Iain Klugman is CEO of Communitech.
Kevin Lynch is vice-chair of Bank of Montreal.
Each September, thousands of new students stream into Ontario’s universities, carrying their clothes, books and increasingly global ambitions.
The question for Ontario and Canada is: Where will those ambitions ultimately take them?
If they are technically brilliant, entrepreneurial and highly motivated, as many of our graduates are, Silicon Valley will beckon – and it has only a little to do with the California weather.
With a population of just more than three million, the single corridor between San Francisco and San Jose has the greatest concentration of high-tech jobs in the United States; is the headquarters for technology companies with billions in sales and trillions in market capitalization; accounts for 40 per cent to 50 per cent of all U.S. venture capital investment; and embraces talented immigrants who account for about one-third of its scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs and startup founders.
While there are other highly ranked innovation centres in the United States, such as Boston, New York, Seattle, Chicago and Austin, these are actually losing ground relative to Silicon Valley – such is the pull of innovation gravity. Similar forces are at work elsewhere, be it London-Cambridge or Tel Aviv-Haifa or Singapore, where densely concentrated high-tech ecosystems have shown a similarly disproportionate capacity to shape the innovation performance of their countries.
These innovation “super ecosystems” share key attributes: an entrepreneurial culture where geeks are gods, deep talent pools, great research universities, abundant risk capital, enormous scalability of new innovations and the brand power to continually refresh themselves from globally mobile capital and talent.
Furthermore, the co-location of startups and existing large firms in a single, dense region gives early-stage companies access to risk-savvy big-name customers, while large companies benefit from the nimble and dynamic culture of experimentation and iterative thinking that drives high-growth startups.
So, where does this leave Ontario and Canada?
While this country is home to several globally competitive innovation centres, including Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal and Waterloo, only one region – the Toronto-Waterloo corridor – carries the unique potential to develop as Canada’s answer to Silicon Valley, and in the process, significantly move the needle on our national economy.
With its strong research universities and technical colleges, major international airport, population density (more than six million), vibrant immigration and nascent entrepreneurship culture, the Toronto-Waterloo corridor already has many of the ingredients essential to building a Silicon Valley-like innovation super ecosystem in Canada.
This corridor is home to 30 per cent of Canada’s university students and 21 per cent of the country’s population as well as the majority of its corporate headquarters, Canadian industry-led R&D spending and venture capital.
But it takes more than geography and statistics to build an innovation ecosystem capable of driving national productivity and growth. It requires an incredibly intensive interplay among world-class university research, targeted government support for technology development, industry R&D, venture capital and astute early adopters of the newly created technology.
That’s where thinking bigger comes in.
It’s tempting to look to Silicon Valley and assume all we need to do is produce more startups and attract more risk capital to grow them into billion-dollar companies. While we surely need to do those things, we also need to more fundamentally understand what led to Silicon Valley’s current status as the world’s premier engine for tech commercialization.
That engine was fuelled with massive research investments from the U.S. government to develop technology, initially with military applications. Steve Blank, the noted entrepreneur, academic and expert on Silicon Valley’s history, has credited these investments – and a Stanford University professor’s determination to secure a share of it for his university – for laying the foundation of the massive innovation ecosystem that has grown in its wake.
That professor, Frederick Terman, lured top scientists away from the then-dominant East Coast, seeding a West Coast talent zone that would draw successive rounds of government investment, and in turn, more talent. Prof. Terman, and over time more and more faculty at Stanford, encouraged their engineering students to start their own companies, mentored them and personally invested in their startups. This nascent ecosystem went on to spawn such pivotal players as Hewlett Packard, Fairchild Semiconductor, Intel, Apple and Google, to name a few.
Within the Toronto-Waterloo corridor, we produce superb technical talent, creative ideas and intellectual property to rival the world’s best – tens of thousands of our graduates work in Silicon Valley or Seattle or L.A., while others have opted to stay in Canada, or return after a stint away, to start companies.
Canadian entrepreneurs have repeatedly shown they can build game-changing technology right here at home, but too often these successes have been in spite of, not due to, the business conditions our innovators face.
To capture the full potential of the Toronto-Waterloo innovation corridor, we cannot think incrementally. We need a bold vision and even bolder leadership from government, the private sector and universities, buttressed by the ambition and confidence that we can take on the world and win. We also need to create concrete conditions for success, including more direct government support of technology development, faster transit links, financial lending services tailored to knowledge-based startups, strategic procurement by both governments and large firms, expedited visas for global talent and clear numeric targets for creating billion-dollar firms and tech jobs.
With strong leadership, bold action and a willingness to think big, Canada can become a global innovation superpower, where our best and brightest can pursue their wildest ambitions right here at home. That is in the Toronto-Waterloo innovation corridor.Report Typo/Error
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