Economic Diversification were essential to establishing the centre, but industry partnerships have helped it flourish. Recently awarded $11.6 million in new federal funding as a National Centre for Excellence in wireless commercialization, Wavefront’s goal is to graduate companies within roughly 18 months ready to go from a half dozen employees to 30, 50 and beyond.

Aaron Hilton, CTO of Conquer Mobile, which recently graduated from Wavefront, attended the panel discussion and said that his company came into Wavefront with two employees and today employs a team of nine. “We’re out of the space and now on our own two feet, but we got the footing we needed at Wavefront. We’re using what we learned and growing quickly.”

Tim Jackson, CEO of the Waterloo Accelerator Centre and a partner in Tech Capital Partners, emphasized that government investment is a critical success factor to ensure sustainability, but said that his first priority is ensuring his accelerator is moving many companies through its program and graduating them quickly.

“Succeed or fail quickly,” said Jackson. Companies at the Waterloo centre are measured continuously to track progress in key metrics like sales and marketing, IP, governance and HR. Those that do not show progress or do not take advantage of the services that the centre provides to help them progress are asked to leave.

Achieving a successful accelerator model is “not like building a building, because that’s the easy part. It’s about building a community,” said Iain Klugman, president and CEO of Kitchener’s Communitech Hub. The building doesn’t need to be pretty, Klugman said, but it is critical to have a location to serve as a gathering place and bring the local entrepreneurial community together.

The accelerator has to be integrated into a region’s eco-system, and not all regions work the same way. For that reason, the Silicon Valley model works well for Silicon Valley but it’s naïve to try to replicate that model elsewhere. Klugman pointed to creating a culture of entrepreneurialism and building networks that go beyond tech entrepreneurs and established mentors encompassing everything from local high schools to nonprofits.

“We could not exist without the local community,” said Jackson.

The sense of community resonated with Artur Pawlak, founder and CEO of Single Digit Labs in Vancouver, which is a mobile app development company and tenant at Wavefront. Pawlak and Hilton both also connected with the message from Maynard, Jackson and Klugman indicating that founders need to focus on growth, persevere and not give in to the many pressures—from the stress of continually fundraising to investors seeking liquidity–to exit their companies early.

“Having the resources at Wavefront to remove that friction is something I really appreciate,” said Pawlak.