Govlaunch Podcast

Innisfil adopts startup principles to drive local government innovation

Episode Summary

Beyond attracting startups to the community through a newly launched tech accelerator, the Town of Innisfil, ON is embracing startup thinking and culture internally, to make local government more efficient. This includes using problem- and solution-validation, and building momentum for change by focusing on small wins. We'll catch up with Dan Taylor and Jelmer Stegink to talk about how local governments can shift their approach to problem solving.

Episode Notes

Beyond attracting startups to the community through a newly launched tech accelerator, the Town of Innisfil, ON is embracing startup thinking and culture internally, to make local government more efficient. This includes using problem- and solution-validation, and building momentum for change by focusing on small wins. We'll catch up with Dan Taylor and Jelmer Stegink to talk about how local governments can shift their approach to problem solving.

More info:

Featured government: Innisfil, ON

Episode guests: Dan Taylor, Economic Development Catalyst at Town of Innisfil, & Jelmer Stegink, Investment Accelerator at Town of Innisfil

Read more about how Innisfil is using lean startup methodology to manage and drive innovation.

Visit for more stories and examples of local government innovation.

Episode Transcription

Lindsay (00:05):

Welcome to the Govlaunch podcast. Govlaunch is the wiki for local government innovation and on this podcast, we're sharing the stories of local government innovators and their efforts to build smarter governments. I'm Lindsay Pica-Alfano, co-founder of Govlaunch and your host.

In this episode, we're exploring how a local government can go beyond working with startups to actually start thinking and acting like a startup itself. Today, Jess from our team is talking to Dan Taylor and Jelmer Stegink from the Town of Innisfil, Ontario who are working to transform the community into a technology hub. 

For a small town, Innisfil has been able to do some pretty big things. They've installed Uber as the primary transit system and created an accelerator to lure startups from cities to its lakefront lifestyle. And there are even bigger things to come. So how does a town of only about 36,000 execute such ambitious plans? And how can other small to medium sized cities do the same? Let's hear more about Innisfil startup-like culture and problem-solving approach.

Jess (01:12):

I'm Jess from Govlaunch and I'm here with Dan Taylor and Jelmer Stegink from Innisfil, Ontario. Dan and Jelmer, tell me about your roles.


My name is Dan Taylor and I'm the Economic Development Catalyst for the Town of Innisfil. And basically I head up the department and drive strategy and work with our team to achieve our economic development goals.

Jelmer (01:39):

My name is Jelmer Stegink and I'm the Investment Accelerator for the Town of Innisfil and my role is focused on establishing a local tech cluster, attracting startups to Innisfil and transforming our local economy.

Jess (01:51):

So how are things in Innisfil today?

Dan (01:54):

Well they're pretty exciting. Our niche, if you will, is that we're a small municipality and we're nimble. And so really our claim to fame for ourselves within our staff and within the community is that we can literally turn things on a dime and affect change a lot quicker than a typical government. And we've just launched an accelerator, which is extremely exciting and we'd be happy to talk to you more about that as well.

Jelmer (02:26):

So we publicly launched our partnership with DMZ and our startup accelerator last week. It's been a long road getting there. COVID obviously delayed things a little bit, but we're stoked to be publicly out in the market and the launch happened at the same time as us onboarding the first startups. So we have eight startups in our program right now and there are five onboarding and then the public launch has created some more awareness around the program, and we're getting more registrations coming in. So it's been a lot of fun, busy and we're kind of truly building a runway as the plane is taking off.

Jess (03:03):

That's so exciting. What type of startups is it? Any sort of sector specific or across the board?

Jelmer (03:09):

So the program we have right now is technology focused. So we're stage specific, but sector agnostic, and it ranges. It's mostly software and ranges all the way from focusing on agriculture, to human resources, and then some early stage govtech companies, startups as well.

Jess (03:28):

And these folks will come and live in Innisfil for a year and build their company there?

