As the COVID-19 lockdown stretches on, tech accelerators are trying to figure out how to stay relevant

Innovate BC CEO Raghwa Gopal is among those trying to figure out how to provide startups with virtual mentorship and advice. Innovate BC

Raghwa Gopal misses the “natural collisions” a tech accelerator helps create by bringing dozens of people together in one room. 

It is in those settings, Gopal said, that startup founders find money after a conversation with an angel investor, or an employee after discovering a shared perspective or a customer looking for a solution they happen to provide.

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Talking Point

All of the accelerators The Logic spoke to already had the means to conduct their activities online, but are now grappling with adopting new roles in the tech ecosystem that has largely gone virtual. What was once a space to connect to investors has now become a hub to get advice on reinventing business models and government relief funding.

“Those natural collisions are a key component of the whole acceleration system,” Gopal, the president and CEO of Innovate BC, told The Logic. “All of that has been suspended, and you can’t make those happen online.… If we can’t be in the same room or space, how can we still provide the same mentorship, advice and success in an effective way?”

Accelerators traditionally act like greenhouses for startups, helping them grow faster and stronger by connecting them to investors and customers. COVID-19 is forcing them to figure out how to provide advice and mentorship online, while grappling with creating an ecosystem where startups want to survive not grow.

All of the accelerators The Logic spoke to already had the means to conduct their activities online. Toronto’s MaRS Discovery District, which serves 1,400 startups—100 of whom are tenants in the Institute’s campus near Queen’s Park in Toronto—has spent the last few years creating a digital infrastructure to broaden its reach. When the lockdown started, the institute was able to transition to “a fully digital advisory model” that saw it start virtually delivering events and advice to its startups. 

MaRS has also launched a new collection of COVID-19 resources for its companies—a set of tools they can use to prepare, plan and respond to the challenges of the economic climate. MaRS tenant companies with plans to work from home can also use the accelerator’s audio-visual team to help host remote meetings or events online.

In addition to these adjustments, the accelerator is grappling with questions about its future. “As an organization that receives the majority of our funding from private-sector sources, we are expecting to feel the financial impact of this crisis,” said Cory Mulvihill, MaRS’s lead executive for policy and public affairs. “Like many other organizations, we are still in the process of forecasting what the magnitude of that impact could be.” 

Communitech, a Kitchener, Ont.-based tech accelerator that has 1,400 member companies, is also grappling with moving some of its trademark events online, including its breakfast series speaking sessions and “Pizza with the Prez,” which sees local CEOs give a talk on how they made it. The accelerator moved its bi-annual job fair and networking event online, and dubbed it “Tech Jam From Home.”

“As we’re establishing this new normal, it’s going to be really important for everyone to think of ways they can pivot,” Beres said. “Do I think virtual will be as effective? I’m not sure. There’s a lot of change and a lot of uncertainty. But I do think we need to pivot our approach and our offerings to connect with one another while social distancing—that’s the only way we’ll be able to best support out employees while providing top-quality service to our partners and customers.” 

Accelerate Okanagan CEO Brea Lake said the hub has served as “a connector in the region,” linking companies in Kelowna, B.C. and neighbouring smaller cities with mentorship and funding since 2010. Now, the accelerator is trying to help them navigate the new COVID-19 landscape. 

“We’re seeing that companies need more one-on-one coaching right now,” she said, noting that people are now more likely to seek advice on how to work remotely than on where to find investors. To meet this demand, Lake said, Accelerate Okanagan has started offering its flagship quarterly business review—a process that sees companies present to an informal board about how their business is faring—online. 

“There’s so much noise from all aspects of COVID-19, it’s hard for a founder to be able to navigate that, she said. “Main Street businesses that are needing to reinvent need the services accelerators offer more than ever now, and we have to help them figure out what those new business models could look like. We can be that conduit and that connector.” 

Venture Lab, which is home to 45 startups in Ontario’s York Region and helps over 400 more, is also trying to fill that role. On top of providing advice on navigating government relief programs, the accelerator is also in the process of shifting its annual “Demo Days” to virtual formats, to allow startups to continue connecting with investors. Justine Kintanar, a spokeswoman for the accelerator, said they are also working on creating “virtual showcases” for startups to present their product to potential collaborators or customers. It has also created weekly Virtual Friday lunches, which features guest speakers “to talk about programs or opportunities to help startups navigate this time and answer questions.”

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In the wake of all these transitions, Gopal remains realistic about accelerators shifting to offer their service online, but expects “hiccups” and a “slowdown in activity” as priorities shift to helping companies access relief programs as opposed to scaling up. “Just because of this pandemic, this lockdown, in the future, there will be a good mix of virtual and real-time mentorship that will happen,” he said. 

With files from Catherine McIntyre