The Future Lives Here: The IBM Innovation Space

Markham Convergence Centre Opens at IBM’s Markham Headquarters

By Jen R Albert

There is much talk today about “innovation,” “collaboration,” and more specifically “disruptive collaboration,” which creates a new market and value network, eventually displacing established market-leading firms, products and alliances. To build on this phenomenon and Markham’s growing tech cluster, IBM approached the Markham Convergence Centre (MCC) to move into their new IBM Innovation Space. As members of the Markham Convergence Centre (MCC) continue to set up in their new space in IBM’s Markham headquarters, hopes are high that the move will open doors to new collaborations and that the space will live up to its name and foster innovation.

17105778_10154275794550965_1649364051_oThe new space on Steeles Avenue East is part of the IBM Innovation Incubator (I3) Project, an initiative the company has undertaken in partnership with the province of Ontario to help fund small- and medium-sized enterprises. In a space that was formerly used for conferences and training, IBM has created a hub of offices as well as shared communal workspaces that are now home to members of the MCC (formerly located on Warden Avenue). These include entrepreneurs and small businesses, as well as partners such as the Markham Board of Trade and ventureLAB, one of Canada’s top incubators. While larger enterprises have set up in contained offices, smaller ventures use open-concept workspaces, plugging their laptops into power cords that hang from the trees that form a canopy in the common areas.

Inviting outside businesses into IBM’s headquarters is a departure for the company, but one that Pat Horgan, VP Manufacturing, Development & Operations at IBM, says he hopes to see happen more going forward. The idea for the IBM Innovation Space – Markham Convergence Centre came about after ventureLAB and a number of small businesses expressed their need for more space. He realized that IBM already had a space available on the ground floor of its headquarters in Markham that could easily be converted for the needs of these businesses.

According to Jeremy Laurin, CEO of ventureLAB, the MCC was successful in its old location, but they felt that opportunities were missed because of space limitations and layout restrictions. “[We wanted] to configure the space physically in a way that allowed for greater collaboration,” says Laurin. “And, in addition to that, provide more space to companies who want to interact.”

17036960_10154275783070965_601273093_oThe additional space, as well as communal workstations, in the new location should allow tenant businesses to more effectively connect with one another, and co-location with ventureLAB will provide them with a direct link to other strategic partners, including funding agencies, researchers, experts, and business mentors.

According to Pat Horgan, tenants of the centre will also have unique access to technical and intellectual resources because of their co-location with IBM. “We have a whole community of experts in this building who are dying to help small businesses,” he says. “We anticipate … having meetups that will allow for our experts from IBM to sit down and chat with small businesses, and we’ll do more formal [meetings], if they want, on specific topics like cyber security or app development.”

ventureLAB took on the role of recruiting tenants for the space and found there to be a lot of interest. “We had set a one-year plan for ourselves to fully commit all the available space. We did it in the first month,” says Laurin. Although tenants began moving in before the holidays, the space is very new, and everyone involved is still working on establishing its culture and direction. When asked if there was a foosball table on site, Laurin laughed and was quick to differentiate this enterprise from other well-known hubs. “We barely had tables and chairs in when we broke for the holidays,” says Laurin. “So we’ve really only been at this for a month. I think it’s really important that we let the space evolve. How it ultimately should be animated shouldn’t be prescribed by anyone. It should be a coalition of the accelerator and all the partners.”

I17090978_10154275983400965_899644538_oBM, too, is hoping the space will develop in its own way, with the larger company helping allocate resources to small businesses after allowing them to articulate their individual needs. “We’re trying to listen and ask ‘what is it that you need to thrive and do better?’” Horgan says.

The broader vision of the centre is to help raise the profile of businesses in Markham and in the province as a whole, ultimately aiming for growth in the international sphere. “Our real challenge is to be globally relevant on a stage where our companies can become scalable and successful long-term,” Laurin says. “Opportunities like this one that we’re building in Markham are right in the wheelhouse of addressing that concern. Close connection to mentorship, relevant partnership, and access to risk capital … are all available under one roof.”

As one of the rare board of trades to be co-located with emerging businesses, Markham Board of Trade (MBT) sees great potential for partnership in the new space. “It allows us to network and build relationships with key partners, like York University and ventureLAB,” says president Richard Cunningham. “At the same time, we bring to the table some unique platforms to spread the word about the great things that are happening here to the business community and the consumer market.” MBT also hopes to contribute to the spirit of collaboration through vehicles like the Women’s Networking and the Young Professionals Networking Groups. “We want to congratulate IBM for bringing together all these exciting businesses,” says Cunningham. “It’s the next chapter for the high tech capital of Canada.”

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