Jelmer (03:33):

Yeah, so we have an accelerator hub where the companies will work out of. So it'll bring their business to Innisfil and ideally also move to Innisfil, but some founders live close by enough to commute in and others are moving up from the city to enjoy the lifestyle that we have to offer in conjunction with the new startup support.

Jess (03:53):

So one of the things I think is so interesting is, you're bringing these startups to Innisfil, but you also, as a local government sort of have a startup mentality. Dan, you mentioned that you're nimble. How would you describe your approach to kind of problem solving within local government?

Dan (04:09):

Sure. So, when I first joined the Town of Innisfil, when I described it, basically, I said, “we're more like Google than government”. We literally have an innovation portal which had, you know, a ping pong table and that kind of stuff. So I mean it’s really from the top down, meaning our CAO, our leader, is young and innovative and a creative thinker.  I believe he inherited some innovative thinking as a philosophy. And so we look to solve problems and we look to solve them creatively. 

You know, a few simple examples is we're a huge geography and public transit is difficult and expensive. And we corporately did some brainstorming and said, you know, what if we started exploring ride sharing? And that led to a relationship with Uber, where we are the first rural transit system, that basically is all Uber driven. That also created employment and it assisted people getting to work as well as the other, you know, obvious things with transit.

I believe we were the first municipality in Canada to accept Bitcoin as a way to pay taxes. We use parking apps to help solve parking problems and we could go on and on. And the accelerator that we just talked about is the same idea. Our municipality said, we would like to get more beyond facilitation, which is typically what an economic development group does. We want to be hands on and we want to make things happen and literally accelerate our economy. So, we're punching above our weight in terms of commitment and then the result is we're punching above our weight in terms of getting some great stuff going on. So yeah, we think like a startup, we act like a startup. We're very entrepreneurial and we have a philosophy we're not afraid to fail.

So that is probably a bit unique in government. It's not that we don't take risks, we weigh risks, etc, but there is a high tolerance for trying things succeeding or failing and if we fail and move on and go on to the next one.


How would you if there is another local government that wants to adopt more of a startup like approach to how they tackle problems or just manage their projects, what can they do? 


I think it comes down to goals and leadership. So if your goals are as a municipality that you want to rethink how government works, that's where it starts. And then leadership, I mentioned our CAO, but our CAO reports to council, and ultimately the council makes the decision. So you need both your senior administration (ultimately you need your entire org, because people do need to get aligned) and you need your elected officials to be on the same page. But I think it starts with a goal, right? Do you want to reinvent government and now be like a startup or entrepreneurial?

Jelmer (07:40):

Yeah. And totally agreeing with what Dan said. I think the other thing is really spending time on validating problems, right? As a municipality, like any other business, we're faced with challenges and problems, and there is kind of the typical municipal way to go about it. I think Innisfil is particularly good at spending the time to dive in and validate the problem. 

Another example is the big orbit project that we recently launched. We're located close to Toronto. The greater Toronto area is growing a lot. We're a small rural municipality with a lot of land. So we're kind of the next layer of growth in the greater Toronto area. We're slotted to receive a lot of growth over the next couple of years. Our residents would love Innisfil to stay small and rural. So how do we accommodate significant growth without losing the character the town has today? And that's an opportunity that we took to think outside of the box and develop the orbit project, which essentially is building a mini city in Innisfil that is a city of tomorrow, surrounding a train station where people can live and work and be connected to the city while living in Innisfil and still enjoying a rural lifestyle in a modern way.

Jess (08:56):

So you mentioned problem validation. How does one go about sort of validating a problem that's in front of them?

Jelmer (09:04):

I don't think there is a defined model for it at this point. I think there could be. We are using, you know, lean startup methodology kind of as a framework to work through problems. But I wouldn't say that we have developed a secret sauce. I think it's just a commitment, like Dan said, to thinking differently, wanting to innovate and then giving enough freedom to staff to really dive in and give them the time to essentially validate the problem and come up with creative solutions.

