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Supporting a thriving incubator network: lessons from Toronto Supporting a thriving incubator network: lessons from Toronto

An Interview with Chris Rickett from the City of Toronto

Chris Rickett is the Manager for Entrepreneurship Services at the City of Toronto. CITIE interviewed Chris to understand how Toronto’s thriving incubator network enables the City of Toronto place itself at the heart of the ecosystem to support innovation and entrepreneurship.

CITIE: Cities around the world are taking different approaches to supporting innovation and entrepreneurship. How does Enterprise Toronto support innovators and small businesses in the city?

Chris Rickett: Enterprise Toronto offers a variety of tools and services to support SME businesses in Toronto. We run structured training programs for entrepreneurs, sector specific boot camps and support a diverse incubation network that provides infrastructure for entrepreneurship within the city.

Entrepreneurship Services is structured to support SME clients on sector-specific business problems. Via our ‘Small Business Services’ department we work directly with approximately 30,000 SME clients and entrepreneurs each year.

The City of Toronto publishes a directory of business support for entrepreneurs that includes pre-incubation programs, incubators, accelerators and co-working spaces. There are about 90 entries in this database.

CITIE: Let’s talk about business incubation. What is the history behind Toronto’s incubation network?

Chris Rickett: The City of Toronto has a strong history of starting incubators. The Toronto Business Development Centre was founded 25 years ago, and shortly after the award winning Toronto Fashion Incubator was founded. Today Toronto has an extensive network of 50 incubators which fuel and support SME businesses and start-ups in the city.

Toronto’s incubator network plays a key role in our ecosystem: not only is this a continued investment, but it’s a continued return. The success of SME businesses in Toronto within key sectors helps to support new job growth.

CITIE: Within this network of incubators what type of businesses does Toronto work with?

Chris Rickett: This is something we’re proud of. The diversity of Toronto’s incubator network is representative of the diversity businesses in the city. In our incubation network we help businesses with a range of interests and ambitions from pop up restaurants, fashion businesses and fast growth digital startups.

Our research and experience has shown that businesses started within an incubator are more likely to succeed than those without one. It’s therefore important to maintain a healthy and vibrant network of incubators in Toronto.

As an example, the highly acclaimed Digital Media Zone at Ryerson University is one of Toronto’s largest incubators, helping startups succeed by connecting them with customers, advisors, influencers and other entrepreneurs. Ryerson’s Digital Media Zone opened in April 2010 and since then it has incubated more than 130 start-ups that have risen over $40 million in funding and fostered the creation of more than 1,200 jobs.

CITIE: That is a substantial impact from just one incubator. Could you describe in more detail the key benefits for the entrepreneur of starting a business in one of Toronto’s incubators?

Chris Rickett: I would say there are a number of benefits. Our incubator network offers innovators access to tools, infrastructure and support when nurturing a start-up. Incubators are uniquely collaborative: as a source of shared office space and resources the close proximity within which entrepreneurs work has an increased likelihood of serendipity, healthy collaboration and improved ideas.

We consistently see entrepreneurs leveraging the practical support and infrastructure offered by our incubators, and a great example of this is the ‘Retail Restaurant Incubator’ we run in the city.

The ‘Retail Restaurant Incubator’ offers entrepreneurs with ambitions of starting a retail restaurant the unique opportunity to set up pop-up restaurants in shipping containers. In a short time frame and with limited start-up costs the feasibility of the business model can be tested, and if successful, the idea and model can be scaled. This concept is very exciting.

CITIE: Fifty incubators must be a lot to manage, how do you achieve this?

Chris Rickett: Great question. This is especially true given that it is only a team of two people directly working on this agenda.

Entrepreneurship Services Toronto collaborates with a number of organisations to support the network of entrepreneurs and start-up businesses in the city. We have formal funding partnerships with 18 of them.

As an example, we work hand in hand with MaRS, a world-renowned organisation that promotes and supports innovation. MaRS focuses on supporting high-growth, technology-based businesses within the work and learning, health and energy sector. We collaborate to ensure innovators are directed to the appropriate incubators and support they need.

Individual incubators are not managed by the city directly. We identify opportunities for growth and innovation, and then act as matchmaker, identifying suitable businesses and not-for-profits organisations equipped to partner with us and manage the incubators.

CITIE: Within this large ecosystem, how would you summarise the role of the City of Toronto?

Chris Rickett: Well, within our ecosystem, the City plays a number of roles. I allude to the City acting as a ‘matchmaker’, but in reality we play three roles:

  • Funder: we fund the infrastructure and invite investors and organisations to assist.
  • Catalyst: we identify gaps and challenges in the ecosystem and try to put together relevant people and parts to address these.
  • Collaborator: we work with SME clients and partners to provide practical support and establish new businesses in the city.

CITIE: How do you identify opportunities for collaboration?

Chris Rickett: We are always on the lookout for how we can create collaborations between clients and businesses. By working closely with industry sector groups and our partners, we are well placed to identify opportunities for growth and collaboration.

Twice a year we bring together all of Toronto’s incubators and accelerators. During the meeting we identify opportunities for collaboration and go away with action points to be worked on during the course of the year.

There are currently 10 collaborative projects underway. Some examples of what we are working on include: branding the ecosystem to tell the Toronto entrepreneurship story, and establishing incubators in new sectors such as FinTech, advanced manufacturing and green building.

Finally, as previously mentioned Toronto’s incubators are highly collaborative, the close proximity within which entrepreneurs work yields healthy collaboration and improved ideas, but on a larger scale this is achieved in Innovation Districts such as the Discovery District in downtown Toronto which has a high concentration of hospitals and research institutions.

CITIE: What are the next steps for the Toronto?

Chris Rickett: We would like to expand the roles played by the city in the ecosystem. We’re exploring opportunities that enable us to be more open to innovation internally within city hall. We’re questioning how can we be innovators and purchase and leverage some of the new and exciting technology produced by our city’s talented entrepreneurs.


DMZ – Filename: “Mark Blinch3 – DMZ 2014.jpg” credit goes to: Photo courtesy of Mark Blinch


Coalition Music – Filename: “CollabGroup2.jpg” – credit goes to: Courtesy of Coalition Music


MaRS – Filename: “MaRS3.jpg” – credit goes to: Courtesy of MaRS Discovery District