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OP ED: 8 Lessons From Ecosystem Conference

I found eight takeaways from the Atlantic Canada Entrepreneurial Ecosystem conference, hosted by the Sobey School of Business at St Mary’s University on Friday.

The first three come from Gerry Pond, former CEO of NBTel and founder and investor in several successful businesses.  The first is that scale matters. Promoting entrepreneurship has to operate at the regional level – individual cities and provinces lack critical mass. For me that suggests, among other things, more efficient and cheaper travel.

Second, Pond argued that the region needs to think creatively about new opportunities. Using the tag, Grey Grey Matter Matters, he argued for the reinterpretation of the region’s aging population to be seen as an opportunity for entrepreneurs to exploit, not an economic burden.

And third, he passionately advocated the need for both entrepreneurs and the support actors in the ecosystem to be ambitious. He drew on his own experience of Radion6 and Q1 labs to demonstrate that it is possible to create and grow high growth potential companies in this region that U.S. companies will want to buy. While it is preferable that such companies will go to an IPO retain their headquarters in the region it is nevertheless the case that these acquisitions have boosted economic development. The lessons of the acquired companies have been transferred to other companies, the wealth reinvested in local companies, creating role models. And these exits have put the region on the radar screen of venture capitalists in other regions of North America.

The fourth takeaway was contributed by Dane Stangler from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, who talked about the danger of a ‘Startup Monoculture’ in which every region does what everyone else is doing to promote entrepreneurial activity. He stressed the need for Atlantic Canada to find a unique way to build an entrepreneurial ecosystem, building on its own assets. It can’t just indiscriminately apply the same approach as elsewhere and expect that it will be successful.

The fifth takeaway came from David Audretsch, Ameritech Chair of Economic Development at Indiana University. He gave a superb synthesis of how the basis of the competitive advantage of cities and regions has changed over time. Initially physical capital mattered, latterly it was the creative class, now entrepreneurship has emerged as a vital ingredient. But what seems to work for a while in one place then stops working. Entrepreneurial ecosystems are critical because they support entrepreneurship. However, they are place specific and, echoing Stangler, they have to be specific to particular places.

Benson Honig, Teresa Cascioli Chair in Entrepreneurial Leadership in the DeGroote School of Business, McMaster University, contributed the sixth takeaway. He emphasised the importance of immigration in driving entrepreneurship. Indeed, he saw no other option for the region given its aging population. Atlantic Canada therefore needs to embrace immigration. He suggested, again echoing earlier contributions, to start with what the region already has and to encourage neighbourhood renewal which can be a stimulus to entrepreneurship.  This linked back to one of the points in Stangler’s strategy proposal which was the need to be include and not overlook the ‘scruffy and grungy’ entrepreneurs.

Seventh, the panel discussion raised the important point that entrepreneurial efforts often end in failure, resulting in significant financial and emotional costs for the entrepreneurs. Pond emphasised that the ecosystem needs to support such individuals. And drawing on his own experience of Radion6 he noted that failure has to be embraced because success often emerges out of prior failures.

Finally, there was an emphasis by both Stangler and Honig on the need to develop appropriate metrics in which to measure progress in building an entrepreneurial ecosystem. In this respect a promising start has been made with Ellen Farrell of the Sobey School of Business at St Mary’s University, who organised the conference, unveiling her research on knowledge networks and nodes in Atlantic Canada.

Disclaimer: St. Mary’s University is a client of Entrevestor.

Colin Mason is the Chair of Entrepreneurship at the Adam Smith Business School, University of Glasgow, Scotland and Visiting Scholar, Sobey School of Business.