MaRS CEO Ilse Treurnicht says immigration, attracting foreign investment key to Canada’s economic growth

Between the federal government having ongoing discussions with the entrepreneurship community on its innovation agenda, to provincial and municipal bodies launching initiatives in an effort to be more startup-friendly, the question of how innovation and entrepreneurship play into Canada’s long-term economic growth has been brought to the forefront.

“There will be additional recommendations coming around further streamlining the flow of talent processing.” – Ilse Treurnicht, MaRS CEO

On day two of CIX — which showcased its CIX Top 20 and featured a fireside chat with Allen Lau, CEO of CIX innovator of the year Wattpad — Ilse Treurnicht, MaRS’ CEO until 2017, sat with CIX co-chair BDC Capital vice-president of funds and co-investment Alison Nankivell discussing how Canada can re-energize its economy. Treurnicht is a member of Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s advisory council on economic growth, and she talked about the work of Canada’s advisory council on economic growth, and the thinking behind some of their recommendations revealed in October.

“This is not regurgitating many reports generated in the past, but getting at what we think of as the endowment of Canada and where the challenges and specific risks are. And coming up with a set of ideas that will help drive growth,” said Treurnicht.

The October report detailed three specific areas of focus: supporting Canadian infrastructure with a dedicated infrastructure bank that will deliver $200 billion worth of infrastructure projects over the next 10 years, attracting more foreign investment, and increasing immigration to 450,000 per year over the next five years.

“Canada has a very significant infrastructure deficit; some put that number at as high as a trillion dollars, many settle on more than $680 billion,” said Treurnicht.

Treurnicht said that Canada needs to be more strategic in attracting foreign investment to boost its own companies. To do this, the council recommended creating a foreign direct investment hub focused on attracting FDIs, which Treurnicht said should be fully operational by 2017 with a full-time sales staff. The government will dedicate $18 million over the next five years to the office.

As for the council’s ambitious goal to attract more immigrants (For his part, Canada’s Immigration Minister John McCallum said the number may be too ambitious), Treurnicht indicated that this push is being driven in large part by a tech community vocal about the need for global talent. She cited the recently-announced Global Skills Strategy, including its fast-tracked visa process and short-duration work permit, as positive signs. “The government has heard loud and clear from the tech community that delays in attracting high-caliber executive talent into scaling firms is an issue. So there has to be streamlining of those processes.”

“There will be additional recommendations coming around further streamlining the flow of talent processing. We’re encouraged that there’s been action on this first set of recommendations,” Treurnicht said.

Treurnicht outlined some of the issues that the council is continuing to examine for late 2016, such as the challenges facing scaling firms, looking at whether Canada’s current innovation programs are effective, and preparing the workforce for a future dominated by automation. The council is also examining ways to encourage inclusive growth, and supporting people from marginalized groups to participate in the labour market.

“Procurement is a topic we’ve recycled many times in our Canadian processes, so we’re looking at that again. And…how do we deal with the challenging R&D investment deficit in established firms,” said Treurnicht.

“If you look at our risk capital strategy, building an approach for the tech sector will leave gaps in areas like cleantech, which is a priority,” said Treurnicht. “We are looking at somewhat controversial areas, like how does Canada think about more defined sector strategies. The timeline is too short to flush it out, but we’re trying to create at least one case that is illustrative of if we focus on one sector, what will happen globally.”