Ryerson’s Digital Media Zone (DMZ) looks like it’s trying to be a Silicon Valley office.
An open-concept workspace, modern grey and orange colour scheme, touch-screen displays and a sea of beanbag chairs feels more like the Valley’s fabled geeky wonderland than a university space. Except not only is it missing the token Guitar Hero station and organic-only cafeteria, it’s also lacking the vast industry power and cultural status of the California technological empire — at least for now.
The DMZ is looking to find the inner Silicon Valley innovator within Ryerson’s student body. By creating a space where entrepreneurs can collaborate and receive support, the DMZ is cultivating the next generation of Toronto’s tech industry.
“This is about creating reputation, building brand and really building an ecosystem of innovation and entrepreneurship in Toronto,” says Dave Senior, community manager for the DMZ and a Ryerson business graduate. He is working on a photo sharing application launching on May 1.
Just over a year ago, Ryerson President Sheldon Levy stood in front of the Empire Club of Canada and asked: “why can’t the next Silicon Valley be in Toronto?”
During his speech he said that in order to achieve this, Toronto can’t just act with a “branch plant mentality,” implementing innovations created somewhere else. New ideas must come from within, just like in the real Silicon Valley.
Nestled in California’s Santa Clara Valley below the San Francisco Bay, Silicon Valley is an area home to the biggest names in American technology. Adobe, Intel, Facebook and Apple Inc. are all headquartered here. Googleplex, Google’s 26-acre campus and corporate headquarters are located in Mountain View, one of the cities in Silicon Valley. Mozilla, makers of Firefox, are only 10 minutes away.
Trying to be the next Silicon Valley is a lofty goal, but Valerie Fox, director of the DMZ, sees the potential.
“It really takes not only technology, but it takes good design, it takes good business. And Toronto has all three,” she says.
The DMZ hopes to bring all three together. To start at the DMZ, students must pitch a solid business idea to Start Me Up Ryerson. Once they’re in, the DMZ provides mentorship and assists with finding funding.
University influence played a role in shaping Silicon Valley too. Stanford University sits in the centre of Silicon Valley in Palo Alto. “Silicon Valley” itself was coined by a Stanford engineering dean who encouraged his students to start their own companies. Two of those students were William Hewlett and David Packard.
While it’s too soon to say if Ryerson has nurtured the next Hewlett-Packard, within four months 27 projects have been given life, with some already set to launch in the near future.
Hossein Rahnama, who developed a Paris Metro Travel Assistant mobile application and was one of the first collaborators invited to work on the DMZ, doesn’t think Levy wants to create a Canadian carbon copy of Silicon Valley, but he sees the Valley as a model for Ryerson.
“I think what Sheldon suggested was that the next wave of innovation will come in partnership with universities,” says Rahnama. “So university can act as a Silicon Valley builder and then create an ecosystem of innovation around the university core.”
The Master Plan would have Ryerson be that builder and nurture that ecosystem, creating a high-tech corridor along Yonge Street associated with the university. And Toronto’s technology industry heavyweights have already dropped in to see what Ryerson is doing at the DMZ. Google’s Toronto offices are just a floor above the DMZ and Jonathan Lister, head of Google Canada, has visited, as has Bill Buxton, principal researcher at Microsoft Research.
However, funding is an important factor that could hold Toronto back from blossoming into the next Valley. Canada lacks the venture capitalism that fuels Silicon Valley.
“I think if you were to ask any entrepreneur they would say that there still needs to be more funding allocated to companies that are in that particular category,” says Sue McGill, an advisor at MaRS, where entrepreneurs in science, technology and social innovation go to get their businesses off the ground. She has toured the DMZ and MaRS has taken an interest in several projects there. “It’s a pretty unique space.”
McGill says unlike in Silicon Valley, where she used to live, Canadian government and investors are not as comfortable funding new tech ventures. “In Silicon Valley there is a strong culture and knowledge base and certainly a huge pool of ideas around creating these types of companies.”
McGill says that it’s going to take more than just Ryerson to make the digital dream come true.
“You can’t just put up your hand and say we’re gonna be the de facto leaders and owners of this space because the ecosystem is dependent on many players coming to the table to make it successful.” But she does think Ryerson is on the right track.
She says Silicon Valley fosters a culture of entrepreneurship. Stanford grads are in the mindset to create their own companies, while in Canada the tradition has been more to graduate and find a stable job. She says that with universities like Ryerson who have entrepreneurship programs, that trend is changing.
“What you’re trying to do is build the reputation that if you want to see innovation, really, really smart people, the entrepreneurs of the future, the businesses of the future, the place to go is Ryerson,” says Levy.
He wants Ryerson to take on an aggressive, political role and ask why can’t Toronto aspire to the greatness of Silicon Valley. He says educational institutes, including Waterloo and the University of Toronto, are only one leg of building the next Valley, with investors and the rest of the tech industry needed to complete the vision.
“There’s nothing at all that prevents Toronto from being the next Silicon Valley except our will. Thats the number one thing. If you want it, you can have it.”