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Halifax tech firm Volta Labs is thinking big

Local business offering funds to tech startups with market potential

4 min read
caption The Volta Labs logo.
Geordie Summers-Lubar
caption Volta Labs is offering funds to startups with innovative ideas.
Geordie Summers-Lubar

It turns out that the Maritime Centre on Barrington Street is more than just a wind tunnel and reminder of regrettable seventies architecture. It also contains a non-profit called Volta Labs, whose leaders believe there is serious potential for technology in Halifax.

Volta Labs is a popular hub for the tech community in Halifax. It has had many successful startups come through its doors that have since turned into profitable businesses.

Volta Lab’s successes have some people within the organization comparing Halifax to Waterloo, Ont. 10 years ago. It seems like the ambition of the startups it serves is rubbing off on them.

Volta Labs is a common workspace and bank of resources for tech startups. It is home to 14 resident companies that stay for a period of six months to two years.

Sarah Linders, a Volta Labs representative, says that along with an office, residents receive $50,000 worth of resources, which includes furniture, Amazon Web Service credits, access to accelerators and mentorship.

Residents are chosen by a bureau that consists of former entrepreneurs and angel investors. The bureau listens to pitches from different startups and decides if they are a good fit for Volta.

They are looking for scalable tech product companies that have a market potential of $500 million or more.

Linders says that this doesn’t mean that they are going to own that entire market, but that there is a large enough pool of potential profit to be made.

“You need that big of a market to succeed on a startup level,” she says.

The struggle of developing a new and commercially viable product is something that two of Volta’s founders are familiar with.

Milan Vrekic and Jevon Macdonald are former entrepreneurs who had their own tech companies. While starting Volta Labs, they were motivated by the question, “What can we make that we wish we had when we started?”

Volta was the answer.

It opened in 2013 in the now demolished building across from the Halifax Central Library. They were in a small office that Linders says was, “stuffed with however many people as could fit.” At first, this was about six or seven startups.

They have since grown and moved to the Maritime Centre where they can comfortably fit 14 resident startups in their offices on the sixth and seventh floors.

And their success is not only in attracting startups to their labs, but also in creating successful business.

Linders says that 82 per cent of residents that have exited Volta Labs are still in business.

To date, their most successful alumni in terms of a dollar figure is Compilr, a company with a program that helped people learn to code. It was acquired for a reported $20 million.

But with their successes, there have also been failures.

“You’re going to succeed fast or you’re going to fail fast,” Linder says. “It’s all about understanding your market and getting customers.”

Attracting the right customers is something the team behind the startup Dingbot, is working on. The company began at Volta in 2015. They create robots, called dingbots, which collect marine data.

Dingbot’s CEO, Jonathan Underwood, says that they are ultimately aiming to sell to big dredging companies.

“We’re also working with smaller university customers to bolster our capacity and just make the Dingbot better and better,” says Underwood.

Shooting for the top while working with what you have is part of the mentality among the startups and staff at Volta. Linders says that the non-profit wants to go from their current 20,000 square feet of office space to 100,000 square feet. She also says they want an innovation district in downtown Halifax.

“Our someday plan is, a huge spot on the waterfront, but isn’t that everybody’s?”

It is, but if any group of people can actually can make that dream a reality, it is the people in Volta Labs.

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