Durham poised to become tech leader with opening of Whitby ‘innovation accelerator’

Wed, Apr 24, 2019 4:00 PM

WHITBY — A decade ago, while Jason Atkins was building the foundation for his now highly successful and award-winning business, there were no technology jobs in downtown Whitby.

Today, there are about 500 — and that number is expected to grow with the recent opening of an innovation accelerator, known as “1855 Whitby” in the former provincial land registry office at 400 Centre St. S. The 9,000-square-foot facility will play a key role in helping high potential tech companies advance to large-scale commercialization, creating local jobs and economic prosperity for the town and region.

“(This is) an amazing partnership between the town and the business community. If you think about this space here that we have, it has been a long journey,” said Atkins, chief executive officer of 360insights and chair of the board of directors for the accelerator, during the opening of the site on April 11.

His company, which provides on-demand incentives solutions for various organizations, has experienced tremendous growth since it was launched in 2008 and is widely regarded as a leader in the industry. Its new global headquarters opened in the former R.A. Sennett Public School building at 300 King St. last year.

Atkins — who’s one of the driving forces behind the development of the accelerator — highlighted some of the other major businesses that have popped up in the area over the years, adding to Whitby’s burgeoning innovation district that currently includes about a dozen tech companies.

“We have the school across the street, we have (Predictive Success) from David Lahey, we have Isaac (Wanzama) who has geekspeak down there, and now we’re building this, and this was really built because there’s a massive gap in our community for companies to accelerate,” he said, explaining that there is nothing in place to assist similar businesses in soaring beyond startup and incubation.

“I think they say 90 per cent of all technology companies fail before they get to a $1 million of revenue, and it’s because they don’t have the support ... and you think of, what’s this support take? Well, it takes a community; it takes people to help get there — and that’s what we tried to build here.”

Through the accelerator, tech companies currently experiencing a minimum of double-digit annual growth will have the opportunity to work in a creative business and collaboration space. Members of 1855 Whitby will receive on-site mentorship from industry leaders and hands-on support from experts across varying business channels, to help facilitate their growth objectives.

Ultimately, the goal of 1855 — named in honour of the year Whitby was incorporated as a separate municipality, or as Atkins put it, “grew up” and became its own — is to position tech companies for the global stage and a successful business future.

“Our mantra at 1855 is ‘Growth Lives Here’ because that’s what we do: we help companies accelerate and grow to become their own thriving organizations.”

The road to establishing the accelerator began with a serendipitous turn of events about six years ago when Atkins was looking for a larger space to accommodate his rapidly developing business, then known as 360incentives and located on Green Street. Tired of being away from his family while travelling for years on business, he was determined to continue working close to his Whitby home despite his company’s growth.

It was around that same time that the Durham District School Board decided it was going to sell the former Sennett building, which closed in 2010 when it was deemed too costly to repair. In 2014, the Town of Whitby purchased the property from the school board for both its heritage value and economic opportunities.

“Council decided that this was an opportunity as long as we had somebody like Jason who was willing to invest (in) and renovate that school, which fortunately he was,” said Mayor Don Mitchell, adding that neighbouring residents were overwhelmingly supportive of the idea, and the town began working toward selling and rezoning the nearly 100-year-old building.

“Parallel to that, the stars kind of also aligned because at that point in time, the province decided they didn’t want this building anymore,” the mayor noted about the Centre Street site.

In 2014, the town purchased the former land registry office from the Ontario Ministry of Energy and Infrastructure for $810,000. Discussion at the time revolved around potentially using the space to accommodate municipal staff or sharing the space with the Whitby Chamber of Commerce and/or Spark Centre to support downtown revitalization goals.

“We were becoming increasingly aware of all the tech businesses that were around downtown Whitby, and we thought well, this is sort of across the road from what we hoped to see happen with Jason, so we didn’t want to see that building go away,” he said.

Mitchell thanked members of the town’s economic development staff, especially Peter LeBel, commissioner of community and marketing services, for his vision and dedication to the project — and all who believed in the possibilities.

“Our council’s philosophy was always that for this to work, we would provide some infrastructure and support, but the business community had to lead it — by example and by knowledge,” he said.

“We truly, absolutely believe that downtown Whitby is a great place to live, work and play, and can and will get even better.”

Joining the town as a founding partner is BDO Canada, represented on the accelerator's board of directors by Brion Hendry, the company’s GTA technology and life sciences leader and Brooklin resident.

“Our firm believes in supporting and accelerating the growth of technology companies by helping them to build a strong financial foundation,” he said, adding he’s proud to be involved in an initiative that’s going to have a major impact on the future of the area.

“I really think this (is) Durham’s time — we’ve had the right people ... and now we’ve got the right place.”

One of the first companies to benefit from the accelerator will be National ProStaff, a locally-based online sport fishing platform established in 2011.

“We’re thrilled to join 1855 Whitby as it provides us with amazing networking opportunities and affordable workspace in the downtown area,” said co-founder and CEO Dan Miguel.

“We look forward to continuing our growth trajectory at the heart of this growing tech ecosystem in Durham Region.”

Companies interested in joining the accelerator program at 1855 Whitby are encouraged to inquire by email at info@1855Whitby.com or visit www.1855whitby.com for more information. Members of the community can tour the facility during this year's Doors Open Whitby event, taking place Saturday, May 4 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.