Federal small-business minister Mary Ng has appointed former Ryerson president Sheldon Levy to advise her on how to help Canadian firms scale into global giants.
Ms. Ng, who worked in the office of Mr. Levy when he was president and chancellor of Ryerson University, has asked him to spend the next six months in the unpaid position meeting with emerging small and medium enterprises that have received significant outside funding and market validation to identify “gaps or sticking points” that are holding them back from reaching their full potential.
The government has already received advice on policies to help “scaling” companies from the “growth council” of economic advisers to Finance Minister Bill Morneau as well as a group of economic strategy table groups that reported this fall to Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains. When asked why Ottawa needed yet another voice telling it what to do to help scale-ups, Ms. Ng said: “It’s less about telling us what to do … it really is being there on the ground … working with a handful of companies who are ready to grow and should be scaling and maybe they aren’t, so [finding out] why not.”
The minister said she isn’t looking for a formal report or policy review from Mr. Levy, who now heads Next Canada, a national organization that supports young innovators, and who co-founded Ontario government-funded venture capital firm ScaleUp Ventures when he was a deputy minister with the government of former premier Kathleen Wynne. Rather, she expects him to produce “tactical and practical … real-live case study” derived from talking at length to a handful of scaling companies to “really understand what some of those pain points [are] and what we could do about them.”
Mr. Levy said in an interview that “we’re at this wonderful time of opportunity” in which several Canadian technology companies have emerged from a “formative” point to become significant global players. “I do think we’re at a different stage in our ability to think about the idea of scaling than we were five or 10 years ago,” he said.
The government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been active on the innovation file, launching policy reviews on data, cybersecurity, intellectual property and funding artificial intelligence organizations and venture capital firms. It also created the $950-million “supercluster” program to prod economic sectors to adopt innovative technologies to stimulate their growth.
With Ms. Ng’s appointment in August, Mr. Trudeau specifically directed her “to help scale Canadian [small and medium enterprises] seeking to grow, scale-up and become more productive, more innovative and more export-oriented.” That differed from his mandate letter to Ms. Ng’s predecessor, Bardish Chagger, three years earlier, which did not include the term “scale” in its contents.
Benjamin Bergen – executive director of the Council of Canadian Innovators, which represents more than 100 fast-growing tech companies – said in a statement: “Our members have long called on the government to help proven market winners – innovative, high-growth domestic scale-ups – access more talent, capital and customers to become leaders in the 21st century global innovation economy because these companies are the biggest job and wealth creators. An ‘Owning the Podium’-type approach that sees government work hand-in-glove with Canada’s top innovators to address their scaling growth challenges will have the greatest economic spin-offs for Canada’s economy.”
Ottawa currently provides a range of support programs and services to small and medium enterprises including funding through regional development agencies and the National Research Council and a newly created program to encourage government to buy services from startups. It has also helped tech companies hasten the process for skilled foreign workers to emigrate to Canada.