The transit isolation of Waterloo Region

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The Waterloo Region (Guelph too) have had huge gains economically and in population in the last 20 years but it is still a region relatively isolated from the main economic driver of the province, Toronto. I think this isolation has allowed the region to build it’s own identity but as the 401 becomes slower and slower the option for two income families to stay in the region will no longer exist.

The lack of viable commuter options to and from the Waterloo Region also discourages people that enjoy being connected to and more likely live in the increasingly vibrant and young downtown (labeled Creative Class but if you don’t like the label, I think it is the next generation of professional people/families) core of a city like Toronto. Those people are of the professional class companies in the Region desperately need to keep being successful or even grow past the startup stage. This isolation limits the success of the region and I would go so far as to say provides an opportunity for Hamilton to be the place to start and grow a company (and a family) over the longer term (20 years or so) where there are constantly improving and robust transit system (and easy access to Buffalo airport).

Public transit is a big issue to some in Canada at the moment. Rail is just a part of it but the rail system mess in Waterloo Region is a symptom of the larger problem. Something as simple as reliable, cost effective, frequent, and fast (same time as driving or better) should not be that difficult given it exists in Brantford.

The rail system that isn’t as good as Brantford

The communities of Waterloo Region and Brantford + Brant County offer a fairly good comparison:

  • Waterloo Region is roughly a 110 km drive to downtown Toronto, Google maps says it is a 1hr 24min drive but I don’t know a time during daylight hours that it is possible in under 2 hrs.
    • Population of the Waterloo Region is closing on 520k
  • Brantford is roughly a 105 km drive to downtown Toronto, Google maps says it is a 1hr 20min drive
    • Population of Brant County + Brantford is roughly 130k

These two places are basically the same distance with the big difference being Waterloo Region’s economy and population. Both are West of Toronto and Brantford sits in the bottom left corner of a map between Waterloo Region and Hamilton Region. Related is this research on Canada and how suburban it is, very cool maps and information to gain some perspective. When we look at rail access to Toronto though there are huge differences.

For example, Monday November 12th, 2012 as the travel date:

Waterloo

  • VIA Rail’s trains take 1hr 40min
    • leave at 9am
    • return trip leaves Toronto at 5:40pm
    • Commuter pass works out to just under $30 a round trip
  • GO train takes 2 hrs <- 2 HOURS!
    • leaves KW at 5:50am and 7am
    • return trip leaves Toronto at 4:45 and 5:45 pm (so no evening events for you!)
    • just under $30 a round trip

Brantford

  • VIA Rail’s trains take 1hr 10min
    • leave at 7:30am and 8:50am
    • return trip leaves Toronto at 4:30, 5:30, 6:30, or 7pm
    • Commuter pass works out to just over $30 a round trip
  • No GO service

To cover roughly the same amount of ground takes 30 min longer from Waterloo Region. Round trip that is 1hr more out of your day but VIA has recently cancelled the commuter train from Waterloo Region along with the late train. They put GO train on their site as an alternative, it takes nearly an additional 30 min longer to get back on seats not designed for that length of time. That adds almost 2 hrs of commuting time in one day from Kitchener over Brantford which are the same distance to downtown Toronto by road!

Both places lack flexibility for commuters to the Region from the east and returning in the later evening if you were to just go in for a dinner/date night or need to come back later from work. The workaround for commuters in both Waterloo (63km drive, 1hr drive) and Brantford (46km drive, 30 min drive) is Aldershot Station ($16 return GO train ride). The difference in drive times makes it not much of an option for Waterloo folks unless it is a daily commute. There is no workaround for those going to the region of Waterloo from the east.

The 401 is an ever increasing mess and that isn’t going to change

It is no secret that Toronto has a traffic problem. Transit is starting to improve but even Toronto politicians seem incapable of planning for the future around transit despite the continued suburbanization of the city. This exacerbates the issue for Waterloo as it puts pressure on the professionals that are couples (or not) to choose downtown living or living near rail corridors in order to avoid the carmageddon on the highways. My bet is that Waterloo Region is not an option for most of them at the moment.

