Canada already has the tech talent — now it needs to scale up its companies to become global leaders


What is Canada’s place in an economy driven by ideas, innovation and technology? As a country, we are preoccupied with our ability to compete and thrive in a world filled with bigger, brasher rivals.

We graduate brilliant engineers, conduct world-class research, dream up innovative products and start viable tech companies. The Canadian ecosystem has grown in leaps and bounds, with venture capital investment up 500 per cent over the past decade and hiring up 85 per cent since 2014.

But we still need more of our startups and young firms to fully commercialize their ideas and scale up to become global leaders and drivers of Canadian wealth and job creation. A few firms have reached these heights — Nortel, Research in Motion, OpenText, Shopify and a few others — and others are on track. But imagine what dozens of companies like these could do to secure our future prosperity.

How do we build them? What are the most successful ones doing and what do the rest need to get over the hump? These are the questions that have launched a thousand studies and reports; there are no simple answers. To help Canadian firms scale, we need comprehensive solutions that bring together everything we’ve already learned.

Talent is one important piece of the puzzle. Canada has always built its economy around resources and, in the digital economy, our most valuable resource is intellectual capacity. Canada has been making a virtue of restrictive U.S. immigration policies lately by making it easy for tech talent to work here, and the startup community is finding new ways to recruit smart people abroad, such as the innovative Outposts program run by Waterloo innovation centre Communitech, which facilitates cross-border hiring for its member companies. This will amplify the Global Talent Stream program started by the federal government, which has attracted more than 40,000 tech workers since it launched two years ago.

It’s also critical we make the most of the intellectual property we work so hard to develop. Ontario has just announced plans to implement IP recommendations advocated by a panel led by Jim Balsillie, chair of the Canadian Council of Innovators and former co-CEO of RIM, who has advocated relentlessly on this issue. “Too often, the priceless intellectual property developed here in Ontario gets bought up by the big U.S. or international firms,” Premier Doug Ford acknowledged while announcing the effort.

And government and ecosystem infrastructure is imperative, as we have all been reminded by collaborative efforts to support Canada’s entrepreneurs and startup ecosystem during the COVID-19 pandemic.

MaRS Discovery District in Toronto, which supports 1,300 startup companies, has recently consolidated services for 53 high-growth firms under its Momentum portfolio: a group of companies with demonstrated potential to reach $100 million in revenue within five years.

Momentum’s goal is to connect the leaders of these future star companies with executives who have been there and done that.

Canadians are full of ideas, but this country’s size leaves us with a limited roster of people who have grown tech companies to scale. Our engineering talent, academic talent and entrepreneurial spirit get a lot of firms to their Series A funding, but they need the fuel to go the rest of the way.

These founders have built amazing products and companies; now they’re looking for peer-to-peer learning and advice from experienced leaders, plus access to markets, data and qualitative guidance to help them make the right decisions around expansion, financial, hiring, accountability and more. Canada’s future economy relies in part on these young companies driving productivity gains and supplying the advanced industries that account for nearly 12 per cent of GDP and employ nearly two million people.

We have to remember that not all scaling companies need to fill the same gaps. Joshua Wong’s company, Opus One, was looking to Momentum for the right infrastructure for international expansion and sound advice in scaling enterprise software globally. Another venture needed an intellectual property review before heading out to sell to large U.S. companies — the process uncovered gaps in their patent approach, which hadn’t scaled at the same pace as the rest of the company. A third company shifted its revenue strategy from growth to retention after a peer-to-peer conversation about COVID-19. By temporarily scaling back their ambitions, they solidified their customer base and maintained their entire revenue stream, which put them in a much better position as the economy reopens.

These are the kinds of decisions that keep promising startups growing toward the size and commercial scale that benefits not just a company, but a country. If we’re going to stop fretting about our place in the world and help these companies become Canada’s economic champions, we need to support them with the right infrastructure and the right advice.

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Krista Jones is founding executive of Momentum at MaRS Discovery District. Joshua Wong is CEO of Opus One Solutions, a software clean tech that helps energy companies manage smart grids.





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