Knowing where to set up and give yourself the best possible chance of success is a key consideration for any entrepreneur. While London and the UK has served as an attractive base for business builders from both Europe and the rest of the world, what about other locations that might be particularly useful for Brits?
Thalmic Labs and Nymi are two technology-based businesses that have started and grown in Ontario, Canada. Having created an innovative device to control devices using gestures and motion, Thalmic Labs is well placed to discuss what it takes to achieve market penetration. Nymi, meanwhile, is pushing forward with a product that allows users to deploy strong, multi-factor biometric authentication to any application, device, or service.
(1) What do you feel is particularly unique about starting and growing a business in Ontario?
Aaron Grant, co-founder, Thalmic Labs: One of the most incredible things about starting and growing a company in Ontario, and specifically within Waterloo Region, is the supportive and encouraging atmosphere. While other tech hubs are known to be highly competitive, we believe that the success of each company helps the region and country as a whole.
To that point, the community in Waterloo Region has been incredibly supportive of Thalmic Labs from the start and is full of many mentors who are interested in the success of all tech startups in the region.
Karl Martin, founder, Nymi: Ontario, and Toronto specifically, is a very multicultural place. This benefits local companies in two ways. First, there is a diverse pool of talent from which to build the company. Second, the market offers a great platform to test new product and service ideas that may be launched on an international scale. Essentially, you have a window into a very broad and large market.
(2) In what ways does it serve as a convenient platform between the US and the rest of the world?
AG: For us, the decision to remain in Canada has still allowed us to attract talent from as far away as New Zealand, Italy, and France, and from all across North America, in addition to a mix of Canadian and American investors. Toronto is a highly accessible city with one of the largest airports in the world, making traveling to and from other parts of the globe incredibly simple.
KM: Geographic proximity to the US certainly has its benefits. Many startup founders find themselves visiting San Francisco and Silicon Valley on a frequent basis for potential investors, customers, and partners. Nothing is as effective as a face-to-face meeting, and our proximity makes that feasible.
(3) What limitations are there in terms of allowing you to scale rapidly?
AG: We faced (and continue to face) the same challenges entrepreneurs in technology companies face every day: developing the technology, funding development, finding a market fit, recruiting talent, and so on.
As a hardware company, there are a few extra challenges we have to deal with on both the engineering and business levels: supply chain, quality control, distribution, and financing all this. One barrier to scaling rapidly is the immigration system in Canada: we need an immigration system that is nimble, accessible, and responsive enough to keep up with fast-growing, knowledge-driven companies to recruit highly educated team members from all over the world.
KM: The only limitation to scaling is available investment capital. However, at the growth stage, most US venture capitalists are comfortable investing in Canadian companies.
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(4) How do you feel investors and the rest of the world look to Canada as a business hub?
AG: We believe that investors, specifically in the technology space, are becoming increasingly interested in Canadian companies. We had the opportunity to participate in Y Combinator’s Winter 2013 cohort in Silicon Valley, which helped us build relationships to eventually secure both the funding and the support that we needed to fuel growth at Thalmic Labs.
KM: I think that Canada’s reputation as a fair and equitable country translates to a generally positive sentiment when it comes to dealing with Canadian companies. Furthermore, the Toronto-Waterloo region is increasingly seen as an innovation hub with many startups that based on deep science and engineering.
(5) What do you think the rest of the world can learn from how enterprise has been celebrated and encouraged in Ontario?
AG: While no two ecosystems can be created exactly the same, we believe that more collaborative environments can serve to benefit entire regions, provinces/states, and countries. There is no shortage of room in which to innovate, and as we all push technology forward, we will be creating new markets from which we can all stand to gain.
KM: There is a healthy mix of risk tolerance and aversion to hype. You will find a community that supports those that are willing to take the leap to do something innovative, but also a healthy skepticism for businesses that lack strong fundamentals.
(6) How key is something like government support and promotion to you?
AG: Government support and promotion is huge to us. Anything we can do to move technology forward and innovate more quickly can only help the industry as a whole. Getting our hands on the best resources and talent are the biggest ways in which we can realise success.
KM: I think that government support can be valuable where there is commercialisation of early-stage research (typically coming out of universities).
This work is the fertile ground for highly disruptive innovation, but is still highly speculative that it’s hard to attract private funding. This was the case in the early days of Nymi. However, at later stages I think governments should limit it’s involvement of private enterprise.
(7) Where will you be looking to take your business in the future, and what will the key ingredients be in achieving that?
AG: In the longer term, we’re excited about the future of technology. Specifically, the idea of closely coupling us as humans with digital technology in ways that improve or enhance our lives and/or abilities.
For us, Myo is a first step down a long path in this direction. As mentioned previously, getting our hands on the best resources and talent will help us realise our full potential.
KM: We’re building a foundational platform that will affect the way we interact with almost all technology. We’re looking to have our system components embedded into almost all the things we interact with, making authentication something that we can take for granted.
In other words, we can simply interact with a variety of devices and systems and they will be able to authenticate us with no effort on our part. The key ingredients to achieving this include a continued investment in world-class technical talent, and a focused go-to-market strategy which pragmatically deploys the technology into use cases that will create a market pull over the coming years.
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