Hosted by Dr. Sarah Lubik
Canadian Opportunities for Leadership in the Digital Economy
Highlights of Discussion
Fifteen business leaders, digital entrepreneurs and supporters came together in Silicon Valley to discuss Canadian opportunities for leadership in the digital economy. Others reached out individually to provide input and recommendations on where and how Canada can position itself for long-term advantage in the digital and data-driven space.
Discussions found that Canada is well situated to lead in the digital and data space. However, to do so we must reconsider commonly accepted narratives, redefining what it means to succeed and what resources and supports are necessary to get there. We must also continue to both create and attract talent in key areas through a responsive education system and a comprehensive approach to immigration. Finally, we must look at how best to create, relocate and support businesses in a digital economy. Building national leadership around technology is a long game, but we have some companies we should be taking risks on. We must look at what tools and resources are required to build competitive companies and how we can forge partnerships to leverage our existing strengths.
Key Opportunities / Considerations / Challenges
- Funding and Support
- The amount of Canadian funding available is not the only, and probably not the most important, problem to fix. Canadian funders rely heavily on government to step up and create funds and supports. Canadian funders’ expectations around risk, amount and the equity that should be exchanged for it are often not in-line with more ambitious global investors.
- Leading in Technology does not mean just focusing on Technologists
- Canada is lacking executive (C-suite and sales) talent as Canadian companies struggle to recruit and offer competitive pay as compared to other countries. We must create entrepreneurs and leaders while simultaneously building our tech and STEM capacity.
- Create a digitalization plan, including adoption
- Being proactive is key. We must look at how to forecast what industries are going to be disrupted and if possible, get ahead of it.
- A risk adverse mindset is still a long-term challenge. Mindset is developed early and requires a long term investment.
- Canada has good pilot programs to bring top talent to Canada for companies that re-locate, however they can be expanded and improved upon for other groups.
- Build strength in a few key areas through universities
- Canada has some of the top global talent in AI due to early investments; however, this talent is now being drawn to places that can pay more. Addressing this requires a long term focus. We also need to choose other areas we think will be transformative in the future.
- The role of incubators
- Canada has given significant funding to incubators to help create companies and jobs, however, there is skepticism about whether this funding is propping up companies that couldn’t survive alone for too long, creating a reliance on government funding. Improvements could be made to focus more on creating winning and international mindset, as well as attracting the best from around the globe. This would have the added bonus of showing Canadian companies what world class companies look like.
- Canada must create incentives for investors and companies that are likely to create significant value. This is not exclusive to credits or tax cuts.
- Collaborate, don’t compete
- Canada is not very large as a country and so our strength will be in coming together as a collective. We are stronger when all sectors, industry, academia, government, etc., work together.
- Defining Success
- Set targets around market leadership (eg. are we producing and attracting market leaders and supporting them to remain leaders) and scientific leadership (eg. do we have the most noted researchers) as well as number of companies establishing international offices, as Israel does. These may be more forward-looking metrics of success. We must change the Canadian attitude from “how do we not lose” to” how do we win”. Could hold a “top idea” competition, with both Canadian and international entries, that looks for bold ideas as an alternative to funding based on incremental ideas. We must also look beyond US companies as the only comparator for Canadian success.
- Funding Mechanisms
- Create mechanisms for Canadian angels and investors to learn from international investors and get onboard with international deals. Set targets around attraction of foreign investment funds and actively engage to get them here. Start expecting incubators and training programs to lure the top from around the world, not just Canada, and fund competitively. Ensure the first significant investment startups means that startups will stay in Canada, but link it to international activity (spending time in other places to create networks and expand mindset).
- Promote both growing and attracting companies
- Possible link to being more welcoming to foreign-founded start-ups, especially in key areas. Incentivize startups to have some leadership frequently in the valley but workforce in Canadian cities, like Vancouver. Set up programs that give reason for top startups to move to Canada (not just life style. Think what else can we offer? Select funding opportunities? Networks? Etc). Better leverage Canadian expat networks. Expats want to be engaged for more than just conversations or receptions. Try linking funds to affordable housing for promising entrepreneurs to encourage relocation.
- Tech Adoption
- Create incentives for Canadian companies to adopt technologies. This may include national training programs for the employees that will lead the adoption.
- Include entrepreneurial mindset training earlier in the education as mandatory. Provide funding and incentives for updating curriculum and training the next round of teachers.
- Early and Diverse Education
- We must look at teaching upcoming technologies much earlier and across the country (eg. Estonia’s inclusion of coding, Bing School in Stanford). Consider what it would mean to teach AI and VR in kindergarten. More focus in schools on what the power of diversity is and programs that leverage this power. Set a goal around percentage of STEM talent working in areas deemed key for the future. Markets are international and Canadian students need more and earlier exposure to international cultures, opportunities and markets. Invest in programs providing this type of training (eg. Cansbridge fellowship, SFU international entrepreneurship co-op).
- Responsive Immigration System
- Have a VISA to keep entrepreneurial talent from universities and let them work on their own ventures as right now they have to work for other companies and must drop their ventures. Realize that bringing in mid-level tech talent is still easier in the states and find a way to fix that. Turn pilots around quick visas for top talent into full programs and expand.
- Global Talent
- Pick a few key areas where Canada leads in fundamental and emerging science (eg. machine learning, VR/AR and machine imagery) and incentive universities to attract that talent. This could include technologies for infrastructure, such as material science, where we also have an advantage. In these areas, provide funding to attract and keep the top talent in the world.
- Leveraging our Post-secondary Education Institutes
- Fund programming to train students in commercialization because they will both commercialize the technology and assist in companies’ ability to adopt the new technologies. Re-route funding from downstream programs to education and research in the areas we think they are moving to. Fund and encourage ways to make engagement with universities easier, specifically around use of IP.
- Set up incubators in the heart of cities dedicated to areas ripe for digitization, which also helps show interest outside of major urban centres, for example, Forestry in Nelson or Smart Cities in New York. Have later stage incubators focus on not only helping Canadian companies but attracting the best in their field from around the world through clear focus. Look at global comparators, for example, national competitions in Canada that take equity versus international accelerators and incent Canadian programs to come more in line, in terms of how much equity is given for what funding.
- Incentivizing Private Sector investment
- Find ways to make investing early in key sectors attractive. Make sure tax incentives to invest early don’t then tie companies to not being able to move or expand.
- Incent provinces, cities and other levels of territory to collaborate, not compete
- We are not very big as a country and would be stronger working together. Create innovation funding opportunities for networks across provinces and provincial collaboration. Consider major cities as gateways to the rest of the region rather than where companies come and stay. Perhaps create networks of smaller companies through agreements to become one larger market.
- Attracting and Building Talent
- Look at creating parallel programs like those that help hire tech talent for sales and other hard to find talent, including people who know how to scale (eg. Mayor’s Go-to-Grow London). Encourage creation of programs to create more real world sales and innovative executive talent. Could work with business schools to create. Work with select cities to build up quality of life and cultural amenities to make it more attractive to re-locate or move back for the second or third venture, or to become an investor (eg. Vienna or Paris). Invest in infrastructure in and between key areas (eg. Salt Lake City attracted surgeons by investing in trails).
- Connections Silicon Valley
- Vinetta Project
- Innovate BC
- 500 Startups
- Urban Logiq
- London & Partners
- Zennea Technology
- Silicon Valley Bank
- Spike Ventures
Also consulted (unavailable for in-person roundtable)
- Cansbridge Fellowship
- The Floow Limited
- Credit Karma
- Practice of Innovation
- Forty Ninth Investments