Forum économique panel calls provincial “hesitation” a barrier to innovation

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To mark the 25th anniversary of the Regroupement des jeunes chambres de commerce du Québec (RJCCQ), the Forum économique de la relève d’affaires (FERA) was organized last week in order to “Promote Entrepreneurship for an Innovative and Flourishing Québec.”

One of the panels, entitled Entrepreneurship: The Keys To Success, brought together Maxime Laporte, VP in real estate development for the Quorum Group Inc; Marie-Noël Grenier, CEO and partner of Jambette; Marisol Labrecque, President of Ecofixe; Ethan Song co-founder, CEO and creative director of Frank + Oak; and Jonathan Hamel, a bitcoin technology expert. The panel was moderated by Damien Siles, general director of the Quartier de l’innovation de Montréal.

The discussion started on the topic of risk-taking, which is inherent in entrepreneurship. While Song perceives it as part of a “lifestyle,” Hamel adds that you sometimes have to push back against the system, for example, when “financial institutions try to discourage [me] from trusting in institutions [in West Africa].”

The opening up of Quebec to the world as a land of welcome is also a point that was raised and supported. “I think we have to encourage immigration and attract international talent,” said Song.

“We often talk about the Quebec model; I think the Quebec model is a little zombie. He’s dead, but he still doesn’t know he’s dead!” – Jonathan Hamel, bitcoin tech expert

Although there were a number of obvious points in the discussion — whether it was not to be afraid of failure, or the importance of having a strong team — there was also a focus on the overriding importance of adaptability of a company: “Because of the internet, because of the technology, everything changes very quickly,” said Song. “If you do not keep an eye on everything that’s happening, you can really miss the shot in six months. Often people can say ‘things don’t move as quickly in my field’, but when I hear people say that, I think they just don’t see what’s going on.”

Indeed, the change is incessant in any industry, but moves at a much faster pace when speaking of technological development. “For the last 20 years, all the innovation we saw happened on a screen, whether it was Google, online search, all that,” Song said. “New technologies, for me, as much mobile technology as AI, is something that will apply to all of what we do. It is no longer the internet through the screen, it’s like the internet of everything and there will be many wins in this generation for those who have absorbed this technology.”

In the same vein, a striking feature of the panel around Quebec entrepreneurship was ironically its tendency not to be avant-garde.

“Quebec is the paradise of the status quo,” said Hamel. “We often talk about the Quebec model; I think the Quebec model is a little zombie. He’s dead, but he still doesn’t know he’s dead!”

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Among other things, it is sometimes necessary to rethink how geography is viewed in terms of marketing a product. “I think one of the problems we have [in Quebec] is this mentality that there is Montreal, and then Toronto, and then the West Coast and then I’ll go to the United States and after that I’ll eventually do something else,” Song said. “[But sometimes], a product might be the best product for Asia, for example. ”

Although Grenier had a more positive impression of Quebec entrepreneurship, perceiving it as “imaginative” and “ingenious,” she recognizes its weakness in terms of marketing.

“There is a tendency to have a lot of hesitance to adapt, to transform industries,” Hamel agreed. “The best example I can give is what we have experienced in the last three years with a problem that is fairly trivial, that is, how a company like Uber had a hard time getting established in Montreal.”

His fears are also being transposed to the development of the Montreal tech ecosystem, particularly with regard to artificial intelligence. “If we are not able to make legislative and technical adjustments to solve such a trivial problem as a taxi…what will it be when artificial intelligence threatens 50,000 jobs and a bunch of industries? There’s a difference between talking about innovation and living innovation.”

A problem is borne by this sort of bureaucratic hell where “[studies demanded by the government] benefit large companies and will consolidate markets, but don’t help entrepreneurship,” noted Laporte. “The bigger players are getting bigger and bigger.”

Many of the obstacles Quebec entrepreneurs face are caused by a lack of vision in provincial leadership, concludes Hamel. “I think that today we lack a bit of that in the political scene, people who will push against all odds [in order to change things], even if it is unpopular and difficult.”

Gabrielle Drouin

Gabrielle Drouin

Gabrielle Drouin has completed a master's degree in Literature specializing in Quebec's contemporary dramaturgy at University of Montreal. She also worked as a journalist in Toronto, covering the news of its Franco-Ontarian community, and has been reporting on the Montreal startup tech ecosystem since 2016. She is currently the events coordinator at Notman House and the OSMO Foundation.