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DMZ Innisfil: Big-city innovation with small-town benefits

Ryerson’s newest accelerator offers entrepreneurs support, resources and connections an hour from Toronto
By: Lindsey Craig
January 19, 2021
A rendering of a small town with urban innovations, with a modern transit system pictured along with bike lanes.

The Town of Innisfil is reimagining what rural life can be in a project called The Orbit - where the benefits of urban living will enhance small town lifestyles. Rendering is courtesy of the Town of Innisfil.

Daniel Copeland has always wanted to use technology to help people. He’s also always wanted to give back to the Innisfil, Ont., community.

Now, thanks to the DMZ Innisfil, he’s able to do both.

Copeland is co-founder of an app called SPOT, external link - which stands for Spontaneous Paid Opportunities Today. 

Incorporated in July 2019, it’s an app that helps marginalized Canadians improve their skills, develop meaningful careers and reintegrate into the workforce, while providing employers with an on-demand, flexible and reliable labour force for jobs that are often hard to fill.

Copeland and co-founder Darren Perlman are building their startup with Ryerson University’s DMZ, an accelerator for tech startups. But, unlike many DMZ companies, they’re located an hour north of Toronto, in Innisfil, Ont.

‘Access to big-city resources’

Launched in May 2020, the new arm of Ryerson’s business incubator was created in partnership with the DMZ and Innisfil Accelerates, a municipal government program. 

It’s part of a larger plan to create a tech ecosystem for the town of roughly 37,000 and boost the local economy. So far, it’s home to 15 startups.

Businesses are given access to many of the same resources as startups in the Toronto location - free space, mentorship, exclusive resources and a vast network of support, including partners, customers and investors. (In the pandemic, businesses can work remotely, and in the shared space, physical distancing rules are strictly followed).

But what they can also access in Innisfil is a four-season, lakeside lifestyle - a refreshing shift for those looking to escape city stress.

“It’s really exciting to be able to live in a smaller town and have access to big-city resources,” said Copeland. 

The Richmond Hill, Ont., native was no stranger to the Lake Simcoe community. Growing up, he spent his summers there at his family cottage.

Now, he’s happy to be able to give back to the town where he has so many fond memories, while fulfilling his professional dream.

“The resources we have are invaluable. It’s also really cool to just be affiliated with the DMZ because they have such a phenomenal reputation,” he said. “It carries so much credibility, both here and in Toronto.”

Program in synch with town trajectory

Andrea Khanjin, MPP Barrie—Innisfil and parliamentary assistant to the minister of environment, conservation and parks, says the DMZ Innisfil program is in perfect alignment with the town’s development - like other small bedroom communities, both its population and economy are undergoing major transformation.

“While Innisfil’s past might seem quaint to some people today, the first settlers who came to Innisfil were innovators. They pushed the boundaries and farmed on Ontario’s frontier. Innovation is part of Innisfil’s DNA, from the past to the present and into the future. I’m delighted to belong to a community that has at its heart the innovation for which Ryerson and the DMZ are known,” she said, also noting that sustainability must be at the forefront of change as well.

Other examples of how the town is shifting technologically include a transit system powered by Uber, app-based parking, crypto currency tax payments, cutting-edge libraries and sports facilities, and plans for a transit project called The Orbit, external link, which will make commuting to and from Toronto much more accessible, offering residents a smaller town lifestyle with urban innovations and conveniences. 

‘Our partnership with Ryerson DMZ is helping us transform our local economy,” said Innisfil mayor Lynn Dollin. “Through DMZ Innisfil we are attracting and supporting technology startups and investment, and creating new jobs in our community.'

Daniel Copeland

SPOT co-founder, Daniel Copeland in Innisfil, Ont. (Photo courtesy of Daniel Copeland).

‘Developing a local technology cluster’

Jelmer Stegink, program director of the DMZ Innisfil, agrees, noting that prior to Covid-19, 82 per cent of Innisfil residents left the town for work. Now, Innisfil hopes to build a connected community and provide more residents with the opportunity to work and live in the town.

