Startup Communities/ Entrepreneurial Clubs

Reviewing your projects and initiatives may be about as exciting as spring cleaning, but it feels good once it’s done and you may find something you didn’t know was lost. About six months ago, a colleague of mine (Jeff Kropman) and I started an entrepreneurs group with the support of the people who had the vision to create Core21, the shared office community.

We started Entrepreneurs in our Community @Core21 to grow the entrepreneurial community in Durham Region, looking to fill a gap – provide a safe environment for entrepreneurs to meet and share their challenges. It’s a venue where solopreneurs wouldn’t be alone. Our group complements networking and professional development sessions available in the area.

With a few simple principles, the get-togethers should be fun – a safe environment to share experiences. No talking heads, but semi-structured. I usually facilitate to ensure everyone gets a chance to participate. The meeting agenda keeps the group from going too far off topic. We introduce ourselves, present challenges, work on the challenges in small groups, then debrief. Applying lean startup principles, we asking for feedback at the end of each meeting, then amend the format.

On average, 10 people attend each meeting but it’s never been the same group twice. This is great, the group is there for those who want to come and chat with their peers. This is our hope, that each individual entrepreneur knows where to find others who they can reach out to.

What have we learned and what can we do better?
The most striking thing is that everyone who attends wants to solve the other attendee’s challenges, immediately. This is wonderful, the spirit of helpfulness. Because people may or may not return to the next meeting, we’ve had a hard time coming up with a system of accountability, or using the group to hold us to our goals, which is something we decided we wanted in the beginning.

Is there something we can learn from similar groups in other cities? There are a couple of (informally) syndicated groups of coffee clubs for entrepreneurs: 1 Million Cups and Open Coffee Club. Perhaps we need a cooler name. The Open Coffee Clubs¹ were started by venture capitalists in London and Boulder, who wanted to build community in their local tech startups. 1 Million Cups², which has chapters in dozens of US cities, was created by two people from the Kauffman Foundation, to tied together unlinked entrepreneurs in Kansas City. I’ve been to a few other events in my local area such as The Inventors Circle and the Small Business Network at the Metro Reference Library, both have presenters with networking before and after the presentations.

The other coffee clubs primarily start at 8 am – do people have more energy in the morning than at 7 pm, when our meetings are? Some are limited to an hour (that makes sense if you’ve got a day of work ahead of you). Formats differ. At 1 Million Cups, a couple of companies share their story and get feedback from the audience. At the tech focused Open Coffee Club, they open with discussion of current events, followed by an open floor for attendees to presentation ask the groups for input on specific questions.

Themes that transcend all the groups:

  • to be the opposite of large events or special events.
  • for the community by the community – to find peers to reach out to when trying to solve problems.
  • providing support to your fellow entrepreneurs – to answer ‘what can this community do to support you?’
  • to be friendly and low key – to get every attendee invested in the success of every other attendee.

How can we build a better group in Durham Region? Should we:

  • hold the meetings at a different time, such as early morning?
  • change the format – have presenters or time limits for each attendee to share or a different agenda?
  • make the attendees more accountable to the group?

How to answer these questions and make Entrepreneurs in our Community @Core21 a more vibrant entrepreneurial community so that we all have a better chance of surviving and flourishing? I’m going to ask the members what they want. And then do it.



¹ Brad Feld (2012) Startup Communities. Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City John Wiley & Son, Hoboken, NJ

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Entrepreneurial Community

I recently attended the Spark Centre’s Ignite Central Pitch Competition. Twenty three entrepreneurs powered through three minute pitches in front of a panel of judges and a large audience. It’s wonderful to see the enthusiasm and drive of each of them, and to hear their ideas for new technology-based businesses.

As I listened to the proceedings of the evening, I got to thinking about community. Community was mentioned a number of times, by the MC, Tracy Hanson, and in the ‘Power Panel’ Q&A. (The power panel is the group of seven accomplished entrepreneurs who volunteered their time to mentor and judge the competition). A few people remarked how wonderful the event was for bringing together the entrepreneurial community of Durham Region. And it was. I had a fine time catching up with people from all niches within this community: the educational institutions, the economic development folks, the business people and service providers. All of these are part of the community.

I’ve been thinking about community building a lot recently. I’m reading about something called ‘Blended Learning’. Blended learning makes use of both on-line and face-to-face teaching to help people learn. What has become clear to practitioners of blended learning is that modern learning involves culling knowledge from the vast reservoir of information available to us. Often, this can be effectively done through discussion with fellow learners. To make this work effectively, especially on-line, a community of learners need to exist amongst the class or group.

It’s easier to build community in person, at least at first, but it can be sustained on-line. To facilitate community building, the common goals of the community need to be defined, and people need to get to know each other, so that a level of trust can be developed. People need to feel comfortable sharing their ideas, concerns and questions. Community encompasses respect and recognition of the contributions of each member of the larger community.

When the topic of ‘great’ entrepreneurial communities comes up, I’ve heard Calgary mentioned, with their ‘Can do attitude’. Silicon valley also comes up, where it’s possible to have casual conversations, at the coffee shop or restaurant, that help to build business or solve entrepreneurial problems. This is something to aim for.