Waterloo needs to fix its growing islotion from Toronto (both downtown and Pearson airport) that will become an increasingly dire problem for economic growth. I don’t believe that the traffic problems in Toronto will drive employers out of the core of the city to the suburbs, I think it will move them to the core of another city that has an increasingly active airport, is closer to the border with the US (and Buffalo Airport), and tight transit corridor with Toronto – Hamilton.

The train issues shouldn’t be issues but they are because there is no political champion in Waterloo Region that seems to be legitimately concerned that it can take 3-6 hours out of someone’s day to pick someone up at the airport never mind go downtown Toronto for a meeting.

Step 1 is simple, get a train service that is at least on par with a small town just south of the region. The only people that can do it are our politicians, someone needs to show some leadership.

Early stage companies don’t need money, they need customers

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The popular belief in Canada is that the tech startup world has been fairly light on investment dollars relative to other industries in Canada. Because there is such a disparity in seed or angel round investment size in Canada vs the US people tend to point to that as a reason people go south. The perceived result of the funding problem (and likely the weather) is that there are 350 000 Canadians in the Valley. No one can argue the talent to build global calibre tech companies exists in Canada (or at least has Canadian passports) but you can certainly argue Canada lacks that certain something to keep them here.

Five years ago Paul Graham observed that the total cost to get a tech startup started had dropped dramatically and will continue to do so.

So my first prediction about the future of web startups is pretty straightforward: there will be a lot of them. When starting a startup was expensive, you had to get the permission of investors to do it. Now the only threshold is courage. – Paul Graham, 2007

There is a lot of attention around getting young people money but does that help them? Does that keep them in Canada? I would argue that the ones that do need and can use capital don’t pull up stakes and leave town for the investment. They leave town (or the country) because they are missing something more valuable than money — customers, mentorship that helps them get customers, and a network of peers.

Know thy stage

The problem with comparing funding deal levels in Canada and the US is that it ignores the stage the company is in relative to the stage of US startups raising money for the first time. The Startup Genome report 01 and the Startup Genome Compass offers startups an excellent way to measure themselves against a benchmark of over 3 000 startups. In the report there is a table (shown below) that gives you some overall averages for all startups.


From the Startup Genome Report 01.

In last seven years of being involved in the Canadian startup community (mostly in Waterloo) and in the last three years leading what is arguably the best student focused incubator in Canada while founding my own startup. I saw dozens of companies peek into the Discovery phase, a few move on through to the Validation phase.

What I have seen happen before the discovery phase:

  • Talk of raising money is used to pull in a large group of talent.
  • Focus is not on customers, it is on technology or raising money.
  • There is little help by way of mentorship that takes the time to understand the dynamic of the group.
  • Mentors focus on finding a way to get them money so they can work full time.
What founders fail to do:
  • Define the problem.
  • Find out what people are looking for.
  • What else do they need in a system?
  • Determine what they might pay for it by getting them to pay for it and talking to our customers.
  • Measure, iterate, repeat.

Startups need to focus more on customer acquisition and growth in Canada, enough talk about raising money

There are so many business plan and pitch competitions one could make a career out of attending them. This gives a false sense of success because the ‘winner’ is determined on a lot of factors except their ability to actually get customers. The game becomes about (and has been it feels like) how to put together a report on an idea (business plan) and present in a way that makes you look confident.

The game is really about getting lots of people to give you their money because you provide value to them. What makes you better than others is that you are chasing a much bigger problem that will provide value to a full percentage of the world’s population. Bonus points if you change the world.

 

 

OMG the RIM is falling

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If you didn’t think RIM was in trouble before one of the co-CEO’s had a meltdown on BBC you certainly started to wonder once that happened. For someone at that level to crack on TV in such a way they must be under immense pressure, now we know what it was. The company has hit a bad time. When that interview happened he must have known the Playbook just wasn’t ready and they had sacrificed the timing on the next model of the Blackberry (and how many great devs) to get that thing out fast. The delays are something they couldn’t afford with Apple’s profits soaring and Android making a whole bunch of different hardware decent to use. The media reaction is visceral, the talk of layoffs is the big news but lacks perspective and certainly is going to do some damage to their stock price (down to ~$25 from $45). Look at their basic numbers though, they are still OK with a lot of cash in the bank but they can’t afford business as usual. It is time to wake up.