Jess (09:36):

Just changing gears quickly.  I'd love to hear more about where you get some of the inspiration for the transformation that you're driving or your ideas. Are there any outside sources you use for ideas or inspiration?

Dan (09:50):

That's a good question. I mean, Jelmer was talking about the orbit, for example. So we had met an architectural firm out of Toronto that's like out there, they do quite creative things. And so when we were deciding as a government looking to build a transit oriented hub and city, we invited them to participate. Well, we invited them to pitch in an RFP process that ultimately they won. And it's interesting because the runner up had a much greater depth of transit, building communities, but it was, let's just call it standard. So there's nothing wrong with that, but it was standard and we were looking for different. So that's an example where we align ourselves with folks like that. 

Again, our CAO holds regular leadership meetings and we bring in outside experts and thinkers. Just last week or the week before we had a PhD do an hour talk to our staff about stress management and anxiety and all these things. So there's a couple examples. I guess maybe Jelmer can talk about, I mean, we've partnered with Ryerson DMZ. So we were going to do our own acceleration because of budget and some other silly, practical things. And we managed to really land the big one. And why don't you share who DMZ is because that's another great example I think.

Jelmer (11:38):

We set off to build a tech accelerator, to attract tech startups to our community and to start transforming our economy. Right now about 82% of our residents leave to work somewhere else and council wants to develop our community and our economy to develop a more connected community. We looked at who, or what creates jobs in Ontario and 85% of all net job gain over the last 10 years was driven by companies younger than five years. So startups. If you look in that sector, particularly who or what generates jobs and where the biggest growth is, tech is booming in Toronto. The tech sector in Toronto, between from 2018 to 2019, grew with 18%, which is very, very significant. So as the Town of Innisfil, we want to establish a local tech cluster to start taking advantage of that growth. 

To be able to do that, we need to develop our tech startup ecosystem to make Innisfil a great place to start, launch and build tech companies. As we ventured into that journey, pretty soon we mapped our ecosystem and we figured out we need an accelerator to be able to really get closer to the startups and provide them with support to help them succeed. 

Initially we started building our own tech accelerator and although we got some early traction with that, we quickly learned that it's a lot of work involved in building something from scratch, not unlike a startup. At the same time, as we were launching our own programs, we looked at a market and essentially tried to find a partner that aligned values, and that was able to provide us with the support we need to support our startups. So we landed on partnering with the DMZ. 

The DMZ is the number one ranked university link tech accelerator in the world. They are connected with Ryerson University, which is one of the leading universities in Toronto. And they have been around for over 12 years. They have accelerated 500 plus companies who've collectively raised over $750 million and created over 4,000 jobs. So they've done exactly what we tried to build and partnering with them really enables us to make a quantum leap forward in terms of the support we're able to provide, the brand we have with our program, the type of startups we're able to do to attract. So it's been absolutely incredible and we're seeing great traction very early on.

Jess (14:00):

That's awesome. You guys have done so many sort of outside the box projects and kind of creative thinking to solve the problems that you're facing in Innisfil. Is there anything you've tried that hasn't worked?

Jelmer (14:14):

Plenty. I mean at the cost of innovating and finding things that work, hitting small things that don't work, that's part of the process. I think our team and our town we're particularly good at pivoting, like trying something, learning, looking at the facts, how do we develop from here? An example for us in our team, we started applying the accelerator model. So creating a cohort based program for smaller, earlier stage businesses that are not necessarily startups, more local, small businesses. And although we got a little bit of direction there, it didn't really work the way we hoped it would, it didn't have the impact that we'd hoped it would. But we learned a lot in that first trial and that helped us find the focus to pivot towards more scalable tech companies, which led us on the path to where we are today.

Another example is as COVID hit, we spent a significant amount of time to get closer to our local businesses and figuring out how we can help them. There's a tremendous amount of things that did work really well. The one thing that didn't work in the end or didn't work in the way we were envisioning it was launching a marketplace. We are launching a marketplace. It's more of a directory style. We're connecting local shoppers to local web stores, but the full-on managed marketplace ended up just not working in the model we were pursuing. So there's many small examples like that. Maybe Dan has a couple larger impact ones.

