One of the biggest commitments on the Halifax mayor’s plate these days is ribbon cutting. In the past 12 months alone, the city has been going through a flurry of infrastructure activity, including an expanding and thriving Innovation District.
Today that District is home to seven post-secondary institutions, hospitals and research labs, and thousands of tech, financial and life sciences firms. It’s where Creative Destruction Lab launched CDL Atlantic in 2017, based in Dalhousie University’s Rowe School of Business. Its main focus there is on blue-green ventures combining agritech and biotech.
Another new resident is the Centre for Ocean Ventures and Entrepreneurship (COVE), a provincially funded initiative that brings together ocean-economy innovators and entrepreneurs to share resources and tools to enable commercialization and growth.
It’s also the base for Volta Labs, a tech hub modelled after Ontario’s Communitech, that is said to rank as the largest innovation hub in Canada outside of the Kitchener-Waterloo-Toronto corridor. Since opening four years ago it has expanded from 10,000 square feet to a much grander 60,000 sq. ft. of prime real estate space. Plans are to take it to 150,000 sq. ft. over the next five years, according to CEO Jesse Rodgers.
In building Volta, Rodgers knew what it takes to create a strong early-stage funding community. He was a founding director of Creative Destruction Lab in Toronto and Velocity in Waterloo.
“Five years ago, we were trying to get people out to see what kind of ecosystem we had in Halifax,” he says. “Since then Volta has grown with that ecosystem. Now we are closing in on 30 companies in our space and host 200 events a year.”
In keeping with the Communitech model, Volta recently announced a Corporate Innovation Outpost for corporate and small investment partners, and has already welcomed Atlantic Lottery Corp. as its first partner, with more in the works.
One resident of Volta Labs is Swept, developers of a software as a service app specifically designed for the cleaning and janitorial services trade. Serial entrepreneur Michael Brown, who previously owned a residential and commercial cleaning services company, founded the company with Volta in 2015.
In fact, he discovered Volta when his company was asked to provide a quote for cleaning services. “I didn’t know Volta existed. I didn’t even know what a tech incubator was,” he says.
When he mentioned he was working on a new app, the interest was enough to convince him to sell his cleaning company and focus solely on the technology. “Once we joined Volta, we really took off,” he says. The company grew from three to 25 people.
Brown now serves as a mentor to new companies joining the fold. As part of that, he has also spent time in Silicon Valley with accelerators, startups and tech industry leaders, driving the Halifax innovation ecosystem message home. “We’ve been able to build up a beautiful network for other founders. If anyone here is facing a challenge, we can tie them into different ecosystems.”
Rodgers says the real strength of the startup community in Halifax is its diversity, particularly in the B2B space, from machinery to services. “That’s a real strength that people are just starting to realize. For example, we’ve also got the Ocean Supercluster. That’s a really big deal in terms of the calibre of baseline technology and research here.”
The federal government chose Atlantic Canada as Canada’s Ocean Supercluster, a knowledge-based ocean-economy project that brings together private and public investment. It will see $250 million dollars in investment for hundreds of small and medium-size companies.
It comes as no surprise that the ocean economy looms large on the Halifax innovation horizon. At an Economic Club of Canada presentation, Mayor Mike Savage noted that Atlantic Canada has 75 per cent of Canada’s ocean economy, providing plenty of opportunity. “Norway, for example, has a population that’s one-seventh that of Canada but boasts an ocean economy that is seven times more valuable than ours. The potential here is staggering.”
COVE, for its part, is providing an all-important foundation that will open the doors to innovators in the field, says Jennifer Angel, acting president and CEO.
A key pillar to a successful innovation district is creating the conditions needed for people to collaborate, she explains. “It’s not enough to create companies, but to create spaces to share ideas. Infrastructure is especially important to ocean-related ventures, because access to the ocean and tools can be prohibitively expensive.”
COVE is enabling some very small companies with very big ideas the access to infrastructure and the water’s edge to accelerate their ability to test ideas and help bring them to market, she adds. “It’s all about commercialization of technologies and project collaboration across ocean sectors.”
Aleksandr Stabenow, co-founder and chief technology officer of Sedna, a fisheries tech company and one of the first six startups to join COVE, says the ecosystem played an important role in bringing him back from Western Canada to his native Nova Scotia. “COVE was a big factor in our decision to start Sedna in Halifax. It’s pretty amazing that there are so many people here to help. The network here is very tight knit, and there’s a lot coming through the pipeline. One of the unique things about the startup community here is the support and resources that are available now.”
With all this activity, Halifax is also convincing larger enterprises to commit to the innovation ecosystem in a bigger way. EY Canada for example, recently announced the launch of a new Global Centre of Excellence focusing on robotic process automation technologies. The mayor also announced an IBM/Maersk join venture that will bring blockchain to digitizing Halifax’s port.
Rodgers says that while Halifax has been through boom-and-bust cycles in the past, today’s momentum is building confidence in what the city has to offer. “Investment is piling in and people are getting excited. We’re more ambitious now, because the economy is in a good place and people are feeling more positive. And we are bringing in brand new stuff. It changes people’s mindsets when they see that.”