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Minister to pitch Ontario tech sector as more than just BlackBerry

Eric Hoskins insists he still believes Ontario's most famous high-tech export has a bright future ahead. But this week, he will venture overseas with the implicit message that even if BlackBerry dies, the "ecosystem" it helped build would continue to flourish.

"I think in many respects we're sort of flying below the radar," the Economic Development Minister said in an interview before heading to Britain to speak at the Bloomberg Enterprise Technology Summit. "It's sort of like when people think of Texas, they think of Texas Instruments – you know, back in the day. When they think Ontario, they think BlackBerry, but they often don't appreciate or know just how substantial our tech sector is."

Beyond arguing that Kitchener-Waterloo is about more than just BlackBerry, Dr. Hoskins will try to make the case that Ontario's high-tech industry is about more than just Kitchener-Waterloo. He is pitching the notion of a tech "corridor" from Ottawa to London, Ont., and down to the Niagara region as well.

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Others within government, speaking on background, concede this may be a bit of a stretch; few seem entirely sure what's he's referring to in London, and the industry's activity in the largely rural area between Ottawa and Toronto is very limited. But a Toronto-K-W corridor, with Ottawa's up-and-down sector continuing its latest rebound, is something the government knows it needs to promote more aggressively.

In a province that has traditionally done many things reasonably well but led the pack in few, Queen's Park has responded to the decline of traditional manufacturing with talk of focusing on core or emerging industries with major growth potential. And its information and communications technology (ICT) sector, which Dr. Hoskins will tell his audience is the third-largest in North America behind California and Texas, is probably at the top of the list to promote.

The obvious question, for a government that hopes to campaign in a matter of months on bringing more jobs to the province, is what exactly it can do to get ICT to the next level.

To encourage more startups, the province recently contributed $50-million to a new venture-capital fund. But even as he boasted of roughly 17,000 individual businesses in the sector generating approximately $80-billion in annual revenue, Dr. Hoskins expressed some concern in the interview about how to get startups to grow.

"I think in some cases, measures taken by government perversely incent small businesses to stay small," he said. "We need to make sure that the tax system is encouraging them to get bigger."

That seemed to hint at scaling back a preferential tax rate for small businesses – a change that the University of Toronto's Institute for Competitiveness and Prosperity recently proposed, but that others in the government are cool toward.

His colleagues are somewhat likelier to agree with Dr. Hoskins's wish to do more to ensure successful companies stay in the province, rather than getting bought up and moved elsewhere. That means trying to maximize competitive advantages thought to include human capital and a high quality of life.

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On the former, the government is trying to nudge more schools to follow the University of Waterloo's lead by specializing in applicable skills such as computer science and engineering, and forging strong ties with the business community. The latter requires, among other things, making it easier to get between Toronto and K-W – something that foot-dragging around transportation infrastructure upgrades seems likely to prevent for the foreseeable future.

Even if it gets everything right, though, there is only so much the province can do. Government's role in the tech industry, most within it agree, is to facilitate growth; it's up to the private sector to take advantage. For Dr. Hoskins, perhaps the biggest contribution he can make is to be, as he put it, "the strongest possible salesperson that I can be."

It's something that he has been criticized for not doing enough during his first year on the job. Speaking to an audience he knows doesn't see Ontario's tech sector quite the way he does, he'll try to show both he and his province have the hustle that might be needed to survive and thrive in life after BlackBerry.

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