3 Key Ingredients For Building a Startup City


As a native Torontonian, I’ve watched firsthand as my hometown has transformed itself into a burgeoning startup ecosystem over the past few years. Toronto was recently named the fastest growing tech market in North America by CBRE’s annual Scoring Tech Talent report, shooting up to 6th position from its previous 12th position. The change didn’t happen overnight though. The city has played an active role in attracting entrepreneurial talent and fostering an innovation-friendly culture.

There is a lot to be learned from Toronto’s transformation in becoming a top hotbed for entrepreneurship

Doubling Down On Entrepreneurial Education. 

Toronto-based academic institutes have historically emphasized research rather than the creation of products. Traditionally, the city hasn’t offered the same caliber of resources at the collegiate level to support entrepreneurs as its brethren south of the border. 

Times have changed. Toronto has recognized that a strong focus on entrepreneurship education is a prerequisite to attracting key entrepreneurial talent. The University of Toronto (U of T) is increasingly offering its student body a growing ecosystem of entrepreneurial support, in the form of incubators and commercialization support services. What’s more, U of T has doubled down on its focus on AI, an area of technology that is destined to drive the next frontier of entrepreneurship.

Entrepreneurs are made–not born. Entrepreneurship is a discipline and, as such, can be learned. By doubling down on entrepreneurship and experiential education, cities can create riper breeding grounds for innovation. 

Promoting Diversity.  

Only by leveraging multiple diverse perspectives can we truly plant the seeds for innovation. Immigrant entrepreneurs are especially critical for any economy. Without immigrants, Amazon, eBay, Google, Tesla, and Yahoo would not be household names. 

Toronto’s increasingly open embracement of diversity has caused the city to become a cultural haven for foreign entrepreneurs. More than 230 different nationalities are represented in Toronto. What’s more, 49 percent of the Toronto population is comprised of immigrants. The city was recently dubbed the most multicultural city in the world.

Toronto’s embracement of diversity is an especial boon to female tech entrepreneurs. According to a study by the Dell Women Entrepreneur Cities Index, Toronto has the most female entrepreneur-focused culture in the world. 

As the diversity backlash abounds in Silicon Valley, entrepreneurs are thinking more thoughtfully about where they want to set up shop. It’s becoming increasingly important for cities to demonstrate an appreciation for diversity. Even the simplest of steps–like designing public spaces for enhanced social interactions between diverse groups–can move waters.  

Enacting Entrepreneur-Friendly Government Policies.  

Since he was elected in 2015, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has consistently developed policies that foster entrepreneurship. In June of 2017, for example, he announced fast-track visas for high-skilled workers. 

The fact that Trudeau has an open mind when it comes to innovation, and sees Toronto as a test bed for new technologies, has caused many US-based companies to build research and development centers and launch initiatives in the region. Alphabet, for example, recently announced that one of its subsidiaries, Sidewalk Labs, will pilot the development of a futuristic city in Toronto. It plans to embed sensors, cameras and the like in the city’s infrastructure and leverages data (related to traffic, noise, air quality, the performance of trash bins, etc.) to inform the city’s operation. 

Regardless of entrepreneurs’ innate propensities to be fiercely independent, they must pay a certain degree of homage to politics and policy. As President Donald Trump proposes deep cuts in innovation programs, it’s becoming more important for local US governments to develop and enact policies at the regional level to encourage innovation. Tax credits, grants, and loans that are entrepreneur-friendly can all prove effective tactics to lure entrepreneurs.  

I opted to start my first two companies in Silicon Valley. If I were to start either of these companies again today, I would be hard-pressed not to carefully consider selecting Toronto as my home base. When deciding where to launch your next business, take the time to assess what type of entrepreneurial culture exists in prospective cities. A strong focus on entrepreneurial education, a culture that encourages diversity, and government policies that support entrepreneurship are all key ingredients.

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