Canada’s tech ecosystem has quickly become one of the tech world’s greatest success stories, but government, entrepreneurs, and financers need to take advantage of the country’s massive growth, while they can. That was the key takeaway from a panel discussion featuring Ontario government leaders and entrepreneurs during Day One of #CollisionConf 2019.
“There is an unfair window of competitive advantage, but it doesn’t last forever.”
Minister of Small Business and Export Mary Ng, CEO of Invest in Canada Ian McKay, CEO of MaRS Discovery District Yung Wu, and partner at Fragoman Audrea Golding, spoke about how far Canada’s tech ecosystem has come in recent years, and what challenges it still faces.
“What’s happened in Canada is not an overnight success story,” McKay said. “This has been put in place over a number of decades with sound public policy, with governments focused on critical research, on funding universities, creating good raw materials, human resources in Canada over the generations that have now caught the world’s attention.”
The federal government has made a host of investments in Ontario companies through regional development agencies like FedDev Ontario, which in February announced a more than $1 billion investment to startups and non-profits in Southern Ontario, and the $52.4 million ScaleUp program funding for regional innovation hubs. On the provincial side, however, the Ontario government has made cuts to innovation hubs across the province, including Communitech and MaRS Discovery District.
McKay noted though, that in 2018, Canada saw a 60 percent growth in foreign direct investment (FDI) over 2017, which he said was a significant outlier in comparison to the rest of the world.
“We’re not going to hang our hat on this,” McKay said about the foreign investment. “We need to recognize that there’s something going on. There’s something going on in terms of what is happening right in Canada from a public policy and entrepreneurial perspective.”
He said governments need to have a laser focus on what they did right in order to come to that condition, as opposed to assuming that traction will continue on its own.
“The world has almost pressed pause on trade and investment, and we have a moment in Canada to capture that window and succeed,” McKay stayed.
One of the most notorious challenges for Canada, in supporting the growth of its tech ecosystem, is access to talent. Golding spoke about Canada’s tech ecosystem growth in light of recent affairs in the United States. She said what’s happening in the United States will inevitably have a long-term effect on what happens in Canada’s tech ecosystem. She said the United States has always been an attractive place for homegrown Canadian talent to flock to, but the federal government has been working attract and retain talent to fill that gap.
“While there are efforts to increase the university graduation levels and other technical skills here, there is still a shortage of talent to keep this technology drive going,” Golding said. “There was a concerted effort on the part of the Trudeau government a couple of years ago, [in] understanding that tech was going to be, or had become, a huge way to diversify the economy away from some of the traditional sectors that Canada has been focused on. And a key component of that in many areas was immigration.”
Golding mentioned that programs like the Global Skills Strategy, which powers the Global Talent Stream (recently made permanent), are one of the driving factors that allow Canadian companies access the right talent quickly, collaborate with teams globally, and address this challenge head-on.
Wu said the success of MaRS’ ventures, which generated $1.4 billion in revenue and raised $1.3 billion over a 12-month period, reflects the sort of success that Canada’s broader tech ecosystem is seeing.
“There is an unfair window of competitive advantage, but it doesn’t last forever,” Wu said. “So we have to play to win. We’ve got this moment, all this stuff going on, but there are still challenges in this ecosystem.”