Hamilton gained the moniker of the Ambitious City in the 1800s for its can-do attitude in the face of adversity.

But can the city more commonly known as Steel Town regain its lesser known title by rejuvenating itself with innovation?

The area has been flush with innovative initiatives in recent years, but CBC Hamilton dug into the numbers to find out whether it’s translating into community gains.

Ask Innovation Factory’s Keanin Loomis and the future seems bright.

The 'ambitious little city'

It was a term coined by a Torontonian, and not in a flattering way.

Historians say the first use was by a Toronto Globe writer and was meant to be derogatory.

But by the end of Robert Reid Smiley’s time as Hamilton Spectator’s editor in 1855, he’d adopted it as a positive.

The moniker later surfaced in a Canadian guidebook, citing Hamilton’s struggle with a cholera outbreak and great fire in 1832.

"Hamilton was not disheartened and went to work again with the pluck and spirit which have earned her the title of the Ambitious City," it reads.

Even the House of Commons praised Hamilton as ambitious for its manufacturing sector. One of Canada’s Fathers of Confederation, Sir Leonard Tilley, used the moniker during a 1882 debate.

Hamilton earned its title as an ambitious city by not giving up.

Sources: The Canadian guide-book, 1891; Official Debates of the House of Commons, 1882; Hamilton Public Library.

"We’re definitely on an accelerated path," he said optimistically about the nascent non-profit association he leads.

But he also admits to sometimes worrying that Hamilton may not be able to regain its "ambitious city" title.

"I keep thinking, ‘What if this doesn’t happen?’" he said. He sets those doubts aside by noting that innovation is a long, messy process.

'Poised to increase headcount'

Measuring the success of innovation can also be messy.

Since programs began 18 months ago, the non-profit association says entrepreneurs and companies helped by the centre have created 45 full-time jobs, the majority of which are in the IT sector and are "poised to increase their headcount in the near future."

The group based out of the McMaster Innovation Park says it also helped companies raise nearly $3 million from the Canada Media Fund, government grants and angel investors.

There’s another bright light on the horizon.

Last September, a regional angel investors group set up shop and the 45-member group has already doled out more than $1.5 million in investments in its coverage area of Hamilton, Halton Region and nearby communities.

"I’m quite admiring of what’s going on," says Angel One Investor Network’s executive director, Karen Grant, citing the collaborative work going on between McMaster Innovation Park, Innovation Factory and other regional innovation centres.

"What’s always driven me crazy is when there hasn’t been this level of collaboration and cooperation amongst groups like that," said Grant. "I’m seeing a lot more collaboration now than I’ve seen in the past."

Figures obtained by CBC Hamilton show that venture capital, which has been on decline in recent years across Canada, may be on an upswing.

Hamilton vs. Ontario: Research & Development

 HamiltonOntario
Number of patents (1975-2007)1,81434,135
Patents per 1,000 population2.622.81
PhDs per 1,000 population (2006)4.524.78
Business expenditure on R&D (2009)$67M$7,145M
Public expenditure on R&D (2008)$378M$2,479M
Per cent labour force with math/science degrees2.37%3.24%

Source: Local Indicators Database for Economic Analysis, Munk School of Global Affairs, U of Toronto.

In 2011, $11.5 million was invested in area businesses, up from $1 million the previous year, according to the preeminent venture capital database, VCReporter, owned by Thomson Reuters.

Venture capital investment in the area has been almost solely buoyed by money invested in the life sciences and IT sectors.

Low marks for innovation

But one of the at least two Hamilton-based company’s invested in by the Angel One Investor Network have relocated since investment, moving to Burlington to accommodate growth, says Grant.

And the view of Hamilton from outside city limits is not as rosy.

A 2010 report by the Conference Board of Canada in 2010 gave Hamilton a D for innovation, placing it 39 out of 50 cities from across the country.

Among the factors that brought the city’s rating down were the proportion of population who were employed in the sciences or computer information systems jobs or had graduated from engineering, math and science programs — essentially the "people who are going to bring about a disproportionate share of innovation," says Mario Lefebvre.

"When we were analyzing Hamilton as a whole, there was definitely improvements to be made on the innovation front," says Lefebvre, director of the conference board’s centre for municipal studies.

Though the ranking was based on 2006 census date, "these are hard trends," said Lefebvre. "They don’t change overnight."

Hamilton has a long way to go before ranking among the top innovative communities in Canada.

"There’s been consistent incubation happening," said Andrew Maxwell, CIO and director of the Canadian Innovation Centre, particularly noting McMaster University, "but it hasn’t really achieved critical mass."

That said, Maxwell says Hamilton should take advantage of its location within the Golden Horseshoe, an area blessed with the population necessary to drive inventive ideas. "Hamilton has a great place in the location," he said.

In the end, though, the city still lacks an innovative culture found in such hotbeds as the Kitchener-Waterloo area, says the national centre’s chief operating officer, Josie Graham.

"There’s lots of life sciences but I don’t see a lot of innovation," said Graham. "[It’s] less mature as an innovative community." Innovation in Hamilton didn’t always look like it does now. It was driven by a manufacturing industry that still serves to boost the city.

Steeltown earned is name in the early 1900s as Westinghouse, Stelco and Dominion Foundries and Steel opened plants. But after manufacturing took a hit worldwide, Hamilton’s economy contracted.

'How do we create jobs from this? What can we do more of?'—David Adames, CEO of Hamilton Chamber of Commerce

"[After the 1991-1992 recession] was an ugly period in jobs, but also one of the best things to happen to Hamilton," said Hamilton’s Chamber of Commerce CEO David Adames. "Leaders took notice and said, 'We need to diversify business.’"

While manufacturing still plays a role, its innovative edge appears to be on a steady decline and the city’s biggest asset appears to be McMaster University.

U.S. and Canadian patent data obtained by CBC Hamilton shows that McMaster is the single most prolific patent producer in the city.

McMaster, consistently ranked among the best in Canada for research, is listed as the assignee on over 50 patents filed in the U.S. in the past 25 years — and more than 60 in the past decade in Canada.

McMaster University president Patrick Deane is quick to attribute the university’s success in part to the community. "We’ve owed a great deal to this community so the success so the success this university enjoys is partly being located where we are."

Need to commercialize ideas

While patents are one indicator of innovation, commercializing ideas is what brings the jobs and economic benefit.  

"Coming out of this research, how do we translate that into commercializing? How do we create jobs from this? What can we do more of? Those are the questions we need to ask now," said David Adames, CEO of Hamilton’s Chamber of Commerce.

"Intuitively, we need to do better at commercializing research that comes out of the city."

McMaster is working to connect the dots. The university’s Innovation Park aims to bring researchers and entrepreneurs together to inspire development. And the university also pays homage to the city’s strong manufacturing base with a centre dedicated to innovation in the automotive sector.

Hamilton Chamber of Commerce’s Adames says in the end it may be the combination of the city’s manufacturing past plus diversification that could help the city thrive.

"We have the right ingredients here. We have great education. We have traditional business like Dofasco, we have new startup companies."

"But can we do more? Absolutely."

As for whether the Ambitious City title can be regained, Loomis is resolutely optimistic.

"[The title] seems ironic now, but we can get it back," he said. "If it doesn’t happen here, it’s because of larger events. But I do think it’s inevitable."

This story is the first in a four-part series on innovation.