“Through the partnership with DMZ, we plan to establish a local technology cluster to create more local job opportunities and transform our economy,” Stegink said, adding that since launching in May 2020, they’ve onboarded 15 startups who have collectively raised $750,000 and created 70 jobs.

Bridging employment gap

Copeland’s SPOT is one of them. While the team is small, its very mission is to boost the employment of Canadians by connecting them with jobs they might not have otherwise have had.

Copeland was inspired to create SPOT while working as a lawyer for the Ministry of Community and Social Services. When he learned that only 10 per cent of individuals in the Ontario Works program reintegrate back into the workforce, he began brainstorming how to increase that number.

He also learned that the vocational service organizations that help marginalized Canadians find work are only funded based on offering work opportunities that are a minimum of 26 hours per week. With no incentive to promote jobs that fall short of 26 hours - for example, a 12-hour shift in a retail warehouse - he realized there was a need to connect on-demand workers with on-demand labour opportunities.

So, Copeland and Perlman, who, as director of store operations at Jean Machine, has experienced staffing challenges himself, joined forces to come up with SPOT - an app that connects those looking for work with immediate employment.

The platform offers the opportunity for employers to rate workers based on their reliability, along with the chance for workers to develop new skills to increase their hireability - for both the short- and long-term.

“Unlike other gig economy apps, our app is designed to be deleted,” he said, explaining that if an employer is pleased with a worker and wants to on-board them permanently, they can hire them “on the SPOT”, since the app doesn’t charge poaching fees.

“There's an app for dating, there's an app for food, so why isn’t there an app to help people earn money, continuously learn and find permanent work?” said Copeland, adding, “I truly believe that technology has a huge capacity to really improve the life of all Canadians.”

Big fish, small pond

He notes that building the app and growing the company from Innisfil comes with plenty of benefits.

For one, he says it’s easier to forge connections and relationships with the local business community. 

“You wouldn’t be able to achieve that so easily in a bigger city,” he said.

For example, he recalls a moment during one of his first weeks in the incubator when Khanjin and other members of the Innisfil council were visiting the DMZ space.

“I thought that was exceptionally cool because, you know, we really want to get our message across politically. We’re an enterprise and we're trying to secure funding for our company,” he said. “You just wouldn't get that in the city of Toronto - you don't have MPPs hanging around like that.”

Copeland also said when a business needs a helping hand, it’s easier to access that support.

“There’s a certain level of intimacy here that you just don’t have in Toronto,” he said. “The fact that you can ask and receive within a matter of days - in bigger cities, it’s a matter of months.”

“It’s like everyone’s your neighbour and is willing to help you… It doesn’t have that competitive big-city feel.”

Daniel Copeland, co-founder of SPOT

On the flipside, he also said it’s just as easy to tap into a larger network when needed.

“As a founder, it can get very stressful and lonely. But, to know you have other companies around you, who are also in the same position is very comforting,” he said, referring to not only the other startups located in Innisfil but the businesses in DMZ’s larger ecosystem.

Plus, he says, being located in Innisfil doesn’t mean business is isolated to it.

“You can start a business here and still operate across the province,” he said.

Noting that he’s at a stage in life where he doesn’t desire the hustle and bustle of big city life, he adds, “I get up in the morning, and I’m in my office within seven minutes. I don’t have to see one traffic light. There’s no honking, no cramming into a subway station. It’s the greatest thing in the world.”

GovTech Accelerator program

Stegink says that allure is only going to grow as the pandemic continues and more and more people seek out a small-town lifestyle with big-city benefits.

As such, he says the town’s partnership with the DMZ is set to grow further. In early 2021, they’re pairing up to launch the GovTech Accelerator program, aimed at attracting and supporting startups building technology solutions for local government. 

“The GovTech accelerator program will position Innisfil as a leader in the Canadian government tech sector and create opportunities for the town to partner with startups to drive innovation,” he said.

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