Over the last decade, one startup hub nestled in the heart of Toronto’s downtown core has become virtually synonymous with the city’s tech market. Yet for all the love that Toronto tech has for OneEleven, it has sometimes been a rocky relationship.
In 2013, a triumvirate of Toronto organizations—OMERS Ventures, Oxford Properties, and the Ontario Centres for Excellence (OCE, now the Ontario Centre of Innovation)—joined forces to establish OneEleven. In its first seven years, the hub played a pivotal role in nurturing a community of entrepreneurs, investors, and mentors, but it also saw its fair share of turbulence: high executive turnover, an ill-fated national expansion, and in 2020, an abrupt shutdown that sent shockwaves through the local tech sector.
The return of OneEleven in the fall of 2020 was nearly as sudden as its demise. By October, the hub was back in business, only this time, under the ownership of one of its founding members (OCE) and with new leadership (managing director Matthew Lombardi).
In the nearly two years since, OneEleven has recovered its membership close to pre-pandemic levels, has opened its space back up to companies and events, and adapted its value proposition to include new programming for post-seed founders.
While questions remain as to why it went away in the first place, OneEleven is now firmly back. How did that happen and what does the innovation hub look like in 2023?
Location, location, location
The creation of OneEleven was all a “complete accident,” according to John Ruffolo, then the founder and CEO of OMERS Ventures, who was instrumental in founding the original OneEleven. Ruffolo currently serves as honorary chair of the reborn version’s board of directors.
According to Ruffolo, OneEleven’s genesis can be traced to a hunt for suitable space to accommodate the recently formed OMERS Ventures. Though OMERS Ventures took an option on a floor at Google’s Toronto headquarters at 111 Richmond St., the venture arm of the Canadian pension fund later settled to RBC Plaza.
Left with an empty space in prime Toronto real estate, Ruffolo and his team pondered how it could be put to use. “At the time, there was no centre of focus for startups in Toronto,” Ruffolo said. “They were everywhere, all the way from the East End to Richmond Hill to Oakville, with no concentration anywhere else.”
It’s worth noting that though OneEleven predated Toronto startup co-working spaces like BrainStation, Lighthouse Labs, and even WeWork, the city was home to a small handful of hubs and incubators in the city at the time, such as MaRS Discovery District, the DMZ, and Xtreme Labs.
OMERS Ventures would jointly launch OneEleven with the OCE and Oxford Properties (the real estate arm of OMERS). While it initially started as a space for OMERS’ portfolio companies, it expanded to include other local companies and eventually served as a collision space for the likes of Wealthsimple, Maple, Jobber, Koho, and Borrowell, among others.
Ruffolo said the evolution of OneEleven in its first iteration comprised three distinct phases: providing startups with infrastructure, building community, and finally, offering non-core services to support post-seed startups’ scaling operations. The hub’s initial growth through those phases was supported by a number of key people, including founding CEO Bilal Khan, Leaders Fund’s Gideon Hayden, and the late Derek Smyth, a longtime supporter of many Canadian tech companies and onetime managing director of OMERS Ventures.
Irrespective of what would come during the COVID-19 pandemic, the early days of OneEleven were not without significant change. Khan was responsible for leading OneEleven through the early days of its first iteration, but was replaced in 2018 by Dean Hopkins, then serving as OneEleven’s chief growth officer, who spearheaded the hub’s ambitious expansion plans across Canada and internationally.
Under Hopkins, the now for-profit OneEleven launched offices in Ottawa and London, in 2018, and moved from the 15,000 square-foot space at 111 Richmond St. W. to a 50,000 square-foot space at 325 Front St. W (an Oxford Properties location and an address shared with the OCE), where the hub still resides today, though its footprint doubled in 2018. However, by 2019, its plans to open offices in Vancouver and Boston had not materialized, and OneEleven’s London and Ottawa offices closed in May of that year.
Following several more executive departures in 2019, Hopkins moved to Oxford Properties (but stayed on OneEleven’s board of directors), and was replaced by Siri Agrell, OneEleven’s Toronto managing director at the time. Despite the frequent leadership switch-ups, OneEleven’s three-phased growth plan was still going smoothly, according to Ruffolo. By early 2020, the hub was offering space to 55 member companies, in addition to programming and strategic advice.
