A brain drain? Not at the DMZ

When the American futurist writer Juan Enriquez came to Toronto last spring to speak at a health symposium, he presented the audience — a group of high-powered scientists, bio-tech researchers, and entrepreneurs — with a question.

“What do the smartest people in Canada do? Where do they go?”

The implied answer was along the lines of: “They go to the United States.” And it’s an answer that makes sense when you consider where the biggest stories in tech have happened in the past half-decade.

After all, where is Canada’s Google? Canada’s Twitter? Who’s making Canada’s Instagram, and getting bought out for $1 billion by Canada’s Facebook?

But it’s also an answer that doesn’t tell the whole story. The truth is that innovation in this country is alive and well. In fact, if Enriquez wanted to find out where all the Canadian innovators are, all he had to do was come to Ryerson.

By now it’s no secret that the DMZ (Digital Media Zone) is the hottest place on campus. A startup incubator and workspace, the DMZ takes in young Canadian entrepreneurs and provides them with the resources and mentorship they need to turn their ideas into sustainable businesses.

It’s also one of the biggest success stories in our school’s recent history — just ask Justin Trudeau.

During his campaign stop on campus last week, the Liberal leader praised Ryerson students for their world-changing energy and singled out the DMZ as a program “anchored in the real world.” He also visited the DMZ in March.

the DMZ isn’t just Ryerson’s most important asset — it’s also an investment in the future of critical Canadian industries.

Since its creation only a few years ago, the DMZ has launched dozens of companies and created hundreds of jobs. Companies that had their start at the DMZ have gone on to become profitable and internationally acclaimed.

There’s 500px, the social networking site for photographers that had 1.5 million users by 2012 and is one of the most popular free apps in the App Store.

And promising new ventures are coming out all the time, like Figure 1, a medical image-sharing app that’s been billed as “Instagram for doctors.” It’s only a matter of time before we see something on the level of Facebook — time, and the continued investment and support of businesses and politicians.

That’s why it’s no surprise that Trudeau is paying attention to what’s going on in the DMZ. And he’s not the only one: NDP leader Thomas Mulcair also visited the DMZ in May. Our politicians are wising up to the fact that the DMZ isn’t just Ryerson’s most important asset — it’s also an investment in the future of critical Canadian industries: tech, science, health. The list goes on.

The fortunes of a country of more than 30 million people depend on more than just a handful of student-run startups.

But if recent history has taught us anything, it’s that a dozen kids with computers can and do have what it takes to change the world. And the more incentives they have to stay and work in Canada, the better off we’ll be.

This story was first published in The Ryersonian, a weekly newspaper produced by the Ryerson School of Journalism, on September 25, 2013.

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