Scitech | Innovation station

A look into Montreal's tech startup community

Startups, heard of them? Chef on Call, OOHLALA Mobile, Wavo.me – heard of them? I really do hope so. If not, don’t fret; you are living at the intersection of web-tech innovation and possibility here in Montreal, where a seven-minute walk is all it takes to arrive at the doorstep of Notman House – Montreal’s very own home of the web.

Situated at 51 Sherbrooke West, the Notman House is home to startups, students, investors, developers, and freelancers within its 19th century walls, fostering a vibrant and thriving ecosystem of technology entrepreneurs. Unlike other budgeted initiatives such as MaRS Discovery District of Toronto, and Communitech of Waterloo, the Notman House is a non-for-profit community initiative undertaken by Montreal’s startup community, as I was reminded by Gabriel Sundaram, a Notman House volunteer managing day-to-day operations. It was the collective gathering of these enthusiasts that culminated into the present hub of technology.

Despite the brief dismissal of anything web-related by the general public following the burst of the dot-com bubble in 2000, technology start-ups quickly grew in the years following. Sundaram reflected that growth in the social networking industry and presence of seed accelerators, which provide small funding grants to new endeavours, such as Y Combinator and FounderFuel (a Montreal-based accelerator), are to be credited for a “renewed sense of possibility [in] starting from nothing, getting a little bit of funding, and starting to get somewhere.”

With the onset of startup fever, Sundaram noted rapid growth in Montreal’s web-tech community, especially since 2007. Compared to a mere monthly event, as was the norm pre-2007, a quick look at Notman’s events calendar affirms the upward trajectory associated with Montreal’s tech scene. Daily events ranging from user group meet-ups to networking and demo events are readily at the public’s disposal, free of charge.

Startup culture is increasingly progressing toward seed funding. Instead of requiring numerous funds to start a business, seed accelerators such as Real Ventures and FounderFuel provide small grants, also known as seed money, to promising startups, allowing them to establish a business within $50,000. As mentioned by Sundaram, efficiency in startup culture seems to be a common trend on many levels; developers are now able to build upon pre-existing libraries of code, instead of starting from scratch.

Conor Clarke, co-founder of Wavo.me, a social network for music, sat down with me at Notman House to discuss his journey from starting two successful businesses at McGill – Saintwoods and Chef On Call – to launching Wavo.me through FounderFuel’s 12-week accelerator program, which provides mentorship and seed funding. Saintwoods, a media company now in its seventh year, arose from Clarke’s ability to intersect his interests in music and event planning. In 2010, as an undergraduate student at McGill, Clarke addressed the lack of palatable late-night food available to students by founding Chef On Call. However, it was Clarke’s experience working with the music blog, Ear Milk, as well as his expertise as an event planner and artist, that led to the creation of Wavo.me.

His success within a one-year span with Wavo.me would not have been possible without support from Notman House, FounderFuel, and Real Ventures: three Montreal-centric initiatives that have given him the technical and financial resources, along with mentorship to evolve Wavo.me into the music equivalent of Pinterest.

However, Clarke told me that his involvement with Montreal’s startup ecosystem – a buzzword often used in the tech industry to describe the community – did not begin on campus at McGill. Clarke referred to McGill as a “legacy school,” which focuses on academia, with little motivating students to be innovative. The lack of an outlet for innovation led him to pursue his interests “completely outside of the boundaries of school.”

In an effort to become more aware of the Montreal startup community, I attended Startup Drinks, a networking event for startup enthusiasts. Within the first five minutes, I was overwhelmed with the feeling of being misplaced; surrounded by entrepreneurs in their early thirties and upwards, I glanced around the room, seeking to find someone closer to my age, and with my level of experience. Mentally unarmed to deal with the intimidation factor, I left shortly after. While the people at the event were receptive and welcoming to young startup enthusiasts, the gap between the student demographic and the Montreal startup community left me discouraged.

This sentiment was echoed by Sean Kim, a U2 McGill Economics student, who hopes to bridge the gap through Young Entrepreneurs Socializing (YESocializing). His vision is to connect young startup enthusiasts, particularly college students and recent graduates, with local startups and experienced guests and advisors. Kim remarked that the idea is to “put them all in one room so they can feed off of each other in an informal setting.” YESocializing stems from Kim’s personal experiences as he struggled to find the right resources for his first startup, Totum Pass. Despite the home of the web being a minute away from the corner of St. Laurent and Sherbrooke, the outreach of Montreal’s startup community to university students seems minimal. Kim commented, “if I had just been to one event that [connected me] with the top guys, [it] would’ve been of great help [to me].”

The Notman House aims to tackle this exact issue, starting in 2013. They are currently raising funds in an effort to transform the House and the attached building into distinct groups for startups, freelancers, and early stage investors which, according to Sundaram, will “give people a gateway to everything happening in Montreal regarding startups and web entrepreneurship.” Both Clarke and Kim affirmed that the Notman House is the one invaluable tool for anyone interested in startups and that starting early and informing yourself is the first step to delve into the Montreal web-tech scene.

Another issue is the shortage of technical talent felt in the Montreal tech community. Sundaram suggests that although the issue is not specific to Montreal, “not a lot of students know that startups are a viable channel and that the … jobs exist.” Developers, engineers, and product and community managers are among those wanted.

Sundaram demystified the common misconception that an increasing number of Montreal companies are locating to the Silicon Valley due to lack of venture capital in Montreal. He said, “Montreal has one of the best ecosystems in terms of access to capital. [Although] there is not as much available as the Valley…a good density of venture capitalists, angel investors, FounderFuel-like programs, and early investor programs [exist in Montreal] that give entrepreneurs a chance to raise money.”

Startups are the present and future outlet for innovation. With the hub of technology so close to our doorstep, there’s no reason not to take the next step and venture into the promising ecosystem of web-tech startups.

For more information on Notman House, visit notman.org/en. For more information on YESocializing, visit yesocializing.com. 


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