“COVID hits, and all of this basically stops in its tracks,” Ruffolo said.
Roughly one month after pandemic lockdowns began, OneEleven announced it would permanently cease operations in April 2020. The sudden closure, which came via OneEleven’s board of directors, came as a shock to the Toronto tech community, and reportedly, was news to some of OneEleven’s key stakeholders, including its member companies and leadership. Agrell told BetaKit at the time that she was not privy to the shutdown decision prior to it being made, while OCE president Claudia Krywiak told BetaKit that the founding org was not contacted at all by OMERS or OneEleven.
Initially, sources told BetaKit that Oxford planned to run and reconfigure the space OneEleven had inhabited, which some member founders criticized. Lloyed Lobo, co-founder and president of OneEleven company Boast.AI, told BetaKit at the time of the closure, “Siri and the OneEleven team are the soul … Without them, it’s just a space.”
Roy Pereira described OneEleven as a “ghost town” in the months following the closure.
In a recent statement to BetaKit, Agrell noted that she has not been involved with the hub since its 2020 closure, though she remains “close with many of the awesome founders, teams and companies who were part of the community I led.”
What immediately followed OneEleven’s shutdown was a confusing cluster of mixed signals that stoked frustration among members, including requests to some member companies for rent they were previously told would be abated (which were quickly retracted).
Roy Pereira, founder of CalenderHero, described OneEleven as a “ghost town” in the months following the closure. “Those who came in saw no one in charge, a couple of brave people hanging out in the space trying to work in a larger space than their small condo, and lots of cups with dried-up coffee,” he added.
In the summer, BetaKit was first to report that multiple organizations, including MaRS and the OCE, tendered bids to purchase and presumably revive the shuttered hub. In August, BetaKit also reported that OneEleven’s IP and naming rights were transferred to the OCE, with plans to relaunch under its original non-profit model.
Lombardi—who had spent a good deal of that year running GroceryHero, a startup that was spun up during the pandemic to facilitate grocery deliveries to frontline workers, and had previously worked at Deloitte Canada and Edelman—was tapped to serve as managing director of OneEleven in August. By October, the hub officially reopened its doors and had put in place an advisory council to oversee its reboot, which included Ruffolo, Real Ventures’ Janet Bannister, and the OCE’s Bob Richardson, among others.
Lombardi’s tenure began at a challenging time. The board’s closure of OneEleven had upended years of progress, membership was nil, and the pandemic was still forcing the hub’s doors to remain closed. A source familiar with the situation told BetaKit there was also a good deal of trust that Lombardi needed to rebuild following the messy handling of the initial shutdown. Ruffolo said Lombardi was effectively tasked with rebuilding the organization “from zero.”
Back to the drawing board
Lombardi told Betakit he viewed his first few months as managing director as an opportune time to look deeper at OneEleven’s value proposition. “I basically went around and talked to everybody,” Lombardi said. “All the alumni, all the stakeholders, anyone who has ever been involved in OneEleven, and very simply asked them, ‘In a world where conceivably, we could never use the space ever again, what could OneEleven do to actually add value to a post-seed company?’”
Pereira, one of the founders Lombardi met with at this time, said they also discussed how the hub could bring people back into an open space with the pandemic still around. “That seemed like an impossible task,” Pereira added.
During that engagement process, Lombardi also discovered a challenge faced by member companies centred around upskilling emerging, non-executive company leaders. He noted that while founders said they had access to a wide ecosystem of support, advice and education, that same ecosystem didn’t exist for the people directly below them.
Over the first few months of OneEleven’s relaunch, the hub partnered with Venture for Canada to build training curricula for leaders, first-time personnel managers, and employees working in marketing, customer support, and product.
“I wanted to make sure that what we were building as our knowledge economy function was differentiated, measurable, attributable to OneEleven, and that it was a unique offering in the space for venture-backed companies,” Lombardi said.
