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Federal budget keeps Canada’s fintech sector in the ‘valley of death’

Michael King is associate finance professor at Ivey Business School, University of Western Ontario.

In the world of startups, the period when entrepreneurs are spending cash to build out a new product or service but have no revenues is known as "the valley of death." The only way to survive is to find an investor who believes in the idea and is willing to finance it to production and to find customers fast. Almost as important as cash, however, is mentoring and strategic advice from someone who believes in the founders.

Currently, Canada's fintech industry is in the valley of death and is looking for mentoring, strategic advice and customers. The sector has been growing rapidly, investing in innovative products, but has yet to get traction. Canada's 2018 federal budget was a missed opportunity for Finance Minister Bill Morneau to voice his support for this innovative sector, to raise awareness among Canadians, to be a leading customer for these innovations, and to set a national strategy for this industry to succeed globally.

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It is ironic, because the 2018 budget continues to focus on the right themes: promoting innovation; equipping Canadians with the skills to succeed in the digital economy; and creating economic growth and opportunity for all. Despite these lofty goals, the budget fails to mention the one sector that has the potential to achieve all three objectives: financial technologies or "fintech." In fact the word appears only three times in 367 pages, and then only in an annex.

Fintech innovations are affecting the daily financial activities of all Canadians – paying, saving, borrowing or investing. Whether you are paying a bill on your phone, transferring money abroad, taking out a loan online, comparing insurance using a website, or investing in an exchange-traded fund, Canadians will be seeing many improvements as fintech innovations are introduced by incumbents and new entrants alike. They will also likely be dealing with many non-traditional financial providers eager to bundle their product – whether it is social media, e-commerce, or part of the sharing economy – with unbundled financial products (e.g. a loan, an investment, or an insurance policy).

The question no one is asking is whether these fintech innovations will be coming from a Canadian company or a foreign one.

While Canada has a highly educated work force, finance expertise, and talented entrepreneurs, it seems the Canadian government is indifferent whether these innovations are grown at home or imported from abroad. Canada's fintech ecosystem is not getting the support and attention directed at other crucial sectors, despite financial services accounting for 7 per cent of GDP and 4.4 per cent of all Canadian jobs. Of the government's five superclusters announced last month, financial services was a noteworthy gap.

What is behind this benign neglect for an important industry? It cannot be that Canadians are not hungry for simpler, less costly, and more responsive banking and financial services. The evidence from other countries is that fintech can enable higher savings for low-income individuals, access to capital for cash-starved small businesses, and better access to all financial services for underserved segments of the population. In many parts of their world, fintech innovations are democratizing access to finance and promoting growth from the bottom up.

It may be that the government does not want to disrupt a stable financial system that has performed well over time. But that is not the attitude in countries such as Australia, where they view fintech as a valuable improvement and have committed to use government procurement to get startups on their feet.

Canada's growing fintech sector needs to hear that it is a valued part of the emerging digital economy, with great opportunities for jobs, investment, and growth. Britain, Australia, Hong Kong, Germany and Singapore are cheerleading their sectors. But as the Competition Bureau bluntly stated in a recent study, "Despite the attention that fintech is generating, Canada lags behind its international peers when it comes to fintech adoption."

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While the federal Financial Sector Review is an important step, what the sector needs is a national strategy and champion to convince skeptical investors to invest and cautious customers to try out these innovations. The government can address a lack of consumer awareness, gaps in investor education, complex regulations provincially and federally, and barriers to partnering with incumbents. Telling start-ups to wait another year for the government to act will see many die or leave.

If Canada's fintech sector is to survive the valley of death, it needs to hear this sector is important and valued. It needs customers. And it needs a strategy to compete with the best in the world, rather than simply to buy what they have to offer.

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