There is a lot of talk about what they need to do or if they could be sold. I won’t pretend to have any idea on that. What I do know is that the culture there is broken — no I don’t work there but I have enough friends there and hear enough Office Space-esque stories that you know something is wrong. I know they love cubicles. I know they do nothing like what Google or Desire2Learn does locally for their employees. I know the office environment resembles an insurance company in the 1990′s (for most staff). I know they completely ignore Silicon Valley. RIM is competing with Apple, Google, and Microsoft on devices but on the culture side they don’t come close. Could they be “too Canadian?” By that I mean too boring, too risk adverse, too safe in how they behave, and very conservative in what they allow their employees to do or act in the workplace.

Here is how I would fix RIM: make it fun.

How do you do that? I have no idea with 17000 people. A guess? They have to let go of all the rules they have for themselves. They have to let go of their products. They have to let go of their OS. None of that means throw everything out but take away all their staff’s Blackberries and get them iPhone’s and Android powered phones. Use them. Fall in love with them like everyone else. Then find the flaws, the real flaws, not just the spec sheet ones (Do not sell me on “real multitasking” on the playbook, who the heck watches a movie AND plays a game on the same 7 inch screen?) and make the Blackberry better.

By the way you already have iCloud at RIM and I bet it works way better than iCloud will for the next 8 months. It is called BES and BBM but no one there seems to see the oppertunity there.

Disclaimer: I have never owned a Blackberry because I have never been impressed with their products.

An insane young startup guy handed me a cheque for $1 million USD and…

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…life in Waterloo just got a lot more interesting. StartupNorth calls Ted insane in the best sort of way and I agree. He managed to build a great little startup, attracting some top tier VCs and then orchestrates a brilliant deal to not alienate some great investors. Then he does something nuts to pretty much everyone, he empties a big part of his bank account and asks me (and VeloCity) to do something awesome with it. I am blown away.

Talking with people today was really interesting. Students had a hard time getting their heads around the fact that Ted has no influence over that money once that cheque is cashed. He doesn’t get equity, we aren’t naming a room after him or a building, he doesn’t gain in any way that people seemed to think he would. He does, however, hope that what we can do at VeloCity is help fill a big gap in Waterloo (and Canada) for support, education, and risk taking funding to support young people as they really go for it.

Besides the cash part I think the most important thing here is that students get an entrepreneur to look up to that is:

  • just ahead of them in age
  • thinking really big, $1 million isn’t cool enough
  • a really nice guy willing to open up his newly established networks to his fellow Waterloo students

Over the next few weeks some big plans for VeloCity will start to take shape. So very exciting. Thanks Ted.

What is the hot topic in Canadian Higher Education?

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I have the pleasure of working with Melissa on her amazing PSEWEB conference in the roll of being an email instigator. Recently a discussion has been going around the advisory group on the keynote and in true committee fashion we are throwing some great thoughts out there but not helping get things done ;) My latest ramble (slightly edited) was the following list:

  • Distance education and part-time masters are only now coming to fruition (in established academic/research schools)
  • Student experience sucks, focus on ‘student success’ and overall student experience is becoming more intentional — example, creation of the Student Success office at the University of Waterloo
  • Other than uwaterloo and maybe some colleges (that have a little potential budget surplus), most schools budgets are in bad shape (are there some that aren’t? Please comment)
  • Canadian’s time spent online is higher than the US yet we don’t engage our students that way very well (or do we?)
  • Entrepreneurship is the buzz word of our Federal government and looking to education and commercial partnerships is important to all levels of government
  • A University President just became Governor General of Canada
  • Very little cuts to Canadian research and education when compared to the rest of the G20 countries
  • Grade schools are full (to busting) with kids… at least in soem parts of southern ontario, however demographics say student numbers coming from Canada may slow down (some schools have seen that) which means more focus on international recruitment. Can we even predict this?
  • Branding madness… sweet f is it irrational. A unified brand across something as diverse as a University seems to be a crusade on a visual level that runs on 5-10 yr cycles when what I think all we really need is a raised level of professionalism across all marketing and communications.

