Building the 21st century business council

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The Council of Canadian Innovators’ (CCI) origin story mirrors that of a tech startup in many ways. The organization started with a serendipitous mix of faith, good luck, and a dose of chutzpah that embody so many of Canada’s prominent tech figures. In September 2015, Jim Balsillie, former RIM Chairman and co-CEO, gave a speech in Toronto to a small group of leading domestic scale-up CEOs about the state of our nation’s innovation ecosystem. Although Balsillie always reads from prepared remarks, this time the stakes were too high. He decided to talk off the cuff and directly to the CEOs. He showed them how their competitors are working the halls of governments and how a series of upcoming policy decisions will impact domestic tech firms’ growth negatively. The message was clear: in order to be heard and grow globally, Canada’s scale-up CEOs needed to organize.

His candour quickly went viral. John Ruffolo, CEO of OMERS Ventures and the host of the event, harnessed this moment by advocating for the need for a single voice representing Canadian tech CEOs to begin an ongoing conversation with all levels of government on advancing homegrown scale-ups and maturing our nation’s innovation ecosystem. Within a week of the speech and the post, the most successful tech CEOs united and formed the Council of Canadian Innovators.

Today, the Council is a registered non-profit organization dedicated to helping domestic Canadian technology firms scale up globally. Our 50 members — which include Hootsuite CEO Ryan Holmes, Shopify CEO Tobi Lutke, and Axonify CEO Carol Leaman — came together understanding that the innovation economy is created, regulated, and managed by governments and its agencies, and therefore, their decisions have profound and direct impact on their businesses.

OMERS John Ruffolo

While Canada’s startup ecosystem is vibrant and well supported with over 140 publically funded incubators across the country, prior to CCI’s creation, there was an important gap missing in Canada’s innovation ecosystem: no business council where scale-up CEOs can talk directly with policy makers without intermediaries. CCI fills that gap by serving both as a lobby association and business development group for Canada’s most promising technology companies.

We organize all our activities under three broad themes that Member CEOs have identified as key to scaling up globally: access to customers, talent, capital. The Council’s sole mandate is to help scale up Canadian companies and not replicate functions and services already provided within current incubators and accelerators that support startups.

When looking to successful innovation economies around the world, the one common factor is always a direct relationship between a nation’s policy makers and its domestic scale-up CEOs.
– Benjamin Bergen, CCI Executive Director

The new federal government is keen to work with Canadian scale-ups and improve our nation’s access to talent, capital, and customers with the larger goal of making Canada a true innovation leader. Our accomplishments are growing.

We are actively connecting public policy officials and politicians with Canadian domestic technology CEOs. Under CCI’s banner, our members have met with Minister of Innovation, Science, and Economic Development Navdeep Bains; Minister of International Trade Chrystia Freeland; and Minister of Small Business and Tourism Bardish Chagger and many public servants federally and provincially to discuss the needs of Canada’s scale-up community.

We have already seen tangible progress from these direct conversations. Banding together allowed for our CEOs members to advocate that the federal government suspend its campaign commitment to increase tax on stock options – a move that would have resulted in irreversible damage to Canada’s innovation economy.

More recently, the Council held roundtables with Minister of Immigration John McCallum in Ottawa, the GTA-KW Corridor and Vancouver to discuss the Council’s Fast Track Visa Proposal and how to improve access to talent for Canada’s scale-ups. The Council is advocating for improvements to our immigration system to ensure our processing time for highly-skilled global tech talent is competitive with leading innovation jurisdictions.

Technology firms all over the world have the same labour issues and are competing for the same international talent. Leading innovations countries are designing solutions to advance their domestic scale-ups. For instance, Ireland can process tech talent visas in a six to eight-week window. It isn’t unusual for the Irish government to process a visa in under a month.

Under the current Canadian system, the program’s benchmark is six months. Our members have experienced too frequently talented and in-demand international tech applicants waiting a year or more to be processed. Canadian firms must be competitive at recruiting this in-demand pool of international tech talent. The Council is advocating for a Made-For-Canada Fast Track Visa Proposal that would be able to process applicants in an under two-month window.

navdeep bains

It is not just the political community that has shown real excitement for the CCI’s formation. Our outreach with federal and provincial civil service has been met with enthusiasm and cooperation. Our growing organization was ranked the second most active lobby group in the nation for the month of July and the fourth most active in August by Lobby Monitor, an industry trade publication. To put this in terms for those who aren’t political hacks, policy makers are choosing to engage with us at one of the highest frequencies compared to the many, other lobbyists organizations in Canada. This is no small feat for a new organization competing in a crowded landscape.

This frequent and direct outreach is a much-needed step in the right direction. When looking to successful innovation economies around the world, the one common factor is always a direct relationship between a nation’s policy makers and its domestic scale-up CEOs. Canada’s future prosperity depends on our scale-up CEOs coming together with public officials and creating an ecosystem designed for home-grown firms to scale up globally. Here at the Council, we will continue to do our part to build this important relationship.

Canadian scale-ups that want to get involved with the Council of Canadian Innovators can contact Benjamin Bergen from CCI’s website.

Benjamin Bergen

Benjamin Bergen

Benjamin Bergen is the founding Executive Director of the Council of Canadian Innovators, a business council representing Canada’s most successful technology scale-ups.