Film on Waterloo Startup Community Draws Applause from Full Crowd

From a town of textiles and automotive to a region that creates technology companies fit for Y Combinator, it’s all entrepreneurship cut from the same cloth.

Startup Community, a film by local photographer Taylor Jackson, was a startup in its own sense.

Jackson found the inspiration for the film about Waterloo Region’s tech cluster some 11,500 kilometres away, in Shanghai, China, after he visited a friend who had created his own bicycle business while on co-op as an architecture student at the University of Waterloo.

He and producer Lindsay Coulter raised more than $17,000 in a few days, through an Indiegogo campaign launched last year.

After the whole community rallied around to support the film in various ways, it premiered on Monday night to a Chysalids Theatre packed with more than 500 people.

The film didn’t disappoint as crowd members, many dressed in comfortable jeans and dress shirts, cheered when familiar faces flickered across the screen.

Those faces included Larry Smith of the University of Waterloo’s economics faculty, who told the story of how Loblaws, the national supermarket chain, couldn’t break into this market without having to buy the locally operated Zehrs chain first.

The story underscored the unusually strong support the region’s residents give to homegrown businesses.

Tech founders and those who facilitate innovation weren’t the only ones who filled the screen.

Jackson also aimed his camera at entrepreneurship at other local industries such as Block 3 Brewery in St. Jacobs, a stone’s throw from Quarry Integrated Communications, a longtime local marketing firm. Jackson filmed the Block 3 team last summer as they were getting their business off the ground, and as founder Bryan Maher described, “I’ve never eaten as little, slept so little, and never loved it so much.”

In just under an hour, the film captured some of the best success stories in recent past and snapped together different pieces of the puzzle, past and present, which make up this unique ecosystem.

And the concept of dreaming big was highlighted.

“They are not satisfied with being the best in Canada,” Iain Klugman, CEO of Communitech, said of local tech entrepreneurs when interviewed in the film. “To them, that’s like being the fastest runner in their Grade 6 class; their mother cares, but no one else cares.”

During the panel discusson that followed the screening, moderated by Alan Quarry, the audience asked questions of Michael Litt and Jennifer Moss, who were both in the film. Steve McCartney, Communitech’s VP of Startup Services, rounded out the panel along with Jackson and Coulter.

The film raised questions about what is left to be done and what lies ahead – namely, bigger companies and a bigger ecosystem – and that’s what audience members and panelists picked up on.

After being asked where exactly Toronto fits in the mix, there were laughs and cheers as McCartney said, “If we’re lucky, they’ll build us a train.” This will make Toronto and Waterloo Region more accessible to each other, increasing the flow of people and resources between the two tech clusters, ultimately forming a larger one that rivals the scale of Silicon Valley.

An audience member from Montreal who was in town to attend UW’s Innovation Summit said, “I came to see what Waterloo is all about, and I’ve got to say that I thought that we had a great ecosystem, but you have one on a whole other level.”

He then asked Litt what it’s going to take for Canadian companies to become bigger and not sell out so quickly, and about the mindset of entrepreneurs around this issue.

“I think it takes a very particular mindset to stay with the ship,” Litt said. As a company grows, the acquisition offers do, too, and the temptation of an exit increases.

But Litt was quick to point out our history, and to hopefully predict our future.

“What we forget, in this region in particular, is there are a tonne of cases where companies grew to be billion-dollar-plus,” he said. “RIM was an $80-billion-dollar business locally, and I guarantee you that they had some opportunities to exit. Whatever those guys had in their DNA is what we need to recreate.

“Those early exits are exciting, but I think this community needs to be built on the backs of big companies once again.”

Another audience member asked Jackson and Coulter about a prequel to the film, focused on the elements behind what exists in the current era, such as the University of Waterloo and “forefathers like BlackBerry and Descartes.”

“That’s definitely a possibility; we have a lot of research to say the least,” said Jackson, but he couldn’t make any firm promises given the work required to promote Startup Community.

“To answer the question about what the next Startup Community is about,” said Litt, “I hope there are five companies as large or larger than RIM in its prime, and hopefully that happens within the next five to 10 years, because that’s what is going to be required to build a really sustainable community.”

Originally published on Communitech’s blog.

Photo: Samantha Clark