I certainly don’t claim any of those is steadfastly factual besides the Governor General being David Johnston. Any of those points above is a blog post explaining the problem in detail and a lot of them are where a raised awareness of branding and marketing in Canada’s business culture has spilled over into Post-Secondary education. From my perspective as a Past-President of one of the larger staff groups in Post-Secondary education and someone that entered the workforce right as Canadian institutions in Ontario welcomed a ‘double cohort’ of younger first year students with less high school education, I see a (one of at least a few) fundamental challenge in Higher Ed as the following:

The demands for professional organizational management and productivity along with the increasingly specialized focus of academics, renewed expectations placed on academic research being tied to commercialization, along with a long standing (but ignored) issue surrounding student experience in Canada points to Canadian (and maybe global in some respects) Post-Secondary Education being at a crossroads.

I see the marketing and web technology solutions being caught up in the turmoil but it is a big part of the solution. If an institution can deploy a strategy effectively it likely has organizational issues either sorted out or in check. I personally look to startup culture for some solutions and I see many things we could try in higher ed.

What are the hot topics though? Is it measuring the effectiveness of marketing (measuring anything in higher ed is a new thing)? Is it using marketing communications as part of a larger effort to enhance student experience? Is it international branding? Do I even have a grasp on reality with what I see as a (one of many) fundamental challenges in higher ed?

Just to throw this out there was well… I see the University of Waterloo as being in a position to be a major disruptor and really shake up Higher Ed in Canada like it did in its first 25 years with co-op, Math, Engineering, etc. We are getting the right people in the right places across both staff and faculty, all I think we need is the right President that won’t just walk in David Johnston’s foot prints but help lead us down the path that David showed us exists.

The VeloCity workspace

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Yesterday on the VeloCity blog I announced the VeloCity workspace at the Communitech Hub. It is, to me, a piece that has missing at VeloCity as we have tried to do an awful lot in what is a residential building but what you can’t do is work as part of the startup community locally. The University of Waterloo campus is just too isolated with the way parking is and its size to try and have a space that is open to the community for various events and collaboration. When you add the cost of living in residence and housing rules that require you to be a current full time student (all understandable and reasonable) there was a clear need to have a ‘next step’ space for students that have other living arrangements and recent grads of the University.

Currently there is no better place to be than in the new Communitech Hub in Kitchener. With bigger companies like Desire2Learn (founded by a uwaterloo grad) and Google as well as smaller companies like DossierView in Tannery space along with the partner organizations within the Hub itself, it is a good opportunity to be in the middle of the best that the Waterloo Region has to offer. Plus I get to work with the Accelerator Centre and Communitech, something I love doing as they are both organizations that have climbed a big learning curve and are now really influencing the services offered to companies across Canada.

This is a fluid experiment and I am assuming certain details of how we run the space will change but it is really exciting to try. What I do know is that a similar space at Ryerson (the Digital Media Zone) is a success with a load of startups working away in a gorgeous space in downtown Toronto. VeloCity and the DMZ are working closely together to develop this new model for an incubator type service inside higher education which is also something I am excited about. My hope is that we can get more Universities and Colleges working with us but time will tell.

What I see as our big challenges going into this are:

  • Cost of the space and covering the costs of the services — current guestimates place this kind of service for very early stage startups at around $1000 a month per startup. Our costs aren’t that but I will need to keep an eye on it. Certainly we do not have anywhere close to the same staffing level as Ryerson and I am not sure we need to but we do need more help to keep things moving. That will increase our cost.
  • What does success look like? With the residence I am still not sure what success is. I know it isn’t having a startup launch out of the residence into the real world and it is more important to build a strong bond between future co-founders but I will need to work on that. With the workspace it could very well be measured by the number of startups that find some revenue.
  • What are we missing? I try not to let this drive me nuts but I am constantly trying to find the gaps in what we are doing and ensure we stay focused on what are core mission is. That means saying no sometimes but a lot of the time the ‘no’ is because we just don’t have the staff to work with certain groups. Need to tackle point one above.

In a few months I will find new challenges and see if what I think are important problems really are. This is pretty exciting! Any questions, just ask. I aim to be as open as I possibly can about this whole thing ;)

University of Waterloo President is Canada’s next Governor General

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A few minutes of being important
Unless you are completely disconnected from the news in Canada you must have seen that David Johnston will be the next Governor General of Canada. I think the atmosphere in Waterloo at the moment is nothing short of great pride and excitement that someone that is such a great community leader is being recognized for what is one of the highest profile positions in Canada.

