The rural community on the shores of Lake Simcoe just launched a prestigious startup accelerator, and has no plans to stop there.
PodcastSmart CityEconomic Development
Innisfil is a small town, but its ideas are anything but. Town administrators are continuously thinking outside the box, and the results could have major impacts, not just on the community but on Canada’s technology culture as a whole.
It started with a fairly common problem many suburbs face: About 82% of residents in the town of Innisfil commute out of town to work daily. Innisfil wanted to flip the numbers and build a live/work community, but rather than rely on a traditional playbook, town administrators took a different approach. They launched a startup accelerator to attract young companies and entrepreneurs away from the big-city hubs.
But rather than stopping there, Innisfil administrators kept asking, what if we think bigger? The result is a roadmap that could turn the small rural community into the center of government technology in Canada.
As Govlaunch works to build the global wiki for local government innovation, we’re highlighting a series of Innovators — cities, towns, and counties who are implementing transformative ideas and fostering a culture of innovation. We chatted with economic development workers in Innisfil to talk about how they approach problem solving, and their ambitious plans for the small community.
A small town with big ideas
Innisfil is a relatively small community — the population is about 37,000 people. This is a key factor in the the local government’s ability to find creative solutions to problems, says Dan Taylor, Economic Development Catalyst at the town:
“The reason we’re able to be quite innovative is we’re small and nimble. Our senior administration and council are fairly closely aligned. So we have great thinking in our leadership — both politically and administratively.”
This leadership has encouraged local government workers to seek out creative solutions, which has resulted in some big wins.
Take public transportation. The town has a huge footprint; it’s rural and the citizens are quite spread out. A traditional bus system just wouldn’t work here: it’d cost too much and wouldn’t add much efficiency.
So instead, Innisfil looked to ride sharing as a solution. Says Taylor:
“Our understanding is that Innisfil is the first rural municipality on the planet to use Uber as its primary transit system.”
This asset-light approach cost very little. The subsidized rides don’t impede traffic flows. And the approach turned out to be disaster-proof: while other municipalities have to bear the cost of operating transit without people using it, when Innisfil’s demand dropped, the town didn't have to pay for it.
So when it came time to address Innisfil’s economic development landscape, the town once again started thinking creatively.
Defining the economic development problem
As a place to live, Innisfil is tough to beat. Fifty percent of the town’s border is lake. It’s about 45 minutes from Toronto (and in a few years, a new rail connection will make the trip even easier).
The cost of living is lower than a city, and it’s a good place to start a family, or take advantage of a little more space.
The challenge is, as with a lot of suburban communities, a majority (in this case, 82 percent) of the residents here commute somewhere else five days a week for work. How could the town flip the story, so that businesses and people are staying in the community three, five, or even seven days a week?
As it’s done with the other hurdles it’s faced, Innisfil first worked to define the problem, and validate potential solutions.
The challenge wasn’t just getting business to come to Innisfil. To be successful, the town had to attract the right businesses. Jelmer Stegink, Investment Accelerator for the town explains:
“We looked at who or what creates jobs in Ontario, and 85% of all net job gain over the last 10 years was driven by companies younger than five years: Startups.”
“It provides an opportunity for us as a town that’s close enough to the city, but far enough away to have a different lifestyle.”
If Innisfil could tap into this growing tech market, and provide support to these young companies while offering an alternative lifestyle to big city living, the results wouldn’t just help the town — it’d provide value to the larger region. Says Taylor:
“Our CAO said, when we do economic development, we want to be an accelerator. We don't want to just be a facilitator. We want to put our foot on the gas and really play a different role.”
So the town of Innisfil set out to launch a startup accelerator.
Launching an accelerator program
In tech hubs like SIlicon Valley or Toronto, accelerators are well-established. In small rural communities, not so much. But Innisfil set out to rewrite this narrative, creating a startup hub that would bring new minds and businesses into the community.
But creating a space and resources from scratch to grow multiple startups is an immense amount of work. As they had done with public transit, parking and other programs, Innisfil knew that sometimes the right partner is the key to success. So the town joined forces with the DMZ, the top university-linked accelerator in Canada. Part of Ryerson University in Toronto, over the past 12 years the DMZ has worked with more than 450 startups that have raised nearly $750 million and created 4,000 jobs.
