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Volta Labs – Just Like Mom For East Coast Start-Ups

Volta Labs spans two floors in a building on one of Halifax’s best-known streets: Spring Garden Road. The space retains many of the fixtures and features from the previous tenant, TD Bank, including dated beige wallpaper and worn green carpet.

But there are also new elements not in keeping with a bank office: There’s a large Star Wars mural on one wall, just above an oversized plush dog resting on a big comfy-looking couch. When I arrived at Volta Labs in late December for an interview with Milan Vrekic, the executive director, I was told “He’s actually out getting the keg for the Christmas party. But he’ll be back soon.”

Volta Labs is not your typical workplace. And that’s the point.

Volta, which opened in May 2013, is described as a startup house. It offers select entrepreneurs everything they require to create a startup: subsidized office space, Internet access, and pro bono legal and accounting advice. “We stock the coffee. We stock the food,” Mr. Vrekic added. There’s also cash to help offset travel costs (up to $5,000) for startups seeking contributions from U.S. investors in either New York or San Francisco.

With their basic needs taken care of, the entrepreneurs are free to build and create. “They need to succeed fast or fail fast. That’s why there is a time limit,” Mr. Vrekic said. “The moment you hit $500,000 in revenue, six employees, or one year, we start talking about graduation. After a year you really should be hitting the first two points. And if you’re not, maybe you should be working on something else,” he said.

“We have to accept that failure is inevitable for most of these companies. But they will learn from it.”

Volta has welcomed 18 startups; a few of those companies have graduated, while another 15 are on a waiting list. Volta companies have so far raised more than $12.8-million in financing and created more than 80 jobs.

Guiding me around the space, Mr. Vrekic pointed out the basics: board rooms, a kitchen, and a common area for seminars. On the bottom floor are 14 offices for the resident startups, most of them business-to-business software technology outfits.

“These are our rising stars,” he said, walking into one of the offices. Inside was a pair of twentysomethings, both in plaid shirts, jeans and glasses. They are focused on building a small, wireless, black and white printer that would retail for less than $100, and be easily paired with mobile devices. Just down the hall is a room with video games, a foosball table, and a small library of startup and entrepreneurship books.

Perhaps the only knock on Volta is the building’s antiquated heating system. “I don’t think you need to refrigerate anything in here,” said a girl in a hallway, huddled over a radiator.

We have to accept that failure is inevitable for most of these companies. But they will learn from it
The temperature inside Volta didn’t detract from what Adrian Bentley took away from his time there. His tech startup, Analyze Re, which is focused on the reinsurance industry, was one of the first tenants.

“We needed a space to work together. What we hadn’t banked on was the fantastic support that came with it,” he said, pointing to mentoring and advice on topics ranging from raising capital to sales and marketing. “It’s a much-needed and valuable part of the Atlantic Canadian start up culture,” Mr. Bentley said.

Volta operates on $350,000 a year: half of which comes from the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, a federal government agency; and half from private entities such as Deloitte and the McInnes Cooper law firm.

Volta has welcomed 18 startups; a few of those companies have graduated, while another 15 are on a waiting list.

Another contributor and force behind the startup space is Jevon MacDonald, a co-founder of Halifax-based GoInstant, which San Francisco-based Salesforce bought in 2012 for a reported $50-million. Volta provides a way for Mr. MacDonald to repay some of the support he received as a young entrepreneur. “A lot of people have helped me over the years,” the Charlottetown native said from California. “I just want to be one of those people who helps other people get an opportunity.

“We’re not even a fraction of the way to where were think we can get, in terms of the number of companies we’re helping to create,” he added.

Volta’s wait list is proof there’s room to expand. Mr. Vrekic said he would like to quadruple the 10,000-square-foot space, and welcome both hardware and later-stage companies. He would also like to set up a prototyping lab. “I’ve had to turn away such good companies because they didn’t fit with what we were doing here,” he said. “We want to expand our reach.”

So how will Volta’s organizers judge its impact? “To call this community a success, we need an exit every two years. That will show this is a viable model,” Mr. Vrekic said. “Eventually I’d like to see one every year.”

Before landing his gig at Volta, Mr. Vrekic founded TitanFile, a digital file-sharing company. He marvels at the resources now available to entrepreneurs with a good startup idea.

“We wanted to build a place that we wish we had when we started,” he said with a grin. “I guess you don’t get to live in the society you build.”