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Toronto tech scene is starting to rev its engines

New startup incubator on Front Street is the latest piece in an increasingly coherent strategy.

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Toronto Tech Scene:

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I’m generally not one for hyperbole, but it honestly feels like there’s something real happening with the Toronto technology scene.

I’ve got a story in today’s Globe and Mail about the new startup and innovation “super-cluster” beginning to take shape on Front Street, right in the heart of the city. Combine it with a few other recent events and it really feels like the proverbial engine is starting to rev.

Leading the charge is OneEleven, an accelerator that deals mainly with post-seed startups, or those that have already raised between $1 million and $5 million in funding. The accelerator itself a great idea that arose out of necessity.

One issue I’ve heard mentioned time and again in nearly 20 years of writing about Canadian tech companies is how such businesses have problems achieving scale – or growing into multibillion-dollar concerns.

Toronto has no shortage of talented individuals with potentially world-changing ideas, but their efforts too often flame out because they can’t attract the right kind of attention from investors, customers and the media.

OneEleven, which began operations in 2013, aims to help on all of those fronts by offering support services, workshops and office space. The accelerator has so far helped a number of startups, including point-of-sale software provider Tulip Retail, online lending marketplace Borrowell and law firm management tool maker Clio, grow into sustainable businesses.

The cornerstone of the new super-cluster is 250,000-square-feet of space at 325 Front Street West, a giant building that will eventually house dozens of OneEleven startups, a number of mid-range tech companies and innovation labs for blue-chip enterprises.

It’s exactly what Toronto needs. “There is not enough high-quality space which is both cheap and co-located near the financial industry, and hence, conducive to collaboration in the same way that such space is available in New York, London and San Francisco,” said a recent report from the Innovation Policy Lab at University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs.

The news comes in close proximity to the announcement of the Vector Institute, a new lab focused on artificial intelligence development at the University of Toronto. The lab is receiving $170 million in funding from the Ontario and Canadian governments, plus corporate donors including Google and RBC.

And let’s not forget the Ryerson-based leadership council, launched last fall, where big-name executives and entrepreneurs including IBM Canada president Dino Trevisani, Dragons’ Den personality Bruce Croxon and Adidas Group Canada president Michael Rossi provide mentorship to startups.

Put it all together and it certainly feels like the wheels are in motion – and it’s not just my imagination. Paul Teshima, founder of Nudge – a current OneEleven company – says the developing ecosystem is starting to encourage Toronto entrepreneurs to stick around rather than head for sunnier climes, notably Silicon Valley.

Teshima is himself a “second-generation” entrepreneur, having co-founded and sold software company Eloqua to Oracle in 2012 for nearly a billion dollars. “This cycle is really starting to get to the next stage,” he says.

Ajay Agrawal, the Peter Munk professor of entrepreneurship at Rotman, says all the pieces are in place. Whether Toronto can become the next San Francisco or not will now depend on how well all of those pieces can now work together.

“We’re just starting to get on the radar outside of Canada. The kindling has just caught aflame,” he says. “We could be on a very exciting trajectory.”

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