How Stratford, Ontario, is luring global startups with its smart-city plan

Known for its renowned Shakespeare festival, this city of 32,000 is also making a name for itself as a technology hub

Startups to Watch: Stratford

The Digital Media Lab at the University of Waterloo’s Stratford, Ont., campus

The Digital Media Lab at the University of Waterloo’s Stratford, Ont., campus. (ZAS Architects)

As Silicon Valley North, Kitchener-Waterloo get all the attention. And rightfully so—with nearly 2,000 startups founded and almost a billion dollars in investment generated in the past five years alone, the twin Ontario towns are together a veritable innovation locomotive.

But just 40 minutes west down Highway 8, the town of Stratford, Ont. is making its own waves. Known for its annual theatre festival, Stratford—with a population of just 32,000—is also taking strides toward becoming a global-facing, future-thinking technology hub.

There’s the municipally-owned fibre broadband network and free city-wide wi-fi, built in 2011. There’s the digital media centre at the University of Waterloo satellite campus, founded in 2009. There’s the data centre opened by RBC in 2012. There’s the Stratford Accelerator Centre, a startup incubator that began operations in 2014.

Most recently, Stratford this year became the first Canadian city to test self-driving cars—a feat made possible by all that free wi-fi.

Put it all together and it’s no wonder the town routinely makes the Intelligent Community Forum’s list of the world’s smartest cities.

It’s also why I’m shining the spotlight this week on some of the startup companies emanating from Stratford. While the town doesn’t have the volume of tech startups that Kitchener-Waterloo does, it has no shortage of ideas. And its reputation as a smart city is starting to precede it.

Michael Eales is an Australian moving to Stratford this summer. He’s not looking for an acting job—rather, he’s opening the first Canadian chapter of Business Models Inc., a Netherlands-based strategy and design consultancy.

With offices in the U.K., U.S., Australia, Turkey and Taiwan, the company helps small enterprises design business plans and strategies. For Stratford, it’s another piece of the puzzle for launching successful startups.

Eales says the decision to choose the Ontario town was a no-brainer after a recent workshop there. He was impressed by the various projects pulled off by the town’s government, such as the broadband network and self-driving car experiments.

“It puts the city in a unique position globally to control its destiny,” he says. “It’s not as common as it should be in the world.”

Eales, who will split time between his native Brisbane and Stratford, is also looking to build bridges with Springfield, a similar-sized town in Australia.

Springfield is a master-planned town, meaning it was built from the ground up as a future-facing community. Like Stratford, Springfield is specializing in testing self-driving cars and experimenting with the future of entertainment. Eaves believes the two towns can share experiences and best practices as they go forward.

He’s not coming alone, though. Sarah Mak and David Lloyd-Lewis are expanding their Brisbane-based digital production company The Story Boxes to Stratford as well. The duo will be sharing office space with Business Models Inc. as they seek out local clients.

The Story Boxes has produced videos for various non-profit organizations, as well as corporate clients such as Mack Trucks. The company also counts the Canadian Consulate in Australia as a customer, having done a video encouraging working vacation visas for young travellers.

The decision to expand to Stratford was also a no-brainer for Mak, who is originally from Mississauga, Ont., and Lloyd-Lewis, a native Australian.

“It’s not just this place where you go for high-school drama excursions,” Lloyd-Lewis says. “There’s some serious stuff happening in the corridor.”