The COVID-19 pandemic presents opportunities for Canadian innovation, according to CCI’s Jim Balsillie and Dan Breznitz of the University of Toronto, despite accelerating negative economic trends.
Balsillie, the retired chairman and co-CEO of RIM and current chair of the Council of Canadian Innovators (CCI), and Breznitz, the Munk Chair of Innovation Studies, made the comments Monday during a webinar on Canada’s Innovation Imperative hosted by the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. BetaKit’s Meagan Simpson served as moderator.
“COVID actually allows you to do a lot of things you couldn’t do before.”
Designed as a discussion on the question of how Canada can build a competitive advantage through policy that leverages innovation, Balsillie and Breznitz argued that Canada missed the shift from the tangible to intangible economy.
Historically the tangible economy included the sale and production of physical property in revenue generation, while the intangible focuses on intellectual property and data.
With this idea in mind, Balsillie and Breznitz covered topics ranging from COVID-19, how the recent election results in the United States will impact innovation policy between Canada and the US, and provided advice to entrepreneurs and students working in the innovation economy.
According to Balsillie, there is an “existential” need for Canada to develop a new plan related to innovation. He referenced an October letter by CCI, signed by 132 Canadian tech leaders, petitioning the federal government to devise a prosperity plan for innovation due to the pandemic.
Speaking to the letter during the webinar, Balsillie noted that Canada fell to 22nd in the 2020 edition of the Bloomberg Innovation Index, adding that the nation’s innovation outputs have also shrunk since 2000.
Breznitz’s outlook was also notably pessimistic about Canada’s innovation strategy. He argued that over the last 15 years, Canada’s business sector “has been less innovative with every passing year.” However, he commented that COVID-19 has presented innovators with opportunity.
“COVID actually allows you to do a lot of things you couldn’t do before,” said Breznitz. “All of us are home with a computer, what better time to innovate and do things under COVID that you couldn’t do before.”
Breznitz and Balsillie both noted that despite the need for government to address immediate, COVID-related concerns for business, the pandemic also presents an opportunity for Canada to lead on policies that help with bolstering innovation in the future.
The pair also discussed how Joe Biden’s election could impact Canadian and US innovation policy between the two nations. Balsillie was quick to argue that not much changed between the previous Obama and Trump administrations, pointing to issues like the push for Canada to sign the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Agreement and softwood lumber trade.
Balsillie and Breznitz also addressed intellectual property (IP) and the importance of developing government policies to make Canada more competitive in that arena.
Canada has to assume that it is in a position of weakness, Breznitz argued. He claimed there is nothing that can be done to change that position if the country plays “the quantity game” in relation to amassing intellectual property.
Instead, he argued that Canada needs a strategic intangible strategy with a four-fold aim, including a focus on ensuring the freedom of operation and “asymmetric IP warfare” that focuses on quality and control over quantity.
He also pointed to the importance of ensuring Canadian firms have a voice and the need for the widespread diffusion of Canadian technologies, as well as avoiding signing international trade treaties that work against Canadian interests.
Balsillie argued that the innovation sector should take a page out of the playbook of “old industrial strategies.”
The CCI chair, who led an expert panel for Ontario on IP over the last year, argued for the need to educate Canadian entrepreneurs and founders on how ideas are generated, controlled, and commercialized.
Breznitz chimed in with caution for founders around taking venture capital too early, especially from American VCs. He pointed to other opportunities for entrepreneurs to build big Canadian companies.