At the start of May, I was lucky enough to travel to Canada for a week as part of the Cross Creative programme I was selected to participate in earlier in the year.
Before I go any further, I’d better explain what Cross Creative is! It’s a programme of training courses aimed at the leaders of growing businesses in Scotland, covering topics such as leadership, negotiating, creating company culture, problem-solving and much more, culminating with a week-long field trip to learn more about business and leadership.
The visit to Canada was split between Toronto and the nearby Waterloo region, dubbed the Silicon Valley of Canada. The two regions combined are known as the Toronto-Waterloo Corridor.
I travelled out from Glasgow (via Iceland) on Saturday 29 April and flew back the following Friday evening. The schedule was pretty jam-packed full of meetings and visits, but we did get a little bit of sightseeing time on the Sunday, which is where my recap begins.
Day 1: Sightseeing in Toronto
After getting up mega-early because of the jet-lag, I teamed up with some of my fellow “cross-creatives” and went for some breakfast a walk around Toronto in the Sunday morning sunshine. With the aim of taking in some culture, we headed to Graffiti Alley to take some photos before walking towards Kensington Market, where I had breakfast #2 at Waffles & More! After meeting up with the rest of Team Cross Creative, we all took a sightseeing bus to get our bearings in Toronto before heading up the CN Tower to take in the views.
Day 2: Toronto
Day 2 was the first “real” day of the trip with visits to a number of organisations. To kick things off, we went to what was an old bank vault, to meet Mark Lijour, co-founder of Collider-X and Solutions expert at Consensys, the biggest Blockchain company in the world.
Blockchain became one of the most common buzzwords during the trip to Canada and seemed to be on the minds of most people we met.
Following that, we went to Groupe Média TFO, which is a public media organisation created by the government of Ontario to produce and distribute French-language educational content via TV and digital channels. There, we were hosted by Glenn O’Farrell, President & CEO, Éric Minoli, VP of Technology and Optimization and Ulrich Dessouassi, Head of Digital Projects. On paper, I wasn’t sure what to expect from this meeting but was pleasantly surprised by the organisation’s forward-thinking! Glenn and Ulrich talked to us about how the organisation plans to use Blockchain to better distribute payments throughout the ecosystem of stakeholders from commissioning bodies through to production, licensing and content aggregation.
As well as Blockchain, TFO have created a virtual studio using green screen technology and 3D video game technology (Unity) to create real-time virtual worlds. The technology allows them to place a real actor in a completely fabricated 3D environment, but with incredible depth, allowing the camera to pan to virtual environments.
After TFO, we visited DMZ, a tech accelerator and community that was born from Ryerson University in Toronto. The DMZ is the #1 university-based business incubator in the world and since its setup in 2010 as a co-working space, has evolved to offer start-up programmes and operate as an incubator and accelerator for Toronto’s fast-paced start-up scene. With an incredibly experienced experts and advisory council along with partnerships with companies like PayPal, Facebook, Google. Microsoft and Deloitte, it’s a fantastic place for start-ups to grow.
On the evening of Day 2, we were hosted at the residence of British Consul-General Kevin McGurgan with SDI.
We were joined by some of the other people who had agreed to host us later in our trip and I had a great chat with Kevin and Suki from SDI about doing business in Canada.
Day 3: Toronto and Waterloo
We started Day 3 in Toronto, visiting the Cisco Innovation Centre, Cisco’s HQ in Canada, where Wayne Cuervo gave us a tour of the facility and talked to us about how smart technology and the Internet of Things (IoT) are transforming buildings, retail and our communities.
After Cisco, we got on a shuttle bus to Waterloo (it looked much closer on Google Maps) and checked into our hotel for the night before making our first business visit in the area to MioVision at Catalyst137.
There, we met Kurtis McBride, the CEO of MioVision – a service that uses data and infrastructure to revolutionise traffic management across the world. Kurtis is also the co-founder of Catalyst137 (in which MioVision is located), a genuinely huge tech accelerator at 475.000 sq ft, designed for “makers”. The concept was to transform a disused tyre factory and warehouse into something for the Waterloo-Kitchener business community, with a focus on start-ups who build things and generally need more space. The photos don’t do justice to the sheer scale of the place and they are well on their way to realise plans to brew coffee and beer on site too, making the facility not just a centre for business but a community hub.
Kurtis was very honest and humble about his rise from Computer and Systems background to CEO of a truly innovative company and hearing his reflections on that journey was of real interest to me as a fairly new business leader. If you’re interested in hearing more about his story, he did a great TEDx talk about the lessons he learned on that journey.
Day 4: Waterloo/Kitchener
We started the day with a really interesting tour of the Premier Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, before heading to CommuniTech, another amazing start-up accelerator and community.
