IBM and Ontario add new Ottawa incubator to help startups scale to commercialization

Mark Henderson
October 31, 2017

The government of Ontario is working with tech giant IBM to help startups accelerate their innovation by providing collaboration spaces where stakeholders can come together to support startups.

Ottawa is the latest city to host an IBM Innovation Space in the province. The innovation hub — the fifth such incubator launched by IBM and the province — is hosted at Invest Ottawa in Bayview Yards. It was launched last month and is part of a multi-million partnership by a consortium led by the Ontario Centres of Excellence (OCE) and IBM. The Ottawa space joins other similar innovation hubs in Toronto (2), Markham and Waterloo as part of the company’s investment in Ontario under the IBM Innovation Incubator Project. The project is jointly funded by the provincial government – $22 million through the Ontario Jobs and Prosperity Fund’s Strategic Partnership Stream -- and $24.75 million from IBM.

Partners in the initiative say the collaboration spaces are more than incubation spaces where up-and-coming companies locate to build on their ideas. Small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in the IBM collaboration spaces are incubated to bring their products to the global market.

“We believe that bringing together key stakeholders, such as academia, government, large industry, small enterprise, is the best way to accelerate innovation in the Canadian context, grow markets and create job opportunities,” says Allen Lalonde, senior innovation executive and director at IBM Canada Research & Development Centre.

Lalonde adds that the IBM innovation hubs are virtual and physical spaces where stakeholders work on challenges and projects of mutual interest. IBM also works closely with other publicly and privately funded incubators and accelerators as they are “fundamental to the innovation experience.”

Dr Tom Corr, president and CEO at OCE, says the innovation hubs are meant to leverage existing infrastructure in some places – such as Bayview Yards, ventureLAB in Markham Convergence Center and Communitech Data Hub in Waterloo -- so companies can locate there and access technology resources, such as artificial intelligence, cognitive computing and high-performance computing. SMEs also gain access to mentoring and support from the stakeholders – business mentoring, for example, in the case of Invest Ottawa.

The provincial government is involved in the project, adds Corr, because of the economic benefits it’s expected to generate — about 2,600 SME jobs by 2020.

Lalonde adds that while traditional incubators and accelerators focus on the small enterprise as innovators and entrepreneurs, IBM can link up SMEs with the large enterprises and help them scale.

One such startup that looks forward to linking up with IBM’s global reach is three-year-old fintech ChangeJar. The Ottawa-based startup — whose technology allows for transfer of digital loose change through Facebook Messenger — is currently expanding. Its tie-up with IBM and OCE has allowed it to expand its business development office in the IBM Innovation Space in Toronto.

ChangeJar CEO Tom Camps says it makes sense for startups to work with other startups, who may be addressing the same issues, and mentors in an innovation space. And as soon as they are ready to go global, it also makes sense to work with a large enterprise with some of the biggest customers from around the world.

“There’s nobody that understands innovation better than IBM,” says Camps. “If you are interested in advanced technology, IBM is a good partner. If you want to understand the market that you’re going into and want a partner that’s credible as you approach that market, there’s nobody but IBM.”

Working with IBM was a natural evolution for OCE and Invest Ottawa. IBM and OCE have a long history of partnerships. Since 2012, the two have collaborated on SOSCIP — Southern Ontario Smart Computing Innovation Platform — which helps provide high-computing resources to large and small companies. For this project, IBM and OCE have been working closely with post-secondary institutions where enterprises can tap into the talent pool, for example in computer science. Ottawa, on the other hand, has always been on IBM’s radar. Ottawa is home to Cognos, Inc., a company that focuses on business intelligence and was acquired by IBM in 2007.

Mike Tremblay, president and CEO of Invest Ottawa, says Ottawa has a long history with IBM as well as with other technology vendors and providers. However, the IBM program currently stands out as one of the largest investments in terms of tools and services being provided to the region. Tremblay, who has worked with other global technology providers, such as Microsoft, SAP and Fujitsu, prior to joining Invest Ottawa, says some of the tools and technology currently being used in the Ottawa region have connections with IBM’s acquisition of Cognos.

For example, on the IBM website, there are links to connect IBM Cognos business intelligence to work with IBM Watson Analytics. IBM Watson is one of the platforms made available to companies working in IBM innovation hubs in Ontario. Other IBM tools available include IBM’s cloud platform called Bluemix.

Tremblay says working with IBM is part of Invest Ottawa’s long-term strategic plan to connect SMEs to the global supply chain. “Working with IBM is attractive to us because it is in perfect alignment to our strategic plan,” he adds.



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