Atlantic Canada’s tech-startup hub, Volta Labs–or simply Volta–has a history of success, expansion and reimagination that tangentially exposes Halifax’s real estate development explosion over the past decade that has transformed most of the city–especially the downtown core.
Volta’s CEO Matt Cooper alludes to these rapid changes that favour some development over others when he says: “The challenges [tech startups] run into when going up against big players that challenge them, where OpenAI has an update and it wipes out literally thousands of startups, is that you actually have to prepare for those things.
“It's very different from opening a restaurant or starting a landscaping company or doing professional services. Neither are better or worse. But the risks are very different if you're choosing to start a tech company.” However the scales of risk are balanced or prepared for in different types of businesses, or which manage to survive, Volta is focused on supporting tech entrepreneurs and providing a safety net to help with common failures.
Tracking Volta's movement across three locations over just ten years demonstrates how volatile downtown real estate has become.
In 2013, Volta opened on Spring Garden Road above a mattress store. Today, the major downtown artery is nearly out-the-other-side of a $10.8 million streetscaping project that has caused significant traffic and sidewalk stress during a construction period that has started and stopped since 2021.
Since Volta first opened on thrice-voted “Best Street” Spring Garden Road, a handful of beloved local businesses have moved or closed, including Tom’s Little Havana, Sock It To Ya, Woozles, Mills, Rogues Roost and Maritime Frame-It.
In 2015, Volta moved to the sixth and seventh floors of the Maritime Centre at the bottom of Spring Garden on Barrington Street. They soon expanded to the first and second floors of the centre as well, collecting a footprint of approximately 60,000 square feet.
That same year, Maritime-based Fortis Properties Corporation sold the centre to Toronto-based real estate firm Slate Office REIT. In December 2022, the centre showcased a new exterior, lobby and expansion of parking and office space that had taken three years to complete.
In the spring of 2023, Volta announced they were downsizing and moving to the Armoyan Centre at 1800 Argyle Street beside City Hall.
Back in 2016, this building was known as the World Trade and Convention Centre, before it was sold for $13.5 million to private developer George Armoyan. Not to mention the Nova Centre. As in, don’t even mention it.
All of this to say that Volta has weathered the Halifax real estate boom and bust, and the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown orders, rather well. They’ve grown, moved, adapted and responded to the needs of their community, which is the world of tech-startups and entrepreneurs in Atlantic Canada.
Their new space opened Nov. 14, and is roughly 20,000 square feet. That’s a fraction of the Martime Centre space, but 10 months of research showed Volta that teams were smaller and more hybrid since the pandemic and required less physical space.
Today, Volta commands much of the eighth floor of the Armoyan Centre with panoramic views of the downtown and the harbour. Their current approach to helping tech teams develop products of the future is based on a mantra Cooper often repeats: “It's not meant to be right, it's meant to be less wrong over time.”
Cooper says their applied, science-based approach to each team’s educational needs through hands-on support means teams can pass through many iterations with advisors there to support them in a safe and interactive learning environment.
Cooper and Volta’s relationship has passed through many interactions over the years, too.
When they first met, Volta was a client of Cooper's tech-enabled cleaning company Swept, which paired clients with janitorial services through an online hub. Once Swept, then known as Clean Simple, pivoted to offering other companies their proprietary AI software to build their own for tech-enabled cleaning services, Cooper became a “resident” at Volta, meaning someone who applied to use the space to develop their idea.
Over the COVID-19 pandemic when no one was allowed in the building, Volta’s then-CEO Martha Casey kept Volta in business through fundraising efforts and a re-imagining of hybrid services for their members. Before the pandemic, Volta’s large space provided cohort learning opportunities to teach theory to "founders", or those investing their time and effort to create new tech products. During the pandemic, Cooper pitched to Casey what he’d been hearing from other residents and founders: “Education is fantastic; I've been through education; I have enough education, I don't have any help after.”
The Volta community was essentially asking, “What do I do next?” or, “I've been through the program, how can I get help implementing some of the theory that I've been exposed to?” says Cooper. Casey then brought Cooper on board to help redesign Volta’s support while everything in-person was shut down.
In 2021, Cooper became Volta’s chief innovation officer–CIO– and in 2022 he became their chief executive officer–CEO–after serving as interim CEO for six months prior.
As Cooper and Volta celebrated the not-for-profit’s tenth anniversary in November, they welcomed in the public to explore their new digs on Argyle Street and learn about how their approach to education has changed and evolved in large part due to Cooper.
He’s been instrumental in moving past the more common tech-startup 101-style cohort learning, or learning-by-stages, to providing bespoke strategies, education and guidance tailored to each tech-entrepreneurial team in personalized sessions.
Volta has many offerings to the tech-curious community of Atlantic Canada. Whether you’re interested in starting a tech company, a medical technology company or simply need a short-term office space or boardroom in downtown Halifax, Volta scales their membership fees from $0/month upwards based on the level of product development that each team is at. Founders and residents use the space to launch a product. Community members use the space as a month-to-month office. Both options are priced differently, and residents/founders begin their learning journey free of charge.
