Scitech  Startup the summer

International Startup Festival fires up Montreal entrepreneurship

In Montreal, summer is the season of festivals. Among these the International Startup Festival stands out as an unique experience. Half conference and half party, the festival draws a diverse crowd of entrepreneurs to Montreal’s Old Port each year for three days dedicated to the discussion and development of startups.

Newcomers to startup culture will quickly realize that the startup world has a vocabulary of its own. This year the buzzword of choice was “disruption,” a nod to innovation and changing technology markets. A close runner up was the relatively straightforward “stories,” the theme of this year’s festival and a reference to the increasing focus on the personal histories of company founders. The more fanciful “so-lo-mo” (social-local-mobile) was also bandied about. Popular apps like Yelp and Foursquare fall under this category, as well as Montreal startups like the Interactive Museum of Jewish Montreal. These apps make acts such as going out for lunch or walking around the city a social activity, experienced via a smart mobile device.

Luckily the varied keynote speeches and panels provided something for everyone, even newcomers to the tech world. Talks ranged from overthrowing traditional academic institutions to capitalizing on fear to secure investment. However, the real value of the festival was less in speeches and more in buzzing afternoons on the lawn of the Science Center in Old Port. Outdoor tent expositions let startups strut their stuff, and informal speaker panels offered frank advice. In the hot Montreal sun, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and journalists mingled easily. The aim of the festival seemed less about lecturing on solid business principles, and more about encouraging people to found companies and bringing those participating in Montreal startup culture together.

Through this lens, Startup Fest shines. Many of the diverse cast of speakers – such as Marc Garneau, former astronaut and current Member of Parliament for Westmount–Ville-Marie, and Ethan Song, CEO of Frank & Oak – have a strong Montreal connection. Even the distinctive water coolers were supplied by a homegrown Montreal company, Aquaovo. But the event also drew fellow founders, interested investors, and curious consumers from startup hotspots around the world, providing Montreal-based entrepreneurs with access to the global community.

Startup Fest, now in its third iteration, is just another indication of Montreal’s growing startup culture. It is a culture deeply linked to Montreal’s identity as a university city that boasts four major universities and a dozen colleges. Students have spawned companies like Wildcard and SaintWoods, as well as venture capital funds like The Founder Project. Accelerators like FounderFuel and hubs like Notman House provide access to mentorship for would-be student entrepreneurs. Forbes recently named Montreal the “new hotbed of student startup activity.”

The time is ripe for student entrepreneurship. It’s “cheaper than ever to start your own business,” says Blackboard co-founder Michael Chasen, in a keynote speech at Startup Fest.  The internet has truly democratized entrepreneurship. Now, all one needs is a computer and an internet connection to build a thriving business. With satisfying and meaningful jobs difficult to come by, students are taking matters into their own hands and creating jobs for themselves and their peers – and they seem to be good at it.

Yet Montreal is still far behind the likes of Boston and the San Francisco Bay area, in terms of innovation. Canada has yet to produce a Google or a Facebook of its own. A key difference remains in how nearby institutions of higher education support student startups. Faculty collaborating with and investing in student startups is common at Stanford, and entrepreneurship is so encouraged at MIT that they publish a “MIT Inventor’s Guide to Startups” for faculty, staff, and students.

The McGill Dobson Centre for Entrepreneurial Studies is hoping to change this. The centre hosts an annual entrepreneurship competition, the Dobson Cup, in which $60,000 is up for grabs. The competition is also unique in its support of non-profit companies, known as social enterprises, as well as for-profit ventures. The winning startups are provided with funding, expert mentorship, and the vital foot-in-the-door every company needs. The centre’s future plans include adding entrepreneurship to the McGill curriculum.

In a rapidly changing world, teaching students the skills required to build successful companies will prove invaluable. Of course, entrepreneurship is risky. At Startup Fest, Dave McClure, a venture capitalist out of Silicon Valley, made clear that “you’re going to fucking fail, so you better be passionate.” But unlike in academia, failing is embraced in startup culture. “Pivoting” is a common maneuver for companies, and essentially means to fail and try again in a different direction. Startup Fest attendees were most interested in how successful founders failed and stood up to try again. Welcoming innovation, gutsy action, and failure may be just the kind of shaking up McGill needs this summer.