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Alberta’s newest startup accelerator

Posted on: March 10, 2017 | Author: Lana Cuthbertson

When we say ‘incubator’ and ‘accelerator,’ many of us think about Silicon Valley’s Y Combinator, which birthed tech giants like Airbnb, Dropbox and Reddit. That accelerator provided a template for how startups can grow into big companies.

In Alberta, there’s a new startup accelerator on the block. And it was started by a financial institution.

It’s called ATB X, and it was started by ATB Financial.

ATB X Thomas Grenier classroom

Thomas Grenier, founder of Vagabond Tiny Homes, a new business that builds 300 square foot homes for people who want a more minimalist lifestyle, participated in the first cohort of ATB X, Alberta’s newest startup accelerator.

“I was stoked about living less, rather than more, so to speak,” Grenier said of his idea to build really (like, really) small homes for Calgarians.

His first foray into making his dream a reality has been hard.

“I went into an appointment with another bank with a 140-page business plan that I had written over many evenings after working full-time on my master’s degree. This meeting was rather discouraging,” Grenier said.

“I present this well-researched, extremely time intensive business plan, and the lending agent did not even open it. Instead, she asked a series of condescending questions with a heavy insinuation that I was too young—I was 26—and too naive to think that my company could actually be successful.”

Entrepreneurs often face these kinds of barriers when they first start a business, said Tanya Kroeker, managing director of entrepreneurship strategy at ATB Financial. So for new businesses to even get off the ground, they often need help. That help, these days, often comes from a startup accelerator, and that’s why her team started ATB X.

“We decided we’d choose a wide range of different companies to bring together in this accelerator program, rather than focus on a specific industry,” Kroeker said.

“We really felt like we could use our network and help these businesses come in and move the needle.”

“We’re helping them get to where they can go out and become a sustainable business. So we’re picking them at that market fit stage, but focusing on how we help them move further in their business.”

ATB X Chalkboard design

Startup accelerators evolved from startup incubators and have risen almost as fast as startups themselves. Tips for entrepreneurs around which one to pick and at what stage to participate abound. And there are other accelerators in Alberta. But ATB X is different, Kroeker says, because ATB is a financial institution running its own accelerator, and you don’t usually see that.

“It’s disruptive because there’s no hidden reason why we’re doing this. We just want to help entrepreneurs, we want to be the bank for entrepreneurs, we want to really make a difference,” Kroeker said.

“A lot of other banks will throw money at other accelerator programs, but they’re not developing their own, and using their own network and putting their time and resources into it to build these companies from the ground up,” she said.

“A lot of what we’re doing at ATB X is listening to the entrepreneurs and getting them to tell us what’s valuable to them.”

ATB X is organized around three value propositions: curriculum, connections and community. It provides 20 Alberta startups with mentorship, education and resources over a 14 week period, as well as dedicated office space. Business experts from ATB and the Alberta business community, including experienced entrepreneurs, participate as educators and mentors for the startups. The first cohort finished up in January, and the second cohort started in February.

“All I really heard when one of my advisors at ATB pitched ATB X to me was, ‘free office.’ So I went, well, sure, why not?” Grenier said.

But the program ended up being much more than just office space.

“The most useful thing was the affirmation that came from the program. Brushing shoulders with a lot of these other innovative startups in Alberta gave me a sense of camaraderie and purpose,” Grenier said.

“It gave me the first steps towards feeling like a legitimate enterprise.”

Grenier is now finished his time with ATB X and is continuing to grow his business. As it turns out, there’s a growing demand for tiny homes in Calgary, despite Alberta’s reputation as a fairly traditional place to live.

“This morning I woke up, and I was like, oh my God, there are so many things I’m looking at, like schematics for solar panels and things like that. Ugh. Just, like, ugh. But an hour later, I’m like, yes, alright, sweet, I’m excited. Let’s do this!”

“If ATB hadn’t given me a chance, I would probably have called it a day and went and found a real job. And that wouldn’t have been the worst thing ever, but I’m really glad to have had the opportunity to try something else.”


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