Together, Innisfil and the DMZ launched DMZ Innisfil in June 2020, providing up to 25 startups with programming, mentorship, and access to venture capitalists.
The program is sector agnostic — participants in the first cohort range from FreshSpoke, a local food marketplace to NiceLaunch, a municipal boat launch booking and management platform. The common tie is they have to be interested in Innisfil. Says Stegink:
“It’s not just the accelerator, we’re looking for people who are interested in the lifestyle that we have to offer and in building a company and community here.”
Always thinking bigger
Launching a tech accelerator in a small rural town is a big deal. Doing it with the top partner in the space is even bigger. For many towns, the story would end here, and it’d be a great success. But that’s not how Innisfil thinks about innovation. For Taylor and Stegink and the local government, the question is always, what if we think bigger?
As Stegink plotted out the launch of DMZ Innisfil, his mind was already on what it could lead to:
“How can we as a municipality create another unique selling point in this scenario, so that we can be a focal point in the tech sector, and also provide more value as an organization?”
Again, Stegink and team dug into the problem and validated potential solutions. The answer soon became clear: Govtech.
The number of disruptors in the government technology space is very small in Canada. But governments here (as with everywhere), have plenty of challenges. The opportunity is ripe to tackle the market. Says Stegink:
“We have a tech accelerator. We are also a municipality. We have a lot of broken workflows, and things that can be optimized. So it puts us in a unique position to start venturing into that space.”
To test the waters, the town hosted a hackathon in conjunction with the DMZ. More than 30 teams joined in, working to solve problems in the town’s local government that were either created by or made worse by current events. Three of these teams ended up winning pilot projects with the city, and are now part of Innisfil’s accelerator.
The hackathon exposed a new set of entrepreneurs (many who had never considered working in Govtech) to the challenges faced by local governments. It opened the floodgates for new ideas — in just two weeks of the hackathon some teams built basic products that essentially did everything the government needed it to do.
But again, the Innisfil team asked: what if we think bigger?
Innisfil’s hackathon targeted the problems of one town. What if they could bring in other communities, and offer their problems for startup teams to solve? Says Stegink:
“We’re looking into an innovation alliance. What if five to 10 municipalities committed to helping these startups validate the problems and solutions?”
The cities and towns would get fresh thinking and solutions to their biggest challenges — at no cost beyond providing some staff access to help solve the problems. They could become early adopters of the products developed. On the startup side, by the time the company was ready to raise money, it would already have a handful of municipal logos on their website.
Thinking even bigger, what if Innisfil developed a fund to help support these govtech startups? What if the town itself became a venture capitalist of sorts? There’s a long way to go, but the opportunity is exciting, says Stegink:
“It’s going to enable us to plant a flag in the ground and become the cradle of govtech innovation by just supporting govtech startups and acknowledging the sector.”
The future of Innisfil is innovation
Regardless of how successful these master plans are, the landscape is set to look very different in Innisfil a few years down the road.
The launch of the accelerator, plus the hackathon, have put the town on the radar of many entrepreneurs and businesses. A new development is underway to build a modern city-within-a-town, called The Orbit, to offer the benefits of urban living without transforming Innisfil’s rural nature into suburban sprawl. And a new GO Train rail link is set to connect the town with Toronto in the next few years.
With all this going on, one thing seems certain to the town of Innisfil: innovation is going to be more and more necessary in the months and years to come. Taylor says:
“With ever increasing pressures on governments to cut costs, etc., I think that’s going to force innovation. It’s going to force creativity and thinking around, how do we create alternative revenue sources.”
So how can others follow Innisfil’s lead? Stegink says it starts with your approach to solving problems:
“I don’t think there’s a defined model for local governments at this point, but there could be. We are using lean startup methodology as a framework to work through problems. We have a commitment to thinking differently, wanting to innovate, and giving enough freedom to staff to really dive in, and give them the time to validate the problem and come up with creative solutions.”
By embracing an entrepreneurial mindset and culture, and lining up the right partners — from major players like the DMZ to individuals working to start new companies — Innisfil is setting itself as a leader among innovative cities. It’s a great reminder that big things are possible, even in small communities.