A group dedicated to the growth of e-business related companies, called Spadina Bus, has formed within walking distance of the core of downtown Toronto and is rapidly becoming part of the geography.
According to Spadina Bus organizer and partner of D-Code Systems Inc., Eric Meerkamper, there is something special about this central area surrounding Spadina Ave. and King St.
“It is attracting employees in the new economy companies,” Meerkamper said. “There’s a great mix of cool companies, as well as a great place to live, work, and play. It’s one of the few clusters that is very liveable as well.”
He said that by forming the Spadina Bus, the community is recognising something that already exists.
According to Meerkamper, one of the greatest objectives of the e-cluster is to increase the flow of talent, capital and services in the area. And in order to increase the intellectual capital, the group will facilitate mentoring, learning and best business practices initiatives.
“This will also increase the international competitiveness of (the) cluster companies,” he said.
According to Mark Relph, Spadina Bus advisory board member and a business development manager for electronic commerce for Microsoft Canada, Toronto has as much talent and innovation as New York.
“We want to participate in networking and we think that networking is an excellent thing for the city and for Canada,” Relph said. “(Spadina Bus) puts a face on the activity going on in the city and allows the companies that participate to get to know one another.”
According to Nick Jones, president of UpstartCanada.com and a Spadina Bus board member, the beauty of formalizing a cluster such as Spadina Bus is that a community is being formed.
“There’s probably 1,000 or more companies that work in this space in technology and design, Web development and e-commerce,” Jones said. “As you get in to the business you know that they’re there, but you really don’t know who all is there.”
Jones said that it was annoying not having a name for the (non-formal) cluster in the past. “We’ve always talked about how it’s crazy all these other hot clusters around the world have a name and we don’t.”
fueling the tank
Meerkamper said in order to make Spadina Bus successful, brand building and PR become two very important factors.
The objectives include promoting the area locally, nationally and internationally as an e-business centre of excellence. Meerkamper said Spadina Bus will partner with sister clusters in Canada, the U.S. and elsewhere, such as Silicon Valley and Ottawa/Kanata.
The group will develop in the community through social and professional interaction, community events, charitable initiatives, a Web site (www.spadinabus.com), newsletters and a cluster office, he said. Spadina Bus will be financed through on-going strategic sponsorships, and individual event sponsorships.
“We’re even thinking of doing Cluster Olympics, and challenging clusters around North America for charity.”
According to Meerkamper, the main benefit to businesses participating in the initiative was the networking side of things.
“Because new economy companies are in such a dynamic space, that actual interaction with people and different companies is extremely important… things change so quickly,” he said.
“When you’re talking to groups locally, nationally, or internationally, you’re saying not only are we a cool company but we’re also part of this great cluster.”
Jones said the virtual nature of the Internet can be isolating at times.
“You don’t need to physically connect with other human beings. The irony of it is, to be successful in this space, you have to network,” Jones said. “You have to talk to people face to face to make those connections. It’s that interpersonal human connection that’s so important, that moves the business forward or destroys it if it doesn’t exist.”
getting your bus pass
Companies can get involved by becoming sponsors, either strategically or on an event-by-event basis.
Members of the Spadina Bus also participate on committees. Meerkamper said there are various committees such as the social, events, Web development, marketing, communications, finance, fundraising, community, charity involvement and international linkages.
“All members support initiatives such as the census and events,” he said.
Relph believes in the uniqueness of the area.
“We feel there is a tremendous amount of innovation going on in the city that has lacked any kind of representation and that’s beginning to change through a bunch of groups, such as Spadina Bus.”
According to Meerkamper, many players contribute to cluster development.
“Toronto has all the right ingredients, but we need to build on the linkages between them, and promote ourselves better,” he said. Examples of links that need to be strengthened to contribute to the development include the local and regional government, media, anchor clients (bigger companies), educational or research institutions, professional services firms, software developers, real estate developers and venture capitalists, he said.
“I am very excited about the opportunities presented by Spadina Bus,” said Melanie Oleskiw, president of Venture Recruitment Strategies in Toronto. “Some of the biggest challenges facing Canadian start-ups is finding venture capital and identifying the suppliers and vendors who can support their rapid growth. Spadina Bus offers a casual atmosphere which is conducive to making all those good things happen.”
Many Toronto-based companies have been pushing the bus already, including D-code, Allied Canadian, High Road Communications, The Boston Consulting Group, Cassels Brock & Blackwell, Upstartcanada.com, Microsoft Canada, 49st, Taxi, Mediumone (M1), Hewlett Packard, beer.com, and TechSpace.
Spadina Bus will conduct an on-line survey of companies located in and around the area this summer, in order to develop an idea of the size, growth and make-up of the Toronto e-business cluster.
Meerkamper said there are benefits to participating in this census.
“It creates a valuable database of information that can be used in promoting the cluster to recruits, investors, partners, and clients,” he said.
Toronto isn’t the only place where technology clusters are making headway. For example, Operation Online (www.online.nf.ca), a new economy company based in St. John’s, Nfld., has started a pilot project which may develop into an e-business cluster in the future.
“We’re trying to build a community of businesses who will work together, learn from each other about best practices,” said Daryl Genge, director of business development with Operation Online.
“We’re calling our product, which we’re hoping will build into a cluster, E-Business For Small Business. One of the biggest gaps we’re finding is helping small business adopt good e-business practices and technologies,” Genge said.
He added that Newfoundland is building a strong user community, which is where e-commerce will benefit.
However, the Vancouver-based industry group British Columbia Technology Industries Association (BC TIA) has taken on a less structured approach to e-business. George Hunter, BC TIA’s executive director, said there aren’t any formal clusters in his part of the country right now.
“There are business-related clusters that are taking place of work in the form of incubators,” Hunter said. “(But) no one here has expressed a need for such a cluster. The lack of that formal structure hasn’t impeded development to any great extent here.”
But, clustering in Vancouver will take place, Hunter said