TORONTO – A panel of technology heavyweights gathered in Toronto to talk about innovation in the country and how Canada could be primed to attract the world’s best talent and grow its tech hubs.
Google Canada’s managing director Chris O’Neill argued that Canadian businesses need to be less timid, embrace risk and experiment earlier with web technologies.
“Canadians, I like to say, like to be first to be second. So our mission is to get them over that hurdle,” O’Neill said.
“The greatest gift of the web and cloud computing, in my humble opinion, is the ability to be proven wrong faster. It’s so much lower risk to take a bet on the web and then learn what works and what doesn’t.”
Salesforce.com senior vice president Daniel Debow echoed that point and said Canadian start-up companies can thrive at home if they get better support.
“There’s no question that Canadian corporate buyers — and I’d actually say government buyers in particular — need to become much more aggressive about trying new things and being more willing to try Canadian products and services earlier on in their cycle,” he said.
“I found it very ironic, often you’d get, ‘Yeah, I’d like to see a bunch of Americans use this and then we’ll try it.’ There’s more people coming back from Silicon Valley to Toronto or Vancouver or Montreal to start companies but the one next area we have to push on is buying behaviour.”
Facebook Canada’s managing director Jordan Banks told the audience that Canada’s multiculturalism is its greatest asset and our leaders should encourage more talented immigrants to come here.
“The countries that the vast majorities of these immigrants are coming from have entrepreneurship in their DNA, they’re merchants, they’re traders, they’re creators and they bring that to Canada — and that’s not necessarily an ethos that’s existed here en masse,” Banks said.
“And they are incredibly excited about creating, in their very hearts they are here to create and build new things.”
Following the presentation, Banks and Debow sat down with The Canadian Press to flesh out their ideas on fostering innovation in Canada.
CP: What’s your vision of Canada’s innovation prospects in the next decade?
JB: Canada is breeding the best talent in a knowledge economy focused on STEM — science, technology, engineering and math. Canada, better than any other country, is retaining that talent and so these are Canadians and non-Canadians alike who are here because they want to be here, because we pay competitively, because we’re staffing them on projects that not only empower them but make them feel like they’re having tremendous local and global impact. And we’re building and creating and marketing and selling stuff that matters. We (continue to) do those things well and we are in huge shape.
CP: What are some of the potential barriers to innovative thinking here?
DD: It is such a great country with a such a high GDP and such a comfortable way of life that many people are very happy, they’re very comfortable, they’re like, ‘Hey, what do I need to build a world-beating company for, why do we need to go do this? It’s just going to come (to us).’ And I think that’s a very dangerous thing, complacency…. We should be a little nervous about the future, we shouldn’t be always so secure that everything’s happy here. We definitely should not be smug in saying, ‘Oh, our banks were awesome, look how wonderful we are, we’re the best in the world,’ because you know what? I think I saw that attitude at a lot of companies that just disappeared very quickly.
CP: How can we attract in-demand talent to Canada?
JB: I think the biggest opportunity in front of us — and it sounds really airy and fairy — is we need a brand in Canada that we can take to the six million first generation Canadians who are loving this country. We need a brand they can hold onto and they can evangelize to their entire network back home. So every really smart Asian engineering student or every really smart Indonesian engineering student, if we figure out a way to make their educational and social and professional experience so darn good and had them megaphone that back to all their really smart friends where ever they’re living, we would open the doors and we would be flooded with talent…. There’s an allure of Silicon valley, there’s an allure of Tel Aviv, but the quality of life in Canada — you look at the multiculturalism that exists in Canada, you look at the four seasons, the affordability — it’s an unbelievable place to live. And guess what? We’ve got amazing educational institutions that are still reasonably priced, we’ve got awesome professors, put all this together, package it and make it real. If I was prime minister that’s what I would do, I would create a new brand of Canada and say, ‘This is what we are, this is what we stand for and this is what we’re doing to make sure it comes to life.’
CP: How competitive is Canada today in attracting the brightest minds?
DD: We keep saying Canada versus the U.S. but let’s be really specific, I’m very convinced Toronto and the Toronto region is far more innovative than most places in the United States, far more innovative than Oklahoma or Arkansas. What we’re really talking about is New York City, Chicago and Silicon Valley and the West Coast, frankly that’s the competition and we should frame it around that. We don’t actually have to worry about all Americans, we have to worry about these hyper clusters and the crazy thing is Canada has three of the best in the world, we have these clusters here where we have all the ingredients that come together. We probably should worry less about how do we make Canada competitive and what do we need to do to make (places like) Toronto, Montreal, Quebec City — it’s actually blowing me away with how many companies are coming out of Halifax right now, and Fredericton — (competitive).
CP: Do you agree with the sentiment that Canadian businesses “like to be first to be second?”
JB: I think it’s changing. I thought Own the Podium for us was a major milestone moment in Canada, where no longer were we afraid to say, ‘We are going for gold and anything less might not be acceptable.’ You go back in the history of our country across sports, across commerce and industry, very few Canadian leaders or businesses have ever stood up and said, ‘We’re all about being No. 1’ and I think that shook the foundation of our society. People realized not only can we say it but we can perform pretty well, we did it, we celebrate those goals. So I think for a while we were fast followers but I think Own the Podium in some respects changed the way we think about it — and we see it at Facebook every day.