The Big Read

    Sea Change: A startup awakening in Atlantic Canada

    Illustration by John Hemminger
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    Jeffrey Larsen’s career trajectory is a common one where he’s from: after growing up in Halifax, he moved away for university before starting his career in Toronto. About 10 years into his legal profession, once his 20s had passed, Larsen began plotting his Maritime return. “I had really exciting work in Toronto; it was a positive experience,” he says. “But it wasn’t where I wanted to be.”

    Like so many young people who leave the East Coast—and so many, myself included, do—Larsen, now the executive director of innovation and entrepreneurship at Dalhousie University, had always planned to come home. “I wanted to be in a liveable place,” he says. “A place where you can, in a half an hour, be surfing, or in wine country or at your cottage.”

    He also wanted to be somewhere where he could have a fulfilling and lucrative career—criteria that, at first, were harder to achieve; criteria which drive many people from the east away in the first place.

    Atlantic Canada has always struggled economically, its industries characterized by fits and starts—miniature booms and busts in resource sectors like lumber, coal mining and steel production, hydropower harvesting and oil drilling. At first, Confederation and the Canadian National Railway were expected to open the region up to the markets and a new era of prosperity. The advent of internet, more than a century later, promised to do the same by eliminating physical distance between the region, the rest of Canada and the world. Those ideals never quite panned out. As recently as between 2010 and 2015, the region’s four provinces—Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island—garnered below average GDP relative to the rest of the country, and below average population growth from 2011 to 2016. The provinces consistently have the highest unemployment rates in the country, numbers that have barely budged since 2007.

    But there are signs of an economic sea change, driven by innovation, and supports from governments and private sectors alike. In 2016, Nova Scotia became the first Canadian region to enroll in MIT’s Regional Entrepreneurship Acceleration Program. Last year, Creative Destruction Lab expanded its rigorous accelerator program into Halifax, the fifth city on its roster before adding New York City this September. And, in February, the region won the bid to become the country’s Oceans Supercluster.

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