Communitech differentiates itself from other accelerators in the region by describing itself as a “community”. And with its programme of events and curation of relevant industry news from the region, it’s fair to say it achieves this sense of community.
Based in what was Google’s regional HQ, the space is (as you’d imagine) very cool. With exposed brick, funny meeting room names, tech-inspired art and a slide between floors, I imagine it’s a great place to work and learn.
After a lunch break in the brewery and restaurant conveniently located next door, we headed to Shopify’s very impressive offices in Waterloo where we met Tammy Connelly, their Talent Acquisition Lead. Tammy took the time to take us round the impressive office, which was once a 19th century whiskey distillery, and to talk to us about the company’s culture and approach to hiring and retaining talent.
Our final stop in Waterloo was a visit to Thalmic Labs, where we were greeted by Calum McKeller, an ex-pat Scot, and a slab of Irn-Bru! To make us feel even more at home, we were joined by another ex-pat Scot, David Perston, via web conference.
Thalmic, founded by 3 university graduates, is famous for creating wearable technology and their first product was the Myo Armband, which allows you to control tech, such as TVs, Spotify and more using motion gestures. Very Minority Report! What really got me intrigued was the chat about their next product, described as a game-changer, but also top-secret. I can’t wait to see what comes out of Thalmic Labs next and my internet stalking suggests it might be something to do with AR and wearable glasses.
Talking to a couple of Scots who have worked for a variety of companies from Motorola and IBM to Blackberry and who now call Canada home was very useful – it’s great to see how easy both Calum and David settled into life in Canada with their families.
Day 4 Evening: Family Time
I took a slight detour after Waterloo’s visits to catch up with Canadian family! I know everyone has a cousin or some other relative in Canada, but I’ve actually got 3 cousins over there whom I’ve never met (my dad being the youngest of 6, eldest sister moved to Canada when he was a boy, etc etc) so I had to take the opportunity to meet one while over there. So my big cousin and fellow social media enthusiast Lynn, who hadn’t seen me since I was a newborn on a visit to the UK, came to meet me in Waterloo with her partner Kerry. We had a long catch-up over Mexican food before they gave me a lift to their home-town of Guelph. There, I was given a quick tour of the town, and some more chat and drinks before I headed for the last train to Toronto from the nearby Guelph VIA station.
Lynn is the owner of Taste-Detours, an award-winning food tasting and cultural walking tour. And being the popular local-celeb that she is, she’s soon to be a TV star too!
Day 5: Back in Toronto
After a late train back to Toronto from Guelph an overnight in The Beverley Hotel, we visited Toronto Global in the morning to talk to Salman Khan about business opportunities and support in Greater Toronto. Salman gave us a great presentation with some amazing stats on the region and the support available to businesses in the city.
One of the facts that stood out is that the Toronto Metropolitan Area has a population of 5.9m, more than Scotland’s 5.4m.
After Toronto Global we visited the really impressive MaRS Discovery District in Downtown Toronto. The space was a 100-year old wing of Toronto General Hospital that had fallen into disrepair before Doctor John Evans and his co-founders stepped in to save it with the concept of turning it into an innovation hub designed to help start-ups recognise the next great innovation.
Fun Fact: Toronto General Hospital is where insulin was discovered and where medical devices like the pacemaker were engineered.
For more on the impressive surroundings of MaRS, here’s a great article.
Thanks to Aislinn Malszecki for the great tour.
Our final visit on Day 5 was a visit to WattPad, the social network for writers and story lovers. It’s a place for anyone to submit stories and for people to read those stories, collaboratively, in an online community of 65m people worldwide.
As well as offering us beer in their very cool office in Toronto, we were given a tour of the building and taken through the company’s history and commercial strategy, from ads to brand partnerships, which really opened my eyes to the potential of the platform for reaching a mostly young, female demographic.
Thanks to Tim for hosting us and giving us the tour and to Chris Stefanyk for taking us through Wattpad’s commercial model.
If you’re interested in what Wattpad can do for brands, their YouTube video explains it better than I can!
Day 6: Markham and Home
On our final day in Canada, we started off very early heading to IBM’s Canada HQ & Innovation Space in Markham, north of Toronto, for the TechConnex Breakfast Meeting where each Cross Creative delegate gave a presentation to a group of 30-40 representatives from local businesses and those involved in the tech sector in Toronto.
One key theme that struck home for me was the importance of company culture and working environment to staff retention, productivity and ultimately business success. There are a number of lessons that will no doubt be useful further along Hydrogen’s journey.
If you’ve never heard of Cross Creative, or TRC’s other flagship course Special Edition, check our TRC Media’s website for more info.