How Ex-RIM Employees Are Fueling Ontario's Startup Scene
Research in Motion, maker of the once-treasured but now beleaguered BlackBerry, is in trouble. RIM cut 5,000 jobs -- 30% of its workforce -- this past summer. Its most recent earnings report beat expectations but still isn't much to celebrate, as subscriber numbers are down and the report shows nearly a 50% drop off in sales since the same quarter last year.
RIM's only hope -- its Luke Skywalker -- lies in BlackBerry 10, which may or may not succeed against the mobile OS behemoths that are Apple's iOS and Google's Android platforms.
But even if BlackBerry 10 fails and RIM goes the way of the dinosaur, there's a silver lining for Ontario, Canada, the province it calls home: Ex-RIM employees are taking their resources and know-how to the local startup community.
Kalu Kalu is a former RIM employee who left the company this year to found MyShoebox, a photo-backup solution. While at RIM, he worked on the prototype team, which he said is responsible for looking at “new ideas and new products that were not necessarily part of the traditional product roadmap."
“There was a culture there at the time where you could -- even as a student –- there was the ability for you to come in and build and develop innovative ideas," said Kalu. "I had the opportunity to present some of the ideas that I worked on to the executives, to product managers. For the longest time, I really enjoyed that aspect. It was almost kind of like a startup within a larger company.
But then, with some of the changes –- like the organizational changes -- it became a bit harder to pursue ideas that were more ambitious.”
Ultimately, Kalu decided it was best to strike out on his own.
“To try and deliver a brand new product is very, very difficult, so it ultimately came down to [that] I felt like I wanted to sort of pursue something on my own, and actually try to build something and help keep cultivating and innovating in Canada, [in] Toronto.”
Stories like Kalu's are found across the Ontario startup community.
"We're seeing a lot of the RIM talent doing startups," said Steve Currie, coach and mentor at Ontario's CommuniTech, a non-profit and tech incubator. "We've had a number of the displaced RIM folks come in and work as mentors and coaches on a volunteer basis as well for our startup community. We're seeing them engage in a bunch of different ways. Many of the former RIM folks want to stay in the region, there's a lot going on in the tech community here so there are opportunities."
Krista Jones, practice lead at Toronto-based incubator MaRS, agreed that ex-RIM employees are having a big impact in the local tech-startup community.
"Most people from RIM, what they do as they leave is go back into the startup community," said Jones. "
You see former RIM employees all over the place either as founders or as employees in the startup scene, which has been great for the startup community in Ontario."
RIM's former talent may be staying in Ontario for a wealth of reasons: ties to the area or a desire to be a part of the booming tech-startup culture, for instance. But it's not an entirely organic phenomenon: Ontario's Minister of Economic Development and Innovation, Brad Duguid, is doing everything in his power to ensure former RIM talent stays in Ontario.
"RIM is a company built on innovation, and they're innovating every single day," said Duguid, who's more optimistic than most about RIM's prospects. "They have incredible talent. They recognized the position they're in, they're transforming their company and I think people are going to be pleasantly surprised as RIM goes through that transformation.
"That being said, they've had to shed some talent," he added. "Our goal has been to ensure that talent continues to participate in our [technology] sector. We've been successful with companies like OpenText. We've also been successful at funneling a number of those workers through business-startup opportunities like CommuniTech, where they've taken ideas and talent that have evolved from what RIM has provided to create new ventures."
Janet Ecker, president of the Toronto Financial Services Alliance, offered a similar sentiment.
"RIM's success was a role model," she said. "They're a household name. I think that has motivated [Ontario] and they themselves have re-invested in the community. [RIM]'s investments and the infrastructure and the cluster they have built will succeed regardless of what happens to RIM. I think they've built something there that will continue regardless of what happens to the company."
Will RIM survive? If it fails, what will rise from its ashes?
December 24, 2012