Toronto becoming hub for mobile apps companies
Polar Mobile Group's office feels like a typical Silicon Valley start-up. Employees wear the requisite jeans and t-shirts. A Mr. Potato Head doll rests on the ledge of one open-concept office. White boards abound, as groups of 20-somethings huddle around computers tweaking software that delivers CNN Money, Time and other tier-one news feeds to the BlackBerry and iPhone.
Only, Polar Mobile isn't in Silicon Valley. It's in Toronto. Conservative, cold, conventional Toronto -- which is home to one of the world's biggest clusters of mobile-application companies this side of Silicon Valley.
"It's very much a hotbed," said Michele Perras, director of the Mobile Experience Innovation Centre, a non-profit mobile-apps research and consulting organization. Perras estimates there are 200 mobile-apps-development companies in the greater Toronto Area, while another 750 GTA companies now have mobile-content offerings.
Proximity to several schools with world class computer-science and design programs, such as the University of Waterloo and the Ontario College of Art & Design, is one reason for Toronto's emergence as a mobile-apps hub. Availability of public and private-sector funding is another, as is access to entrepreneurs and engineers who cut their teeth working at or with Blackberry maker Research In Motion Ltd.(RIMM), whose headquarters are just one hour west of Toronto in Waterloo, Ont.
"When RIM is in your community and you get a chance to work with them at an early stage in your career, it opens up a world of possibility in terms of understanding what you can do with smartphones," said Marlon Rodrigues, a University of Waterloo alumnus who worked at RIM on a student-placement program before co-founding Polar.
Before moving to its current location, Polar shared a Toronto office with Extreme Venture Partners, an apps incubator that helped pioneer the mobile apps scene in Toronto. Founded in 2008, Extreme has invested in 15 apps companies so far, most in the greater Toronto Area. One of those firms, BumpTop, was acquired by Google Inc., earlier this year. Another, J2Play, was bought by Electronic Arts in 2009.