From my perspective I think it inspiring that a person that grew up in Sault Ste. Marie and worked the steel plant in his youth (only first heard him tell that story a few months ago) has taken a long path through academia, family life (he has a lot of daughters), and still works his farm just outside of Waterloo is now the next Governor General of Canada.  The University of Waterloo will certainly miss him and the person who thinks they can try and fill his shoes on campus just had the bar raised pretty darn high.

An email went out to all the folks on campus today and I haven’t seen it online yet so I thought, since it is so well written, I would share it here and link to it whenever it ends up online (Friday July 9th’s Daily Bulletin has extensive coverage and links to other articles). Should add, I am a bit happy to see VeloCity listed as one of the things he is proud of around here ;)

Earlier today, President Johnston informed the university leadership about his appointment as Governor General effective October 1, 2010. He noted that he will continue as uWaterloo president until September 30.

“My wife Sharon and I are honoured to be asked to serve Canada in this way and will miss the Waterloo family enormously, but we will not be far away,” he said.

“ I am a teacher as are my only brother and my sister. All five of our daughters are public servants. All the important things in life I’ve learned from my children. This is just one more lesson.”

While he is excited about the new opportunity in his life, he says there is still “much to do at uWaterloo between now and Oct 1. I want to devote an enormous effort to bring Campaign Waterloo home in splendid fashion and will count on all of you to ensure a smooth and vigorous transition to my successor.”

During his 11-year tenure at the University of Waterloo, David Johnston oversaw unprecedented growth in the university’s reputation, research capacity, and leadership capabilities.

Of his many accomplishments, he will be especially remembered for:

  • Putting the University of Waterloo, and the surrounding region, on the national map as a centre for talent, ideas, and innovation.
  • He led Campaign Waterloo, which raised in excess of $500 million to support the university’s scholarship, students, and key building projects.
  • The Institute for Quantum Computing, founded in 2002, has become a leading centre for development of ideas that may lead to a revolution in how we store and transmit information, among many other things. The institute moves into the $160-million Mike and Ophelia Lazaridis Quantum Nano Centre in 2011, one of five current major building projects underway on the uWaterloo campus.
  • Leading research groups have formed and grown under President Johnston’s tenure, including the Water Institute, The Waterloo Institute for Sustainable Energy, the Propel Centre for Population Health Impact, the Waterloo Centre for Automotive Research (WATCar), and the Interdisciplinary Centre on Climate Change. Research funding for the university has nearly tripled in this decade from $61 million in 1999 to $170 million in 2009.
  • He has encouraged talent and ideas through VeloCity, the university’s unique “dormcubator” residence for student entrepreneurs, and the Accelerator Centre, which provides a fertile environment for start-up high-tech firms developing new products and services.

Demonstrating the value and impact of collaboration among academics, government, philanthropists and business to boost community building and economic development.

  • 2001 saw the launch of Waterloo’s Research and Technology Park, a 100-acre development on the university’s north campus supported by the City of Waterloo, the Region of Waterloo, and the provincial and federal governments.
  • The university’s School of Architecture opened in a renovated silk mill in downtown Cambridge in 2004, a partnership of the university, local business leaders, the City of Cambridge, the Region of Waterloo, philanthropists, and the provincial government.
  • Waterloo’s health sciences campus, anchored by Canada’s only co-op School of Pharmacy that opened in 2009, was made possible through the investment and vision of the City of Kitchener, the Region of Waterloo, the provincial and federal governments, and the university.
  • Ground will break this fall for a new Stratford Campus focused on digital media, a joint project of the City of Stratford, corporate partners including Open Text, the university and the provincial and federal governments.

Inspiring the community through his vision of a “Knowledge Capital” that has raised the sights of Waterloo to aspire to world leadership.

  • In 2007, the City of Waterloo was recognized as the world’s Top Intelligent Community by the Intelligent Communities Forum.
  • President Johnston’s vision includes a community where universities are innovative leaders, healthy living standards raise, investments in research and development transform, smart infrastructure is developed, and social innovation is championed.

