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federal budget 2018

Finance Minister Bill Morneau delivers the federal budget in the House of Commons in Ottawa on Tuesday, Feb.27, 2018.Sean Kilpatrick

Ottawa is boosting support for female entrepreneurs in a budget that also boosts aid to innovative early-stage firms – despite slashing the number of related federal funding programs.

"We … are taking a comprehensive approach to helping women entrepreneurs," Finance Minister Bill Morneau told the House of Commons on Tuesday, "so that they can scale up their businesses, create jobs and access the mentorship and the capital they need to take their businesses to the next level."

In addition, the government said in its budget that it would spend $85.3-million over five years on a strategy to help innovative companies boost their ownership and knowledge of intellectual property, and committed $572.5-million over the same period to a "digital research infrastructure strategy" to give researchers more access to advanced computing and "big data" resources.

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As expected, gender equality was a major theme of the 2018 federal budget. The budget includes new measures aimed at encouraging greater participation of women in the work force, along with a program to encourage more men to take paid parental leave.

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Former BlackBerry Ltd. co-CEO Jim Balsillie had called for a national data strategy to give Canadians more control over the data created by citizens and domestic institutions and to ensure that homegrown firms can create economic value by accessing that information. The budget's lack of such a strategy was met with disappointment by the Council of Canadian Innovators, a group he chairs. "Canadian tech CEOs continue to advocate for the need of a national data strategy that will enable Canada to become a leader in the data-driven global economy," CCI executive director Benjamin Bergen said.

The government is nearly tripling the size of a venture capital fund managed by the Business Development Bank of Canada for financing tech startups led by women. The fund will be increased to $200-million from $70-million, becoming one of the largest venture capital funds in Canada.

The government is also increasing financing for majority female-owned businesses through the BDC's lending programs by $1.4-billion over three years – twice the level of new financing committed through BDC three years ago. The funding agency surpassed the $700-million earmarked in 2015, lending $912-million to 1,636 firms owned by women as of Jan. 31 of this year.

"Our biggest challenge in Canada is a [lack of] people," said Albert De Luca, a Montreal-based partner with Deloitte LLP's global investment and innovation practice. "The more able, capable people you're able to bring to market, the better." Increasing BDC funding for female-led businesses "is a bold statement."

Businesses led by women will also get $105-million over five years through regional development agencies and $250-million to finance export sales. Farm Credit Canada will offer a new lending product to agriculture and agri-food businesses led by women.

In addition, the government pledged to boost the amount of goods and services it buys from small and medium enterprises (SMEs) led by women. Female-led businesses account for 10 per cent of SMEs that sell to government, and the goal is to increase that to 15 per cent.

"The funding steps taken in today's budget to facilitate an ecosystem where women-led businesses can access capital and grow are both welcome and necessary to building a stronger and more balanced Canadian economy," said Tanya van Biesen, executive director of the Canadian arm of Catalyst, a global non-profit organization that advocates for better female representation in the corporate world.

The budget otherwise builds on the government's past big-ticket innovation-friendly measures, including funding for venture capital, clean technology, artificial intelligence, superclusters and a pledge to buy more technology from Canadian startups.

The government responded on Tuesday to a call by Mr. Morneau's Advisory Council on Economic Growth to reduce the unwieldy number of innovation funding programs – 92 across departments by the government's count. The budget proposes to slash that to 31.

However, the government also promised that overall funding will increase across that smaller number of programs. The biggest change will see the government's Industrial Research Assistance Program (IRAP), which helps Canadian technology firms take their innovations to market, disburse as much as $10-million a project, up from $1-million. The $270-million IRAP program will get a $100-million boost in the 2018-19 fiscal year and a further $50-million in each of the following four years.

The government also unveiled details on its intellectual property (IP) strategy announced in last year's budget, including piloting a "patent collective" program that will enable small firms to pool patents so they have better access to IP to grow their businesses. Funds are also earmarked to provide IP advice to entrepreneurs. While the CCI, whose members include many of Canada's emerging tech stars, welcomed progress on the IP strategy, Mr. Bergen said the budget lacked a "talent retention strategy" and was "vague on how the government plans to address Canada's high-skills brain drain."

This year's big-ticket item under the "innovation" banner was a $3-billion-plus funding promise for Canadian researchers, which overshadowed funding for firms looking to commercialize new technology.

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