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BlackBerry started our forest

A friend of mine posted this article on my Facebook wall yesterday: “A Snowier Silicon Valley in BlackBerry’s Backyard.

It essentially talks about the fact that despite the rapid decline of BlackBerry (it just reported $4.4 billion in losses), the Kitchener-Waterloo region is thriving. Many companies—both local and international, such as Google and Motorola, Square, Desire2Learn, Kik and others—have all hung their shingle in the area. 

Part of this certainly has to do with the University of Waterloo, but much of it also has to do with the legacy of BlackBerry. In fact, you could argue that BlackBerry (formerly Research in Motion) is what started at all.

In reading the New York Times article I was reminded of a post that Fred Wilson wrote last year called, “The Darwinian Evolution of Startup Hubs.” It’s a great post. In it he talks about how he looks for the company that gave birth to the hub. In Silicon Valley he argues that it was Fairchild Semiconductor and in New York it was Doubleclick.

Once started, he likens the hub to a growing forest. The big trees (mature companies) start dropping seeds and new trees then start to grow (more startup companies). This is important, because it kick-starts a non-linear cycle of entrepreneurial growth.

Here’s how he maps out Silicon Valley:

“In my mental model of Silicon Valley, the first “tree” was Fairchild Semiconductor (founded in 1957) which begat Intel (founded 1968) which begat Apple (1976) and Oracle (1977), which begat Sun (1982), Silicon Graphics (1981), and Cisco (1984) which begat Siebel (1993) and Netscape (1994), which begat Yahoo! (1995) and eBay (1995), which begat Google (1998) and PayPal (1998), which begat YouTube (2005), Facebook (2004), and LinkedIn (2003) which begat Twitter (2006) and Zynga (2007), which begat Square (2010), Dropbox (2008), and many more.”

Using this logic, Fred Wilson argues that Silicon Valley is about 10 cycles in and New York is at about 2. So what about Kitchener-Waterloo? Well if you buy into the argument that BlackBerry is what started it all, we’re really only into our first cycle. BlackBerry created a lot of wealth and talent, and now it’s being deployed into local startups. Our forest has begun.

Part of me worries, though, if Kitchener-Waterloo is the right place for a startup hub over the long term. Sure it has the University of Waterloo, but does young talent want to be there? At about 320,000 people, it’s no San Francisco, New York or Toronto. And we’re already seeing a significant pull towards urban centers.

But let’s look at it from the perspective of Southern Ontario as a whole. We’re at a critical moment in our evolution. The mother tree has caught a disease and it’s starting to take its toll. It may be able to fight it off, but right now it’s not looking promising. Thankfully, there are many young trees sprouting up to replace it. But we’re going to need to take special care of them, because they’re probably our best shot at creating our own thriving forest.

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