Rob Whent remembers the early days when meetings of the Softech Alliance, later to become the WEtech Alliance, were held at downtown Windsor’s Bull and Barrel Urban Saloon.
“We’d meet maybe once a month and kick around software development ideas and wonder how we could take it to the next level,” said Whent, WEtech’s former entrepreneur-in-residence and one of its first staff members.
“It was great and it was around the time the saloon installed a mechanical bull and it was always fun to see your colleagues get tossed off the bull,” he said laughing.
Whent, who is now an industrial technology advisor for the National Research Council’s industrial research assistance program, worked alongside Karen Behune, WEtech’s president at the time, and Yvonne Pilon who fills that role today.
“It was a small group and the early focus was more on software development than technological advances but once it shifted, it took off locally,” said Whent.
WEtech is now one of 17 regional innovation centres funded by the Province of Ontario and its mandate is to support tech innovation developed by small start-ups across the region.
Among the other partners who have been with WEtech since its inception are Jim Marsh, Dean of the Zekelman School of Business and Information Technology at St. Clair College and Wen Teoh, director and co-founder of the EPICentre at the University of Windsor.
For all three, helping launch WEtech, or Softech as it was known in its early days, was a major step in supporting and expanding Windsor’s technology reputation.
”Technology has always been part of Windsor’s DNA,” said Marsh. “It’s always been a huge part of our tool and die and automotive industry in this region but WEtech was able to help support technology’s growth beyond the manufacturing sector.”
“It’s a catalyst, cheerleader and facilitator which helps bring everyone together across various sectors,” added Marsh.
In the beginning, WEtech’s role involved bringing together a group of people with strong interests in technology but over the past few years, that role has grown to include mentorship, business advice, providing access to government funding, staging seminars and providing peer support for small start-ups from successful entrepreneur.
Teoh, who has been at the University of Windsor for nine years, said the formation of the organization helped create an entrepreneurial ecosystem which brought many people together instead of having them work on projects separately with no connectivity.
“WEtech is able to reach out to everyone because it has developed a reputation for helping support growth and providing advice to start-ups and also those in early-stage development,” said Teoh. “Technology is everywhere today from company’s working with artificial intelligence all the way to small businesses developing high-tech solutions and initiatives to help them survive through the pandemic.”
WEtech’s high profile in the tech community makes it easier for small start-ups and entrepreneurs to find the help they need.
Whent, who launched McGill Digital Solutions in 1997 and later moved on to start Thriver, said he’s “super excited” about the future.
“Ten years ago, the landscape for supporting entrepreneurs was pretty barren,” said Whent. “Being an entrepreneur and running a small business can be a lonely existence but when WEtech came along, all that changed because now there was a place to go for help and advice.”
Whent said WEtech helped establish a whole new world with small two or three-person companies developing amazing technology but needing help in growing their business and taking products to a wider market.
The proliferation of smart phones over the past decade has opened up tech for everyone, said Whent.
“There was no social media back then,” he added. “Our social media was meeting at the Bull and Barrel.”
Whent believes the future of both WEtech and the region’s technology sector will only continue to grow.
‘I live in Harrow and I’ll likely never get access to greater bandwidth than I have now through a fibre network,” he said. “But if I have a satellite, that’s makes all the difference and it will allow small rural communities to become tech hubs.
“That’s a game-changer for many people and will allow even more to work from home,” he added.
And that’s a long way from the Bull and Barrel.