Invest Ottawa to narrow focus on globally competitive tech firms

In preview of new strategic plan, CEO Michael Tremblay said organization should avoid putting too many resources behind locally oriented companies
Tremblay
Invest Ottawa CEO Michael Tremblay.
Editor's Note

This article was updated to include additional comments from former Invest Ottawa CEO Bruze Lazenby and to include the number of people affected by the restructuring effort.

The head of Invest Ottawa unveiled his vision for the city’s lead economic development agency Wednesday, arguing the organization needs to throw its full weight behind high-potential tech firms with global ambitions at the expense of companies serving local markets.

Michael Tremblay, a former Microsoft executive who joined Invest Ottawa in March, presented a draft version of a five-year strategic plan during a breakfast event hosted by the West Ottawa Board of Trade. He’ll be asking the Invest Ottawa board to formally endorse the plan later today.

During his 40-minute address, Mr. Tremblay said he wants his organization to focus on companies connected to the digital economy and geared towards markets that will provide “generational” growth and prosperity.

He said he wants Ottawa companies to capitalize on what’s known as the “Fourth Industrial Revolution,” an economic era broadly characterized by various new technologies that combine physical, digital and biological elements.

Mr. Tremblay didn’t say Ottawa should focus on a specific sector, and instead said the city is fortunate to be home to a diversified tech base that includes strong software, clean-tech and defence industries, and to have reduced its once-disproportionate reliance on telecom.

However, he suggested Invest Ottawa needs to be more selective in choosing the companies it supports and said the organization should take Ottawa “into the future using long guns, not shotguns.”

He said he’s “concerned” about the tendency of the wider Ottawa community to not “leave any bad idea behind.”

“We have to get over that,” he said. “We have limited resources and we have to be able to shut bad ideas down early.”

Mr. Tremblay later added that “getting behind a company that’s competing only in Ottawa” would be a mistake for the economic development organization.

Change in tone

Parts of Mr. Tremblay's messages differ from some of the public statements his predecessor, Bruce Lazenby, in the early days of his mandate.

A few months after being appointed the head of the organization then known as OCRI, Mr. Lazenby changed its name to Invest Ottawa – fulfilling a campaign promise by Mayor Jim Watson – and expanded its economic development mandate.

Bruce Lazenby
Former Invest Ottawa CEO Bruce Lazenby.

During his time as CEO, Mr. Lazenby also emphasized support for high-growth, export-oriented companies as well as job creation. However, he also spoke publicly about broader economic development, saying he wanted Invest Ottawa to be a one-stop shop for businesses and aspiring entrepreneurs.

“If you get off the bus in Ottawa and say, 'I want to start a barbershop,' we'll help you out,” Mr. Lazenby said, as quoted by the Ottawa Citizen in 2012.

However, Mr. Lazenby told OBJ this week that he sees Mr. Tremblay building upon the direction he charted for Invest Ottawa and expressed support for his successor.

"(Mr. Tremblay) is on a similar path to where we were going, but he will take it to the next level," Mr. Lazenby said.

Following his presentation this week, Mr. Tremblay was asked by two audience members if his vision meant that Invest Ottawa would be solely focused on high-tech firms.

He responded by noting that some 5,500 individuals took advantage of classroom and “self-serve” programs geared towards early stage businesses this year, learning about topics such as copyright law, filing an initial business tax return and blockchain technology. Mr. Tremblay said he hopes that number will rise to 7,000 people next year.

However, he said all of the 40-odd startups being incubated at Bayview Yards are tech firms – something he said he doesn’t see changing.

Bayview Yards
Bayview Yards

Other concepts touted by Mr. Tremblay included:

  • Turning the Bayview Yards incubator into an “entrepreneurship factory” producing the maximum number of companies that can be scaled and taken globally;

  • Helping company founders who are heavily invested in R&D forge deep connections with post-secondary institutions and large companies that are tied to the supply chains of that respective industrial sector;

  • Physically expanding Bayview Yards; and

  • Doing more to help Ottawa small and medium-sized enterprises sell to the federal, provincial and municipal governments.

‘Changes’ to Invest Ottawa team

Mr. Tremblay also alluded to a staffing shakeup at Invest Ottawa and Bayview Yards, saying the organizations needed to have “the best people” to deliver their work.

“We had to make some changes last week, which were relatively significant to our team,” he said. “We’ve taken the necessary steps to position ourselves for a strong year in (2018).”

In a follow-up email, he said "there were four roles held by good people that we were unable to support in our new structure.

"We deeply appreciate all the contributions of these employees, and sincerely wish all of them the best in their future endeavors."

Following today’s board meeting, Mr. Tremblay said he’ll be travelling to China on Friday as part of a trade mission led by Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne. Mr. Tremblay said he has 34 meetings scheduled with different companies, largely focused on autonomous vehicle technologies.