‘Revisiting’ the Ontario Venture Summit model

Published in the Ottawa Business Journal newspaper and website.
April 4, 2011

Click here to view this article on OBJ.ca.

OCRI moves towards smaller, more targeted events

Michelle Scarborough.
OCRI’s Michelle Scarborough.
Ottawa Business Journal
file photo.

Local tech companies looking for money and mentoring this year will be meeting at leaner, meaner events instead of at the Ontario Venture Summit, which is taking a bow after nearly a decade and a half on Silicon Valley North’s calendar.

Beginning this year, the annual event – originally known as the Ontario Venture and Technology Summit and inaugurated in 1997 during the height of the tech boom – will be replaced with smaller gatherings that are specific to a company’s sector or life stage, says OCRI’s Michelle Scarborough.

“We’d like to connect (the investment community) with growing and emerging companies in ways that are a bit more fluid, and it’ll be less about a big summit,” says Ms. Scarborough, who’s vice-president of OCRI’s investment and commercialization group, which includes the OVS.

In an open house last week, OCRI highlighted the fact that its new Regional Innovation Centre – which will serve as the outlet for the investment and commercialization group’s expanded mission and vision – will receive a minimum of $2.25 million in funding from the Ontario Ministry of Research and Innovation over the next three years.

The centre will be at the heart of the group’s new mandate to serve entrepreneurs in the eastern Ontario region, Ms. Scarborough says. The organization will also focus on leveraging relationships with angel investors such as the Capital Angel Network, as well as with programs such as Toronto’s Canadian Innovation Exchange and the Tremblant Venture Summit.

The buzz from the business community, she says, has been clear: companies want more opportunities for strategic conversations, rather than big meet-and-greets like the OVS.

“The feedback across North America and Europe is, ‘If (the events) were a bit more target-focused for me, I’d be there in a heartbeat.’ It’s more efficient with their time and networking (efforts),” Ms. Scarborough says.

“There are an enormous number of summits across the country every single year, but do they generate dollars? In some case they do, and in some they don’t – there’s a lot of noise in the marketplace.”

Ms. Scarborough says she doesn’t see the switch as a failure of the OVS, but rather, as a “revisitation” that follows in the footsteps of the more mature U.S. financing scene. Many summits south of the border are often half the size of the local event, which attracted about 245 attendees in 2010.

Among them was Jason Flick of YOU i Labs, who says the OVS was “80 per cent about networking,” with little focus on the presentations of venture-seeking firms such as his.

“The companies presenting were almost a sideshow … it has not been successful for entrepreneurs,” he says. “It was a very useful exercise to raise profile, but certainly not an event to raise capital. And while it’s one of the many things that we needed to do along the way that helped (grow the company), it would be a struggle to put it on a top 10 list of things to do.”

Much of the problem, says Mr. Flick, was the fact that there were companies presenting on everything from baby photo booths to hardware and software, and ranging between seed-level firms that just “need a big hug and mentoring” and those looking to scale up, making it confusing for investors.

“It was so diluted that no one could jump up and say, ‘That’s a great deal.’ … It was not great for finding a lead investor at all.”

That’s a sentiment echoed by fellow attendee Kevin Rankin, CEO of vision technology firm eSight, who attended the last three OVS events. He says his company did not generate any investment from the summits.
“The days of large shotgun approaches became a bit en vogue in the heady days of the tech bubble, but I think it makes a lot more sense to use a rifle rather than a shotgun for efficiency,” Mr. Rankin says. “The larger events … can be good networking events, but because they’re not as focused you don’t get the matching with specific investor groups and partner companies.”

Ms. Scarborough says that will all come into play as the RIC figures out its expanded regional focus and undertakes strategic studies to identify potential partners across the industry, education sector and government.

“The intention is really to create energy around the opportunities we have here and leverage that,” she adds. “I think our overall goal is the same, to generate jobs and economic wealth. That environment exists, but it needs a bit of spark to build something long term and accelerate the growth of companies here.”

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