The Big Read

How Google won over Kitchener-Waterloo

Illustration by John Hemminger

Steve Woods had been in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont. less than two days when he found himself seated at a table apprehensively sipping wine with half a dozen of the town’s business leaders. He had been invited there the day before by Communitech’s CEO Iain Klugman, who insisted over the phone—with an urgency Woods thought was odd—that they meet as soon as possible.

Not five minutes into dinner, it became clear to Woods why he had been summoned. “‘What are you going to do for us here?’” Woods recounts Klugman asking immediately after toasting his arrival to town, along with other local luminaries—like then-University of Waterloo (UW) president David Johnston—who proceeded to brief Woods on how the community worked. “‘If you do it this way it’s going to be amazing,’” Woods recalls them conveying to him. “And they sort of left uncited what would happen if I didn’t.”

Woods’s arrival in town in August 2008 signalled, in many ways, Google’s official stake in the region’s tight-knit innovation ecosystem. Over the 10-plus years prior, Kitchener-Waterloo had honed an identity as Canada’s hub of digital talent and entrepreneurship. Now, Google—a Silicon Valley behemoth with few apparent ties to the community—risked upsetting that ecosystem. The leaders responsible for carefully fostering that community had reason to question how the company’s presence would alter what had become Canada’s most promising innovation hub.

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