So, if you’re interested in starting a tech company and launching a product, you begin at level one, called Signal, which costs nothing and simply requires that your team's submissions is approved.
“Signal is: ‘I think I have an idea but I don't know,’” explains Cooper. “The milestones we're looking for there are you've gone out and talked to a good number of people, you've done customer discovery. You’ve done research that says: ‘This problem that I think I can solve with my idea is both novel and I have evidence to support the fact that people care about it as well,’ not just, ‘I want to build a better mousetrap.’
“It helps them kind of get out of their heads and get into the market. Once you've got enough of that kind of base evidence for a problem, you go into our next program, which is called Catalyst. And that's about developing a solution for the problem and getting something into the hands of people in the market.”
Both Signal and Catalyst cost $0. “Effort is the thing,” says Cooper. “It's fairly easy to get admitted into the program. It's much more challenging to remain in it.”
Next, teams move from Catalyst to Growth. Administrative fees for residencies in Growth are $1,200 a year to cover Volta’s overhead costs as they match teams with coaches and subject-matter experts.
In Growth, “you have a product, you've got customers or users and you're iterating,” says Cooper. You’re getting it less wrong over time.
“You're working on this product full time because each one of those stages requires a different set of resources and skills. Our role is introducing them to available education programs. We work with Dalhousie, we work with Saint Mary's, we work with Propel, The Centre for Women in Business, Lab 2 Market, Tribe and other organizations that are providing cohort-based education programs. And then augment those by adding additional layers of support.
“It complements what's there and doesn't try to overlap with it, because when they get here, they work one-on-one with a coach," says Cooper.
The reason why Volta wanted to move away from theory-heavy classroom learning towards applied, hands-on seminar-style coaching is based on insights from residents during previous versions of Volta who were saying things like: "‘I don't want to go to another webinar about how to do X, because I've already ingested hours of experts from YouTube or TED talks or whatever I need help with. Help me put it into my business.’
“Fast forward to today," says Cooper, "and we’re focused on skill and capacity development. And it's all about applied learning. You get your hands dirty through all of these stages.
“Every team goes through these three stages [Signal, Catalyst and Growth]. And they each have their own set of activities and outcomes” that their coaches provide through three-month check-ins.
All of Volta’s coaches are based in Atlantic Canada, but these coaches then match each team to Volta’s roster of 60 subject-matter experts.
“Every coach has been in the shoes of the people they're helping,” says Cooper. "Either they've been part of an early stage team that led growth specifically, or they've been a founder or co-founder in a team and now have a subject-matter expertise.
“They're the ones that have fallen into all the traps and have lots of scars to show for it. 90% of ideas don’t work and that's why it's about [measuring]: Is there effort? Is their traction getting better?
"This is the most important from an education standpoint. When I say we don't need them to be right, it's less over less wrong over time, it's so they can observe learning taking place, see what didn't work, modify their behaviour, try something different, and stop trying to repeat the same thing over and over and expecting things to work.
“There's lots of theory out there. Our investments are around ‘What does this team now have the capability of being able to do that they couldn't do before?’ We're investing in the skill with the understanding that with that new capability, they will build viable businesses that lead to funding and jobs.”
As a not-for-profit, Volta relies on federal and provincial funding, and private investment and partnerships, says Cooper. One of those is Saint Mary’s University, that has its own dedicated space in the community hub for SMU students to use.
Volta recently received $3.8 million from the province ahead of their November re-opening. “The province helps with our operations,” says Cooper. “We're a team of 10, plus the physical space. Without that commitment, we couldn't have committed to this space. Full stop.
“George Armoyan [the building owner] also helped mitigate a lot of the risks associated with building out the space” by investing heavily in the renovations on the eighth floor to accommodate Volta.
Volta offers free access to education for residents through their three stages of creating and building a startup plan available for anyone to apply to here, as long as one founder is based in Atlantic Canada.
“You do have to prove residency in one of those four provinces,” says Cooper. “When you enter the Growth stage, and we're investing more heavily with advisors, we want to know that there's a material impact to the region. It's all about building teams here.”
As well, the new space offers coworking space for the community available at three levels of membership: “Focus” for $75/month, “Virtual Office” for $100/month and “Build” for $275/month. Details on what each level of membership provides are outlined here. These don't include coaches or hands-on learning but come with access to the shared spaces and tools there.
All three coworking memberships are month-to-month contracts.
“And if they're in one of our residency programs [meaning Signal, Catalyst or Growth] there's no cost to it,” says Cooper. “They can come in and use this space as well.”
Again, Volta's entrepreneurial residencies are free of charge once until the final Growth stage. Cooper says as of today, Volta is helping support 61 teams of residents/founders, 23 of which are women-led and 19 of which are BIPOC-led.
The layout of the space also allows for more day-to-day interactions between teams and community users, which Cooper says is intentional to spur creativity and networking potential.
With neighbours like AFCOOP and The Light House Arts Centre in the Armoyan Centre, Volta’s intentions for overlap are loaded with potential.