Failure to launch, and launch-in-progress



(Michael Mann, chief executive officer of Launch Labs, speaks to city council's economic development

and planning committee in February.)


Sometimes the good news peeps out, briefly, through the cracks in the bad news.

Such was the case earlier this week, when, amid the gloom of regional economic development's failure to launch, city economic development director Dave Paul mentioned Launch Labs was already helping four local clients.

It was a brief glimmer of economic development actually happening amid the darkness of it mostly failing to happen. When you peeked a little closer at this glimmer, you realized it got even better: Launch Lab says it is dealing with six local companies, not four.

This is an occasion for cautious optimism.

I say cautious, because it's always important to be careful with business incubators.

And clearly, city council has been careful.

In September 2012, council opted not to support a request for $70,000 by the Leeds and Grenville Technology Centre (LGTC), a non-profit organization seeking leverage funding to form a business training and mentorship centre.

That was the plan frequent city hall critic Colin Williams famously called “a pig in a poke.”

It was an ungenerous and unfair comment; LGTC were well-intentioned and not con men. Councillors were not worried they were getting a pig in a poke, but rather another EASTCAT – an institutional mechanism that promised to generate jobs and investment when one read the specifications, but somehow failed to produce after one flipped the switch.

The trouble with business incubators, mentorship centres, innovation centres – whatever name one gives them – is they need money to operate. And once they are operational, the work they do is, by its very nature, hit-and-miss, with more misses than hits.

It is, nonetheless, important work.

Great businesses sell great products, and often great products cannot even be invented without great amounts of research, or at the very least trial and error.

If there's a publicly-funded mechanism in place to absorb the financial risks of such trials and errors, and if the public is willing to stick to it long enough, the potential reward is a start-up company creating jobs, or an existing company adding jobs for a new product line.

It's important, in the context of the ongoing provincial election, not to confuse this kind of support for innovation with the “corporate welfare” Tim Hudak's Progressive Conservatives are so keen on wiping out.

The difficulty is in finding the right kind of incubator, with the right structure in place and the right level of accountability.

Clearly, in the matter of the LGTC, councillors felt there was not enough information forthcoming to justify a $70,000 ask.

Launch Lab, by contrast, followed a more promising tack: not asking for money up front, only mentioning a possible municipal ask in the future, if the demand warrants it.

More importantly, they went off and started working, delivering, if not results, then at least the promise of results.

Not bad for the first few months.

Launch Lab is, of course, still paid for by our taxes, only at the provincial and federal levels.

Any new regional economic development corporation, by contrast, will likely be propped up by municipal tax dollars.

It may be we will need both of these, working hand-in-hand, to kick-start local economic development to the level we have wanted over the past decade.

If so, it is encouraging to see at least one of those hands already at work.