The future and legacy of Hamilton's Innovation Factory
About four years ago, Ron Neumann sat in a room with entrepreneur Mark Chamberlain and drew him a picture of an innovation ecosystem he imagined.
Neumann was, at that time, the entrepreneur-in-residence with a long history of start-ups at Communitech, a well-known incubator in Waterloo. He was introduced to Chamberlain, founder of Oscar-winning camera tech company WesCam, because they both wanted to "bring the innovation community in Hamilton alive," Neumann said.
In February of 2010, the Innovation Factory, headed up by Chamberlain, Neumann and former chief operating officer Keanin Loomis, opened with a minister-attended unveiling. It was the first new regional innovation centre recognized by the Ontario government, he said.
Neumann made a three-year commitment and is moving on this week. Now, the reigns are handed over to new executive David Carter, the former chief technology officer-in-residence who has lots of faith in the local innovation community.
"Hamilton is at par compared with much of what's going on in the States," he said. "They have more, not better."
The 48-year-old learned about running a business with technology when the owner of the restaurant he worked at while attending Ryerson University bought a PC.
He struck a conversation with a group at a table he was serving about computers ("why is the waiter going on about computers?" Carter guessed the guests were thinking), and ended up with an analyst job at the Toronto Stock Exchange. From there, he worked for Microsoft before starting his own business, Awareness Inc, a major social media marketing company.
"No one taught entrepreneurship at the time," Carter said — he learned those skills on the job.
Being a "data guy," Carter wants to come up with a management system to track client meetings, connections and collaborations and make sure Hamilton get the cred it deserves for what happens here.
"We need to promote Hamilton on the world-stage," he said.
Carter also hopes iF can continue to be "a cheerleader" for innovation in the city, and bring various sectors together.
"There is a feeling across the city that people have to innovate," he said. "There is so much work to be done."
Changing the culture of innovation
"There was no co-ordination, no agenda," Neumann said, of Hamilton's innovation culture when iF opened its doors.
And, when they did open their doors, iF had zero clients. Now, they have 475.
Innovation Factory is run by a board of directors, but is largely funded by the Ontario government.
The Ministry of Research and Innovation confirms iF received $1.3 million from 2010-2013.
"We really haven't slowed down," he said.
Neumann worked hard to attract local entrepreneurs and business-minded investors. One of those first connections turned into Weever Apps, a now-international mobile app company. They just acquired the Radisson Hotel in Dubai as a client.
"Something stuck that this [iF] had teeth," Richard said. "Ron Neumann's reputation, we knew that carried a lot of weight."
Since iF took Weever on three years ago, the community has changed in Hamilton.
"When I was considering moving back to Hamilton 10 years ago," Richard said, "I didn't think it would be the place for innovation."
Like Richard mentioned, there is something unique about how Neumann handled iF and the broader community.
"We lead with culture... and showed what a start-up culture felt like," Neumann said. "[iF] provided a container that things can actually happen in, that collisions can happen in."
One of the greatest triumphs in providing this culture at iF has come within the last six months, and all it took was a location change.
In moving to a bigger office on the main floor of McMaster's Innovation Park, iF created the Innovation Destination, an open space with a coffee bar for clients to meet and work. It's one big, room of ideas and business deals waiting to happen.
"[Weever Apps] is privileged to be in the same building," Richard said. "There is a constant buzz of people there having coffee, business people, engineers... It's amazing what they've done."
Carter agrees. One of the things he likes most about his new office is that big space where collisions can happen.
Also under Neumann's direction, iF attracted clients in the bustling health science sector.
"We kept thinking, 'we got to get into this community," Neumann recalled.
He brought in executive-in-residence Bernard Lim, an entrepreneur in the health and life sciences sector who has lead start-ups and large corporations, to bridge that gap.
Now, Neumann said iF has 30 "good" clients in that industry.
iF also developed the LiFT program from scratch, meant to support the growing number of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) once they surpass the start-up phase.
That's the program that still supports Weever Apps, and is used "verbatim," Neumann said, at four other regional innovation centres across the province.
As a long-time client of iF, Richard first hoped the new executive would bring consistency, not break the advancement that's happened in the past three years. Richard is excited with iF's pick.
"Now, David brings knowledge of technology," he said. "He'll dig deeper... and help to provide that mentorship."
Yes, Carter is a technology professional, but he assures that he has lots to offer to iF's non-technology clients.
"I've always thought of myself as a bridger of technologies into other business," he said. "I'd really talk to them about how to manage their business, technology or not, their business plan, both how to keep yourself honest and how you communicate what you're business will be."
Neumann is moving back to start-ups and will reveal little details about what his new business is, only that it's an innovation problem solving methodology."
It's something he's been working on for about a decade, long before iF was in his cards. But on that same day he drew a picture for Mark Chamberlain, he also said this initiative is what he'd leave iF with.
"It was a chapter in my book that was written in advance," he said.