Amidst the mountains, forests and lakes of Québec’s Eastern Townships, a new innovation hub is blossoming. The cozy city of Sherbrooke may not be the first place you’d think of when imagining a hotbed of groundbreaking entrepreneurship, but something in its DNA is turning it into just that.

Historically an epicentre of manufacturing, Sherbrooke has been forced to reinvent itself as manufacturing jobs in Canada dwindled. Today, thanks to the embracing of innovative new industries, Sherbrooke’s economic growth is outpacing both provincial and national averages, and the city has been ranked among the best-performing entrepreneurial communities in the country for two years running. What’s particularly remarkable is that this success is in turn revitalizing the manufacturing industry, with a 4.9 percent gain in that sector expected in this year’s economic report.

At the heart of this renewed city is the University of Sherbrooke. “When you have a city of 160,000 people and 40,000 of them are students, the university becomes the centre of the city,” says Jean-Pierre Perreault, the Vice-Dean of Research and Graduate Studies at the university. “Almost everyone is linked in one way or another to our school.”

Bringing great minds together

As the university fosters ambition and enthusiasm in its students, the city has also built up a support structure to empower these bright minds to hit the ground running upon graduation. At the core of this network is Sherbrooke Innopole, a community hub dedicated to promoting economic development and fostering the growth of innovative businesses in five key sectors: Life Sciences, Cleantech, Micro-Nanotechnologies, Advanced Manufacturing, and Information and Communication Technology (ICT). “In 2007, the City of Sherbrooke held an economic summit which decided on the key sectors for renewal,” says Josée Fortin, the Director General of Sherbrooke Innopole. “To identify these sectors, they looked at the strengths of the city, and these were the opportunities they found.”

The idea of clustering innovators working in similar fields together has a long tradition in academia, and the advantages in the business world are quickly becoming apparent as well. “Today, with open technology, networking is a more powerful tool than ever,” says Fortin. “One major company can support many smaller companies, sharing knowledge back and forth. In addition, the knowledge transfer between enterprise and the university is tremendous. And with a global market, there is less reason to be distanced from your competition. This is the strategy of the future.”

“A city where everyone talks to each other”

It can be difficult to pinpoint exactly what it is about Sherbrooke that has helped it thrive so much in recent years, but Fortin’s mention of networking might just hit the nail on the head. “Sherbrooke is a city where everyone talks to each other,” says Fortin. “We sit down and decide things together. There are many players working closely together on a single strategy. The launch of the University of Sherbrooke’s Entrepreneurship Strategy, which targeted similar key sectors, is one of the most striking examples.”

It’s this interconnection, and the vested interest people have in seeing others do well for the economic gain of the entire region, that has made the city so committed to guiding entrepreneurs from the spark of an idea through growth and long-term business success. Together, Innopole and the University of Sherbrooke have been building an unbroken chain of supports so that innovators are never alone at any point in the process. To this end, the university has created ACET, a business incubator, and Innopole has created Espace-INC, an incubator/accelerator, as well as two new investment funds targeted at young companies. “ACET functions as a bridge,” says Fortin. “When entrepreneurs graduate from the program, it’s up to us to take the baton. When companies and universities sit at the same table, it benefits everyone. This partnership has been working very well for years and it will only continue to grow,” says Fortin, citing the opening of a scientific multi-tenant centre for life-sciences university spin-offs this summer.

And so Sherbrooke has become a fully prepped launchpad for students with entrepreneurial aspirations, with the most knowledgeable experts of their fields on hand to guide them. “Connecting experienced coaches from the private sector with entrepreneurial students is so powerful,” says Perreault. “The coaches know the market and they know what’s happening in the field.”

The results speak for themselves. Of the roughly fifty companies incubated through this network so far, each and every one of them is still in operation five years later. “Under ordinary circumstances, you would expect over half of all startups to fail in the first five years,” says Perreault. “It’s a truly remarkable success.”