Heri Rakatomalala, Greg Whiteside and Ilias Benjelloun sit around piping hot pizzas fresh out of the oven at Rue Du Square Phillips’ Il Focolaio, reminiscing after nearly six years of running Montreal NewTech.
Montreal NewTech is a non-profit organization dedicated to the success of Montréal startup entrepreneurs, and each one of the trio has, at one point or another in the event’s evolution, led the charge. Benjelloun now serves as its current creative director.
Every first Tuesday of the month since 2008, Montreal NewTech has invited about five startups to present in front of an audience of programmers, engineers, entrepreneurs, investors and students. The entire demos are recorded, the videos are showcased on social media, and more often than not, audience members have been known to grill presenters on their idea like a cross-examined witness.
For Whiteside, now Intel Security‘s director of engineering, the impact that Montreal NewTec has made on Montreal startups is clear.
“The thing I think we can be most proud of is that most of the startups that came out of Montreal demo’d their product for the first time at a NewTech,” he said. “We’ve hosted over 150 startups and everyone of them that got funded likely had their first demo presentation at NewTech. Every single NewTech was exciting because it was always five startups showing their tech.”
Before Whiteside wound up as VP of engineering at Password Box (which was acquired by Intel in 2014), he founded three startups. Around this time, he was a regular face at all the NewTechs. Soon he came on board with Rakatomalala as co-organizer of the event.
Originally, NewTech was run by Felipe Coimbra for the first few years, who came by way of Colorado. He had been doing a similar event south of the border and wanted to re-create the magic, for Montreal. The upstairs floor of McKibbon’s Pub on rue Bishop was the venue.
“People were very skeptical when it started in 2008.” said Rakatomalala, who took on the event once Coimbra was ready to move on. Years later, he passed the torch to Benjelloun. “A lot of other events existed in Montreal at that time, but Felipe just went and started it. It morphed into very different kind of cinq à sept.”
Soon a partnership with the Société De Développement Economique Ville-Marie (SDEVM) came along, which gave NewTech a monthly stipend to work with. That took care of all the costs associated with the event, including rental costs, stickers and other freebies, and subsidizing the famous NewTech beer special.
As Whiteside mentioned, it’s not a stretch to assume that the great majority of startups to have made it into an accelerator, or to have raised funds, likely pitched at a NewTech. Not long after Rakatomalala and Whiteside took the reigns from Coimbra, upstairs McKibbons was packed full of people every first Tuesday of the month, eager to see the latest tech startups.
December of 2012’s NewTech was Whiteside’s most memorable NewTech, because he saw something that he had never seen in any other startup that came to pitch over the years.
“These guys were two developers who weren’t at all trying to build this into a startup. This was the first startup that I looked at and thought, ‘Holy shit – these guys need to push this.'” said Whiteside. “Sam never thought about monetizing or talking to VCs. And I said, you need to talk to all these people, now.”
Vermette and Transit App went on to join the FounderFuel accelerator program, and are a perennial favourite on the top iTunes charts for navigation tools.
“Product wise, those guys were so much further than any other startup I’d seen at a NewTech.”
The best events, agreed the trio, were always the ones that were simple. Since its conception, NewTech has experimented with different types of pitch nights, at times renting different spaces and bringing in 300 people instead of the usual 70. Other times they’ve even partnered up with the groups like the US consulate or Tourisme Montreal to run themed pitch nights. A few years ago they even put on Montreal Startup Talent, a career fair for university students looking to join startups.
As they go forward, the guys are simply looking for consistency and sustainability as they plan more startup events in Montreal. NewTech, said Benjelloun, has always prided itself on offering fresh, different events for the Montreal community that weren’t being offered.
“Because we’re all volunteers, we see the gaps in what’s missing and we try to fill them,” he said. “We’re still the place to go for a regular event where startups get discovered, but now with more and more accelerators, things are getting more and more fractured. The hot startups can’t pitch at NewTech now.”
However NewTech does find a way to evolve, Whiteside insisted it’ll still be a place to make genuine friendships that go past simple networking.
“I look at the friends I met at New tech and those people have evolved as successful entrepreneurs, and some are even colleagues of mine now. So those events are still necessary – the on-the-ground events where you make real relationships. They often lead to collaboration but it’s not just networking,” he said.
“It’s the friendships, the people who present, everything,” added Rakatomalala. “You see their dreams, you see the tension when the crowd asks their questions, you get to see them in the tough moments and the best moments.”