Ottawa, it’s time for your closeup

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In its first budget earlier this spring, the Liberal government announced it is going to invest $800 million in innovation, entrepreneurship and technology cluster development over the next four years. 

Shopify's cool headquarters are indeed in Ottawa, a fact not everyone is aware of.

by Jeffrey Dale

Over the past decade, we’ve talked a lot about innovation in Canada but have done nothing to help it and many things to hurt it. From research investments to exports, this country ranks near the bottom of most major developed countries in almost all measures of innovation.

So what role will Ottawa’s tech sector play in trying to help the feds rehabilitate Canada’s sagging innovation performance? If we just sit back and wait, we’ll barely be on the stage.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau was recently in Waterloo, where he touted that city as the model for how a regional cluster can support innovation and entrepreneurship. That same week, the mayors of Toronto, Kitchener, Waterloo and Cambridge were all in Silicon Valley promoting the Toronto-Waterloo corridor as “the” tech cluster in Canada.

I recently met with an engineer working in Ottawa who didn’t know that Shopify was headquartered here but he knew the e-commerce powerhouse had an office in Waterloo. Even our great success stories are not as well-known as we think they are. 

Don’t assume that I think Ottawa is better than Waterloo. Each city has its strengths, and I am a great admirer of Communitech (Waterloo’s version of Invest Ottawa) and Waterloo companies.

But while Ottawa is still struggling to get its act together, Communitech and its supporters have a clear plan to develop the Toronto-Waterloo corridor, and they are executing it brilliantly.

Waterloo companies know the plan, they know the numbers, they know their priorities and they can speak knowledgeably about them to anyone who asks. They want to grow their firms with more talent and more capital; they want better transportation between Waterloo and Toronto to allow senior talent to flow more easily between the two centres; and they want export support for their companies to grow in emerging markets. They take politicians and representatives of their companies with them wherever they go to reinforce these priorities.

Here in Ottawa, do our businesses and public officials know what our tech sector’s priorities are? Only if they’re directly involved with Invest Ottawa.

The region’s tech sector is alive and well, and Invest Ottawa CEO Bruce Lazenby has been trumpeting its successes for years. But every business leader in this city needs to talk about how Ottawa is a leading innovation economy in Canada. The city’s business leaders and politicians also need to have the facts to back up that talk, and we need to know our priorities when it comes to what we have to do to continue being successful.

Here are some facts from Invest Ottawa:

Number of tech companies: 1,700

Number of people employed at those companies: 68,000

Sixty-one per cent of the city’s workforce has a post-secondary degree, the highest percentage in Canada

The region has the highest number of workers with PhDs and master’s degrees in Canada at 128,000

More than 120,000 local students are enrolled in post-secondary education

Ottawa’s two main technology sectors are telecommunications and the emerging area of software as a service (SaaS). Nortel may be gone, but the talent that made Ottawa one of the top five networking clusters in the world is still here working at places like Avaya, Ciena, Cisco, Ericsson, Mitel, Nokia and dozens of other other companies.

The last three Canadian companies to go public are Shopify, Kinaxis and Halogen Software. They are all SaaS companies headquartered in Ottawa. Kanata’s L-Spark accelerator is an industry-leading program to scale cloud startups into international companies that is driving growth in the SaaS sector in Ottawa and beyond.

The facts are Ottawa has more technology companies, more people employed in technology companies and more students enrolled in science and technology programs than Waterloo. But Waterloo companies are a lot better at telling their story than we are.

Ottawa’s local MPs, MPPs and councillors need to promote the region to their fellow politicians across the province and the country. They also need to make our business needs a regional priority when the agenda is set on Parliament Hill and at Queen’s Park.

I would welcome the opportunity to speak at an upcoming local caucus meeting about how we can work together to promote the Ottawa tech sector’s needs.

Our business leaders must be the driver for all of our economic priorities. I have been at too many meetings where local CEOs and entrepreneurs focus on what is wrong instead of on what we need to do to have a stronger economy.

Wherever companies come from, they need the same general supports to attract and retain top talent, enter new international markets and access capital and credit facilities to support growth. They also need governments to streamline their support programs and change procurement policies to support Canadian innovation.

It is up to our business community to communicate these priorities to our elected officials and other economic leaders. There are a host of ways to do this.

I encourage all businesses to invite their local politicians and government officials to visit their offices for a tour and discussion. When companies are meeting with customers and suppliers, they need to stress why they are headquartered in Ottawa or have offices here. Invest Ottawa has a great presentation on its website with helpful facts and figures on what makes the capital a great place to do business; the same website guides business leaders on how to become ambassadors for the city and help spread that message further.

What Ottawa’s tech sector needs is no different than what the tech sectors in Toronto, Waterloo, Montreal or Vancouver need to be successful. So let’s talk about our successes and encourage our companies as they build internationally recognized businesses.

If we don’t do it, no one else will.

Jeffrey Dale is the president of Snowy Cloud and the former president of the Ottawa Centre for Research and Innovation.

Organizations: Toronto-Waterloo, Communitech, Nortel Avaya Cisco Ericsson Mitel Nokia Ottawa Centre for Research

Geographic location: Ottawa, Waterloo, Canada Toronto Kitchener Cambridge Silicon Valley Parliament Hill Montreal Vancouver

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