OCRI finally gets a name

Tennis%20August%2016%2C%202009%20057Mugshot400X400.jpg By Tony Patterson

(Published originally in Ottawa Business Journal, Mar. 05, 2012.)
I/O in digital speak — input/output — describes communication between a tech system and the world outside. Last month Ottawa got its own I/O connector. Invest Ottawa will help develop Ottawa’s goods and services, present them to the world and bring local business what it needs (talent, capital, recognition) from away.
I/O is the third vitalization of OCRI, a good idea gone awry. Born in the 1980s as the Ottawa-Carleton Research Institute, OCRI was the heart of a tech community that grew to be known around the world as Silicon Valley North. For two decades it was the builder of networks, applauding success, featuring leaders, encouraging mentors, facilitating partnerships. It was a model of its kind and much imitated. You can see its modern iteration at Communitech in Waterloo, a direct descendant.
The first column ever I wrote for OBJ (April 2, 2001) concerned OCRI’s merger with Ottawa’s economic development agency, OED. My instinct was to take a swing at the union, because I thought I saw a winner taking on a loser, risking dilution of its essence in the deal. But I didn’t swing. I gave a “cautious benefit of the doubt” to the takeover. I should have trusted my instinct. Dilution was exactly what happened.
My comment to the new CEO at that time, Jeffrey Dale, was “OCRI is now an acronym in search of a name.” He reminded me of this recently and said, “Now it has a name.”
InvestOttawalogo.pngInvest Ottawa will tighten focus and add capabilities, while shedding non-core activities such as school breakfasts, secondary school programs, recruiting members and staging events. Mayor Jim Watson is putting his hands on as co-chair. The city will pump in $3.6 million annually, an increase of better than 50%. I’m going to risk the same mistake and give I/O an optimistic wave of welcome. But I think it bears close watching to make sure our baby doesn’t disappear with the disposables.
Bruce Lazenby and his team, not all of whom have been hired, have a powerful new tool to work with. The city’s money has bought incubation space for as many as 90 startups at 80 Aberdeen in Little Italy, the new I/O headquarters. They’ll have access to growth accelerators such as financial, legal and marketing assistance, mentorship, export intelligence and trade missions. This model has proved successful in Waterloo and Toronto and had been on OCRI’s “to accomplish” list for five years or more.
Of course it makes sense to shuck the ed programs and school breakfasts. Worthy as they are, they’ll find other sponsors. And they’re tangential at best to economic development, at least in the short run. But shedding membership and events gives rise to other considerations.
You might notice, for instance, that they don’t talk much about technology at Invest Ottawa. It’s knowledge-based business they’re concerned with, which when you get down to it is just about any business. As Mr. Lazenby has famously said, “If you get off the bus in Ottawa and say, ‘I want to start a barbershop’, we’ll help you out.”
There was a time when OCRI membership and participation in its programs and events were part of the fabric of the tech community in Ottawa. I/O will not give that same impetus to community and connection.
On the other hand there will likely be tight cohesion among the 90 startups in I/O’s accelerator program. They may well become evangelists for a new era of clusters and networks. And while any new knowledge-based startup will be welcome at 80 Aberdeen, nine out of every ten are pretty certain to be technology-based. Because that’s what Ottawa does best. That’s our natural advantage. Even if we speak it softly these days.

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