OneEleven soft-launched its talent upskilling program in 2021. Lombardi noted the programming has been refined and updated since its launch to include sprints, group projects, masterclasses, and guest speakers, having been used by approximately 1,200 people.
“That’s also part of the secret sauce of making sure OneEleven stays a place for post-seed companies,” Lombardi said of OneEleven’s upskilling program. “If you bring in companies who are around the same stage of hyper-growth, you’re going to be able to surface some common problems, and then help attack those problems with the programming.”
Peter Faist, CEO of Staffy, a OneEleven member company, said a number of people from his team have used the hub’s upskilling offering, and described the programming as relevant and worthwhile. “They appreciate the opportunity to continue their professional development through OneEleven without the inconvenience of having to travel elsewhere,” Faist added.
As pandemic restrictions gradually eased in the months following OneEleven’s relaunch, the hub’s membership base started to grow again, and the hub once again began offering in-person events like citizenship ceremonies, TechTO events, and ‘Fuck Up Nights’. Since many companies continue to employ hybrid or remote work arrangements, Lombardi said OneEleven’s focus has been on providing the hub’s space and services flexibly.
“We get to smash together the old value prop with the new value prop,” Lombardi added. “We can now deliver our programming hybrid, in person, on Slack [or] remote, and all of the fun parts about being a great collision and office space are now back.”
“The events still happen almost every evening, bringing in people in the tech space from different backgrounds to mingle,” added Pereira. “And most importantly, the collisions still happen in the hallways.”
In just under two years, OneEleven’s membership has recovered to 40 companies that have collectively raised $800 million to date, according to Lombardi. Ruffolo said the flexible nature of OneEleven’s space has meant the hub’s occupancy levels have stayed steady compared to the big towers of Toronto.
New member companies, such as retail tech startup Sampler, have recently expressed their intention to use OneEleven as a hybrid flex space. Toronto-based JoyRide (a member both before and after the pandemic), chose OneEleven as it needed “a space that had the flexibility to allow us to grow at our own pace,” according to CEO and founder Vince Cifani.
Today, Joyride’s hybrid work arrangement means Cifani requires a space that the startup can flexibly scale up and down, depending on its needs. “OneEleven has been incredibly supportive of this,” he added.
Ruffolo noted that even before COVID-19, hybrid arrangements worked “extremely well” with OneEleven’s thesis. “Given the low price point and the flexible price point, [OneEleven] made economic sense in a hybrid environment when you’re not going into the office every day,” he added.
OneEleven has also been busy in the last few years building new partnerships. The firm recently announced it was partnering with the recently relaunched FounderFuel accelerator, and also announced that Singapore-based venture fund and studio Antler would move into the OneEleven space. “They’re an earlier upstream stakeholder, so it gives us a really early look at some potential future venture-backed companies,” Lombardi said of the Antler partnership.
With its post-pandemic value proposition cemented, its doors open, and its membership base close to pre-pandemic levels, OneEleven is now looking at where else its model could add value. Lombardi said the team is considering licensing its business model to other organizations, and in the coming weeks plans to launch an asynchronous learning platform on Thinkific to make its upskilling content self-paced.
“We’re finally at a place where we now have real defensible IP that we own, and that’s a unique thing that OneEleven delivers to add value, to the point where other university accelerators have been reaching out to us, saying, ‘Hey, we heard about this, can you help us build something similar?’” Lombardi said.
It’s been roughly one decade since the OneEleven experiment started. The organization changed a lot in that time, much like the ecosystem it has existed in. For Ruffolo, one thing has remained constant: “The desire for community always been there, and it’s never changed, even through COVID,” he said.
That desire was something Ruffolo said he “undervalued” when OneEleven’s first iteration was getting off the ground, but it likely explains why in the tumult of 2020, the community that OneEleven had been instrumental in nurturing over the years rallied so strongly for its return.
“It really took a village to resurrect this place,” Lombardi added. “But I can definitively tell you that the turnaround is complete.”
That village includes Pereira, who built and scaled his last company in the pre-pandemic OneEleven, and is now back in the building, working on his next startup.