Championing experiential education and the university’s co-operative education program, the largest of its kind in the world, which nurtures Waterloo’s students’ ideas and teaches them how their ideas are their most valuable offering in Canada’s knowledge economy.

  • The William M. Tatham Centre for co-operative education and career services opened on the Waterloo campus in 2002, a building dedicated solely to supporting and growing the university’s co-op program.
  • Half of Waterloo’s undergraduate students are part of the co-op program, with 13,000 students matched with 3,000 employers world wide.

A presidential search was launched earlier this year to replace President Johnston, who had been scheduled to retire from Waterloo in June 2011.

In the interim, before his successor is chosen, the university’s Policy 50 will be applied, which gives responsibility to the Board of Governors, in consultation with the Vice-President, Academic & Provost and other senior university officers, to appoint an interim President to serve until the nominating committee has finished its work.

Meg Beckel
Vice-President, External Relations

G20 Young Entrepreneur Summit #g20yes

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From June 20-22 in Toronto was the first G20 Young Entrepreneur Summit with delegates from close to all the G20 nations. The idea for the summit came from Italy but was hosted and run in Canada by the  CYBF. The goal of the summit was to bring together people that support entrepreneurship in the G20 countries and identify the core issues we all face, perhaps identify solutions that may exist in other countries, and establish what could be done next to support youth entrepreneurship globally.

The key belief underlying this summit is that entrepreneurship is the fundamental economic driver that makes recessions less painful and it is entrepreneurs that will lead economic growth. There is a shift in thinking in G20 governments from prioritizing the large employeer creating jobs and ignoring the small business entrepreneur that would create only a few jobs. The shift in thinking from the government perspective was emphasized when John Manley (former Industry Minister) took the stage and raised the point that he has seen Canada go from a nation that wants to be employees to that which what to be employers. Tony Clement‘s (current Industry Minister) statements made just before John Manley took the stage were more impressive considering where Canada was just 20 years ago.

Canada still can do a lot more, entrepreneurs (especially in the tech world) don’t feel it is all that easy to start a business and legislation is stacked against them in favour of the large companies. However, it is through more official channels like the G20 Young Entrepreneur Summit where I think all entrepreneurs can be more effective influencing government.

The end result of the summit is that the B20 summit will have youth entrepreneurship on their agenda along with the recommendations to discuss from the delegations that attended this summit. A secondary result is an agreement to pursue this movement into the next year with a meeting in South Korea in November followed by a summit at the G20 in France next year.

Along with the delegate discussions there were a number of panels and presentations which just flooded twitter with some great tidbits of information. Here are some tweets from me and others that I really like that are quoting tidbits of the wisdom shared:

You have to be born an entrepreneur – it’s a character trait. I can’t paint, but I am an entrepreneur. – Eric Boyko

Partnership with spouse is key. Need to share responsibilities on a domestic level to avoid burnout. – Tara (mother of 7)

“They tend to work less and they tend to talk more” Speaking of the younger people in the work place – Rahul Chawla

the more people i meet the more i learn – Rahul Chawla

Ur sitting on an ice cream cone in the middle of July. You must be making decisions quickly. But have humility to reverse decisions.

No pure failure in entrepreneurship; Entrepreneurs are optimists that fail. You pick yourself up and try again – Tom Jenkins

#g20yes Minister Peter Van Loan Canada features strongest workforce, knowledgeable&skilled workers http://twitpic.com/1z3yyf

Prosperity is created by successful businesses, big and small. And it’s people like you that help build this success- Peter Van Loan #g20yes

Have a look at the #g20yes hashtag on twitter, there is a lot of info there but certainly worth digging through. Also Tom Jenkins Fireside Chat was posted on the National Post.

On the last evening event one of the VeloCity teams that are part of the Entrepreneur Bootcamp had an opportunity to show off their work and meet delegates from all over the G20. I didn’t get a picture (there are official ones somewhere) of when Minister Peter Van Loan (Industry Minister for Canada) dropped by but I grabbed one of when they had folks from Russia, Canada, and the EU at the table.

Bloq Software showing off their stuff

Overall I am really impressed with what CYBF put together and the delegates that have attended. Really looking forward to what an effort like can do to help influence government policy, open up different markets to Canadian entrepreneurs, and help build a more extensive mentorship and support network.