Dan (15:45):

The Bitcoin scenario, that is managed through an organization called coin bearing. And there was interest in perhaps our municipality taking an investment position as they were going to grow, etc. And I think that was just too advanced a concept for our council. They said if you could find other partners, we might be open to that. And surprise, surprise, no one was biting in terms of other partners. That would have been a significant investment and a significant risk. So like we said, we don't mind failing, we don't mind taking risks, but at the end of the day, there's some level of a managed risk tolerance that we still factor in.

Jess (16:39):

Yeah, definitely. That makes a lot of sense. Obviously failure is a part of innovation, as you said, Jelmer. I think some local governments are rightfully averse to failure because there's so much accountability to the citizens and everyone, but I think you see when people do take the smaller risks, all the learning that comes out of that. So it's really great advice. What is something that excites you about the future of Innisfil?

Dan (17:12):

I suspect Jelmer is the same as me. Our team is quite entrepreneurial at heart and we're creating things. Well actually we envision, and then we execute and create and then there's results. What's really exciting is there was no reason a year, year and a half ago to be a startup in Innisfil. We set out to build the foundation and the infrastructure. We're doing that, it's happening. 

So I think what's really exciting is two or three years down the road is to look and see who's in our community, what kind of business activity, what kind of buzz, what kind of real ecosystem. You know, how are we doing connecting investors with the startups? Do they stay? And do we become like a magnet or where you create critical mass and it perpetuates? So, I mean that's just one thing. 

There's a couple others as well. Jelmer was mentioning the orbit. Can you imagine we are literally going to build kind of a Jetsons-like, but the more based on reality city, based on transit, walkability, new technologies, linkages to the city, with cultural amenities, animated spaces. I mean, it's not every day, you get to a chance to work on building a new city from scratch. So those are, those are a couple of exciting things.

Jelmer (18:48):

Totally. For me, I'm really excited about govtech. I know it's not the most obvious tech sector to be excited about, but as we launch the accelerator and as we further discover our value proposition, we feel that Innisfil has the opportunity to become a leader in driving govtech innovation in Canada. We're working on developing a govtech accelerator program. You have three early stage govtech startups in our program right now that are working with the town on pilots to help us solve problems through technology. And I really feel that the concept of a municipality as a platform and providing problem validation and solution validation to early stage startups, to make sure that they build the tools that municipal government needs to innovate and modernize is something that I'm very passionate about and super grateful to have the opportunity to work in that over next couple of months and years.

Jess (19:41):

Yeah, I totally agree. I mean, we at Govlaunch obviously are following the govtech space incredibly closely being part of it. And it's so exciting to see all these new products and new startups that are coming out to solve these local government problems and people who are so passionate like you are so just super exciting. 

Well, thank you, both Dan and Jelmer.  Thanks so much for the time and for sharing everything that you're doing in Innisfil. Really, really excited to see sort of how the accelerator takes off and everything, you know, the orbit and, and just as your city is going to kind of grow and transform. So thank you so much for joining us today.

Dan (20:20):

Thank you. It's been awesome. 

Jelmer (20:21):

Thanks for having us.

Lindsay (20:22):

Embracing a startup mentality has allowed Innisfil to accomplish some really incredible things. It's a great example that you don't have to be a large, heavily resourced government to launch a big initiative. In fact, the smaller you are, the more nimble your team can be. Big thank you to Dan Taylor and Jelmer Stegink of Innisfil for sharing their innovative work and way of thinking. 

I'm Lindsay Pica-Alfano. And this podcast was produced by Govlaunch, the wiki for local government innovation. You can subscribe to hear more stories like this, wherever you get your podcasts. If you're a local government innovator, we hope you'll help us on our mission to build the largest free resource for local governments globally. You can join to search and contribute to the wiki at Thanks for tuning in. We hope to see you next time on the Govlaunch podcast.