From humble beginnings in a corner office of Next Dimension Inc. ’s head office, to our time at Downtown Windsor Business Accelerator to our current co-location inside University of Windsor ‘s EPICentre UWindsor, the organization set out to champion the development and growth of the region’s entrepreneurial talent and tech ecosystem.
“We set out to put Windsor-Essex and the surrounding regions on the map for its tech, talent and community,” said Yvonne Pilon, WEtech’s chief executive officer and president since 2015. “We’ve come a long way but we more to do. More talent to build and connect. More founders to create. More SMEs to scale. And, more innovation infrastructure to build.”
It was on February 11th, 2011 that WEtech was officially introduced as one of 17 Regional Innovation Centres, funded by the Province of Ontario focused on helping local talent turn bright ideas into global companies.
The founding industry board members in 2011 included Stuart Sutton (Sylectus), Adam Davis (Next Dimension), Frank Abbruzzese (AlphaKOR Group), Saverio Rinaldi (HP), Ross Rawlings (Radix Inc.), Rob Courteaux (Progressive Software) and Karen Behune Plunkett (President and CEO).
A special thank you and mention to the University of Windsor, Deloitte (Jane Jantzi and Remi Tosti) and industry leaders Trideep Aggarwal, Rakesh Naidu, Dean Scarlett of Vista Solutions, Dave Fortin of DataRealm, and many more for their role in being the early roots of WEtech Alliance – formerly Softech Alliance Network.
For Abbruzzese, it all started when he attended a meeting at Beach Grove Golf and Country Club and heard a speech by a representative from Waterloo’s Communitech, a well-established tech industry incubator.
“I think there were five or six of us who owned IT companies and we decided the Windsor-Essex area needed something similar to Communitech,” said Abbruzzese. “I was excited about it and so was everyone else because it gave us a chance to come together and set the stage for a new organization which would help mentor startups and existing businesses in the tech sector.
The organization started life as the Softech Alliance but within two years, it had morphed into the WEtech Alliance which would more accurately describe the region it would be focused on going forward.
“We all felt it was a great opportunity to provide exposure for local companies beyond our region while at the same time providing help, advice and mentoring to small start-ups,” said Davis. “It was also an opportunity to help evangelize the benefits of IT and software development in an area where manufacturing is often thought to be the only industry.”
It was also a way to help convince computer science graduates of both the University of Windsor and St. Clair College that there were opportunities in Windsor and they didn’t have to move away to Kitchener-Waterloo, the GTA or Detroit to pursue their careers.
Rawlings, who launched Radix (now AIS Technologies Group) with wife Shelley Fellows in 1995, also saw it as an opportunity for the two local institutes of higher learning to produce students with the skills required to work in IT and software development.
“I wanted to be able to grow Radix with the top available talent and establishing an organization such as WEtech was a way to do that and help the rest of the industry at the same time,” he said. “It brought competitors together to help build an ecosystem of workers to feed into our system and provide opportunities for small start-ups to become established.”
Since 2015, when WEtech first began compiling quarterly reports, the organization has supported more than 500 new clients, helped create 500 jobs, provided over 10,000 hours of advice through its roster of entrepreneurs-in-residence, business advisors and staff and hosted more than 300 events with over 14,000 participants.
“Over the last 10 years, we have helped startups find their first desk, their first customer, their first investor, their first international market and even their first employee”
On the financial side, WEtech has helped its clients access more than $2 million in market intelligence reports, facilitate more than $67 million in investments and access $3.3 million in client perks.
In addition, nearly $6 million in investments have been brought to the region, leveraged from regional, provincial and federal sources, to support WEtech’s core operation, talent pipeline, community building initiatives and business acceleration programs.
“Over the last 10 years, we have helped startups find their first desk, their first customer, their first investor, their first international market and even their first employee,” said Pilon.
Abbruzzese said that in the years since WEtech was launched, it has expanded its peer-to-peer mentoring opportunities while at the same time giving new business owners the autonomy they need to grow their businesses.
“And events such as the Nerd Olympics have created opportunities for ourselves and our competitors to compete against each other in a fun atmosphere,” said Abbruzzese. “By combining our talents, we have helped get out the message across Canada that there is a wealth of tech talent in this area.”
While Rawlings admits the region is hardly Silicon Valley, it has come a long way in the past decade.
“We still have a ways to go but companies here are creating revolutionary technology and overall, it’s become a very tech-savvy community,” said Rawlings.
The downtown addition of Quicken Loans and sister company Edison Financial has added to Windsor’s tech reputation but “the competition for talent is challenging,” admitted Rawlings.
Calling Windsor the ‘city that makes things that make things’, Davis said that besides automotive, Windsor’s strength has been in developing robots and manufacturing advanced tooling, sensors and controls and that will only grow.
“Windsor has a lot to offer and WEtech has played a large role in making the rest of the province aware of our strengths,” said Davis.
Pilon believes that in any startup ecosystem, change is constant and it’s a long-range game, and it’s part of the reason why you have to make a long-term commitment to the community.
“The last 10 years were focused on building the startup community and getting the ecosystem and companies to a certain point where we can actually start talking about scaling,” she said. “No matter where our future trajectory goes, we will always put our founders first.”