John Ruffolo is co-founder and vice-chair of the Council of Canadian Innovators.
In August, 2011, technology legend Marc Andreessen wrote his seminal article titled Why Software Is Eating the World, which became the central investment thesis behind his venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz. Andreessen’s prognostication has since followed Amara’s Law on the effect of technology, which aptly states: “We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.” The feast has really just begun.
We are in the midst of the Fourth Industrial Revolution – or as some call it, the Information Revolution. Although the magnitude of the changes recalls the First Industrial Revolution’s disruptive shifts, it is the speed of change that is unprecedented.
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In my view, the Information Revolution really began to take shape in 2008, catalyzed by three incredibly powerful and converging forces – mobility-first, cloud computing and social media. All three forces collided together with full impact in 2008, spawning a wave of new technology companies. That year, through these three forces, the promise of the internet in the 1990s as a place where “you can get what you want, when you want it and how you want to consume it” was finally realized.
The next phase of the Fourth Industrial Revolution will see the rise of a new species of company – the “disruptors.” While technology companies will continue to grow, we are witnessing the enablement of those technologies across all economic sectors as the leading weapon used by new entrants to disrupt the traditional incumbents in their respective industries. The massive influx of venture capital to support the building and growth of technology companies over the past 10 years has produced these tools, such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, and the internet of things, which are now being leveraged across all industries.
Those companies that can harness these new technologies to operate better and faster, and to gain unmatched insights into their customers, will prosper. Although these disruptors are not technology companies in the conventional sense, their tight focus on value creation through innovation further blurs the lines between a technology company and a traditional company.
The incumbents, however, are not asleep at the wheel. To ward off the disruptors, they know they must embrace technology. It is this battleground that I believe will generate the greatest wealth creation and transfer opportunities over the next decade. The disruptors, naturally, are particularly active in those industries where they perceive the incumbents to be burdened by outdated technological infrastructure or business models, and hard-pressed to counterattack.
Yesterday, the disruptors focused primarily on consumer sectors such as the music industry, travel booking, newspapers, magazines and book publishing. Today, it’s groceries, entertainment and personal transportation, thanks to Amazon, Netflix and Uber, respectively.
But consumer-focused sectors were just the start for the disruptors. Before long, I believe we will see them try to disrupt varied industries such as banking, insurance, health care, real estate and even agriculture and mining; no industry will be immune. These sectors all represent emblematic Canadian brands, and yes, each will in turn will go through the same jarring disruption as so many others.
When the disruptors knock at Corporate Canada’s gates, to survive, incumbents will need to embrace innovation that forces fundamental changes to their respective business models. As a Deloitte study about changes in health-care delivery put it – Self-Disrupt or Self-Destruct. Herein lies the opportunity. This competition strengthens all actors in the ecosystem so that they can survive and thrive on a global playing field.
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I have observed the growth and maturation of our Canadian venture capital space, personally and professionally, for nearly 30 years. The space is brimful of innovative ideas that can be put to work by Corporate Canada. Our startups have, in general, strong access to capital, talent and customers, all vital factors for their growth. Government and corporate procurement of services from startups is being taken more seriously as well, which provides additional fuel for our innovation sector.
All of this is positive for those parts of the Canadian economy that have yet to go through the great disruption. Long-established incumbents will find in our innovation sector the cutting-edge ideas they need, which in turn will help sustain national prosperity.
In some sense, Mr. Andreessen underestimated his own prediction – it is technology that is eating the world.