What does Durham Region need to makes its entrepreneurial community stronger and more vibrant? Many advances have been made in building our entrepreneurial community in the past few years but I hope we can go further. I believe it’s important to engage as many individuals, from as many different niches within entrepreneurship, as possible. I suspect there are entrepreneurs in our community not currently engaged. These may be business owners who have been running a successful business for years or people who have an idea but haven’t found the inspiration to develop it yet or creative folks with lots of ideas to share.

I’d like to see the day when an entrepreneur could walk down the street in Oshawa or Port Perry and bump into someone who knows someone who could help them move their latest project forward. Or maybe they’d come up with a bright new idea together. To me, community is about hundreds of tiny connections between each community member and every other one, so that we have one, big strong fabric to create things from. Sort of like a spider web, which is made of slim, flimsy strands, but pretty strong and sticky when it’s woven together.

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Connections: The OBR Roundtable on ‘Stopping the Biotech Exodus’

I attended an interesting event recently, with the ponderous title ‘Stopping the Exodus: Keeping Biotech in Canada’. It was sponsored by the Oxbridge Biotechnology Roundtable (OBR ), an organization with a mission to bring academic researchers and industry folks in the biomedical disciplines together.

My interest was peaked. I live at the interface between academia and industry and have since I realized 20 years ago that biomedical research scientists (which I was) needed the biotech industry, as industry needs the academics. This realization sent me on a path from investment banking, to a health charity, to technology transfer, interspersed with forays back and forth into academia proper. So the topic made me nostalgic. But it’s also very timely, since I’ve recently become better acquainted with what is happening in the Toronto entrepreneurship area and want to understand the emphasis on medical devices and informatics, over therapeutics.

Medical devices and informatics have the potential to provide many great new products that improve the lives of those suffering from health problems, or to prevent suffering, and save money in our stressed healthcare system. But what of new therapeutics? I may be biased, since this was the area I worked in a for a couple of decades, but we need new therapies to treat the diseases and conditions once we have benefitted from advanced diagnosis and efficiencies in the system.

The panel at the OBR event was impressive: four articulate individuals, representing most of the major players in the area. From the Ontario government, Bill Mantel. From the only biotech focused venture capital firm in Canada, Evelyn Pau. An entrepreneurial academic, Aled Edwards, and an entrepreneur’s entrepreneur, Connor Dickie. I might have added someone representing technology transfer or economic development or a similar role – those who facilitate interaction between academia and industry – but perhaps there is a clear message in the absence of such a person.

The audience, a sizeable crowd, was attentive and energetic.

There were many great concepts and initiatives discussed – all related to supporting a thriving biotech industry. The theme that emerged from the discussion, at least from my perspective, was disconnection. The elements, the players, the supporters, and the stages of development, in the research-biotech continuum, need to be better tied together. As some of the panelists point out, communication needs to improve. More media attention could be focused on our biomedical endeavours, whether they derive from the academic or industry setting. Funny, what pops into my mind is my post-doctoral fellowship. I joined one of the groups at Sick Kids that collaborated on the cloning of the cystic fibrosis gene, right after the gene was cloned. We had television crews constantly traipsing through the lab, filming us pipetting something, for the first year I was there. Then interest trailed off, and eventually, headlines to the effect of ‘Ten years after the cloning of the CF gene – no cure yet’ appeared. Not a surprise to anyone who understands the process of biomedical research but undoubtedly disappointing to many who hoped for more difference in the lives of those suffering with the disease. A disconnection.

I admired each of the panelists. They were all very positive and optimistic about their areas.

The Ontario government has revised their strategy recently to put an emphasis on entrepreneurship and investing with industry.

The VC reported an upsurge in investments and IPOs of emerging biotech companies.

The entrepreneurs enthused about advances in technology that will allow acceleration of medical discovery and new business models that make it simple for technologies to be brought to the public. Dickie and Edwards are models of success, fabulous examples that it can be done, whether the entrepreneurial venture comes directly from academic research or inspired individuals. They made it look easy.

So, there are success stories, plenty of funding, government support – optimism. Why then the dire title – ‘Stopping the Exodus’ – like there’s a problem? A disconnect.

I think I understand, and my assessment of the disconnection was echoed in questions from the audience. Rock stars. Risk-taking, driven entrepreneurs, slick, confidence-oozing venture capitalists and well-spoken government officials. They are like rock stars. Not everyone wants to be a rock star, or an entrepreneur. Not everyone wants to be the CEO, travel constantly, or take big risks. I think it still seems too hard for most academics to reach out and extend their careers into the domain of the start-up company. Programs and financiers support those entrepreneurs that take the steps to seek them out. Perhaps there is some characteristic common in academics in the biomedical field that makes them more hesitant than their engineering/computer science colleagues to seek that help.

What this suggests to me is that more connections need to be made to familiarize all the stakeholders in the biotech arena with each other. We all say we understand each other, but I’m not convinced there is a real, hands-dirty, up-to-the-elbows, knowledge of what drives academics, industry folks, venture capitalists or government administrators by those in the other groups. My education across areas began when I was hired from the lab by an investment bank to analyze opportunities in new biotechnology ventures. Much like the consultancy program of the OBR, this provided exposure for an academic to real industry and investor issues and vice versa.

I’m optimistic. There is dialogue, like the session sponsored by the Oxbridge Biotechnology Roundtable. There is interest – I was impressed by the number of people at this event. The players are engaged – government players continue to create new programs, investors are investing. With efforts such as the OBR, more connections can be made. Connections I think could best be made from the most junior scientist to senior administrators/executives.



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