More than a month into the COVID-19 shutdown, predictions are coming out daily that Canada’s technology industry is in for major challenges.
It’s not surprising, because the life of a technology entrepreneur isn’t easy during the best of times. As one myself, I can tell you that it’s a lot of long 14-hour days, urgent scrambles for funding, and from morning to night, strategizing for how you can achieve the monumental task of getting industry to see just how much value your technology brings to the table.
I’m not complaining – in fact, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I happily chose this life and I have a true passion for making Absolute Combustion succeed, because as the CEO of a cleantech company that lowers emissions and makes industries like oil and gas an aviation more sustainable, I know that the risk I’m taking in giving the company everything I’ve got will not only benefit my investors, myself and my family if the company succeeds, but all of Canada.
Companies like mine each form a tiny part of a vast and diverse puzzle – and when this puzzle’s final pieces click into place, our country will have the future we’ve all been working towards. Our small tech innovators are taking huge risks to bring Canada into this new era, and the benefits diffuse to impact all areas of our economy. In a recent article in the Calgary Herald, Business Council of Alberta President Adam Legge described our tech sector as something that, rather than existing on its own, works to support all other industries through its innovation.
Adam Legge, President of the Business Council of Alberta
“Technology is not necessarily a sector on its own — it’s an enabler of all other sectors. Jurisdictions that are able to grow and develop their technology and innovation capacity are going to be the ones that are high-growth jurisdictions.”
And when those industries suffer, so do we. Here in Alberta, our challenges are compounded by the seismic shakeup in our energy sector. Many small technology companies, including mine, got our start in developing solutions to make oil and gas cleaner, safer and more efficient. The good news is that many types of these technology products and services are transferable to other sectors and can become the foundation for our province’s post-pandemic recovery and economic diversification – but we need a lot of support to get there.
On April 17th, Prime Minister Trudeau announced another level of support through the National Research Council’s Industrial Research Assistance Program (IRAP) for small technology companies who fell through the cracks of earlier restrictive program guidelines.
I’m glad that our government is recognizing that revenue is not the only indicator of the value of these companies – it’s a stage on a longer-term process of growth that takes a lot of work, R&D and support to reach.
This funding came after a wave of protests that earlier programs only supported companies at a mature development stage. It’s a reality of our political system that often, economic policies that impact our industries are created by people outside of those realities, and I imagine it would be hard to find many small technology entrepreneurs in the offices of Ottawa ministers.
This new $250M in IRAP funding is a great start – but as someone on the ground and living through the impact of COVID-19 on our critical part of the economy, I have a few ideas for how to build a roadmap that can help us turn our small technology companies into the engines of our recovery.
Funding that works for all levels of the industry
Our technology companies have a natural evolution though stages of growth, and if we don’t fund each step, we lose the emerging companies we have in our developmental pipeline. From early R&D to stable revenue generation, each of these stages is a link in a chain that if broken, will destabilize Canada’s future goals for technology industry strength. The government needs to understand these steps in development and work with our technology ecosystem to address each of their individual needs.
Support for companies to adopt innovations
One of the most critical gaps that holds Canada back in global innovation rankings is the shift from R&D to full commercialization. For Absolute Combustion, it took a lot of support from industry mentors like the late Suzanne West of Imaginea and organizations like Alberta Innovators to not only get a marketable project but persuade industry to take a chance on a new way of operating. More funding for industry technology upgrading and new programs to help small companies get in the door through mentorship and advocacy could bring about a big shift in innovation for Canada. I would suggest a special grant program for industry engagement specifically with younger start ups.
Retraining our talented workers
Canada, and especially Alberta, has a massive reserve of highly skilled workers that are being displaced from major industries like energy. As a country, we spend tens of millions of dollars a year trying to recruit internationally to fill our gaps in the technology sector because this shortfall is one of the prime issues holding our innovation levels back. I believe it’s time to take a stronger look at the talent we have right now within our borders, and create a large-scale plan for identifying critical workforce gaps and giving our workers the support they need to become a part of our economic transformation.
Building diversity into Canada’s recovery
In Canada, just 25% of technology industry workers are women, and with even greater disparities when it comes to Indigenous peoples and other underrepresented groups. As a woman of mixed African-Canadian and Chocktaw background, I’m not going to be shy about saying that I have personally experienced industry exclusion and our government has not put enough resources towards building a more diverse technology sector. It’s not just for the benefit of the people from these backgrounds – many studies show that inclusive companies are more profitable, have higher equity values and a corporate culture that leads to more productivity and employee retention. This needs to be addressed now more than ever, when these same groups are at risk of greater disenfranchisement from the pandemic. I would advise a special government task force to address the disproportionate impact of the crisis and how we can ensure an inclusive recovery strategy.
The recovery from COVID-19 and our energy crash will be a long and difficult process – but there are so many reasons for Canada to be optimistic that we can make it, and end up with a better innovation economy than we started with. This will only happen, however, if we make a concerted effort to understand and address all of the moving parts involved in our technology community.
At the Canadian Blockchain Consortium, we’re making this a key part of our mandate, and have been hosting virtual events to create unity through technology and generate ideas that will make a difference in the enormous challenges we’re facing. It’s going to take diverse participation from all sectors of industry, government and academic, but I’m confident that by working together and supporting our technology entrepreneurs, the destabilization we’re experiencing can be a catalyst for bringing about a fairer, more inclusive and diverse economy that works for all Canadians.