Salim Teja is executive vice-president of venture services at MaRS Discovery District. Kent Thexton is managing director of OMERS Ventures.
With just a couple of days to go until the opening ceremony of the 2015 Pan Am Games in our own backyard, it's time we, as Canadians, tout our greatness – not just our athletic talents, but our many achievements in innovation and technology.
Ontario has created an axis of excellence that stretches from the Greater Toronto Area to Kitchener-Waterloo. Without a doubt, this corridor has what it takes to compete on a global stage, even comparing with Silicon Valley. Our entrepreneurs, like our athletes, are world class: smart, poised and practised – ready to own the podium (or the cloud, for that matter).
Canada has the highest rate of entrepreneurship in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, and Toronto and Waterloo were ranked in the global top 20 startup ecosystems by Startup Genome.
The world is finally taking notice of this outstanding talent, and it's up to us to capitalize on the attention and propel ourselves, like sprinter Andre De Grasse, past our competition.
How can we create a distinctive innovation economy that competes with our Silicon Valley peers to the south? What will it take for the "Maple Syrup Mafia," a patriotic term coined by a top Canadian tech leader, Hootsuite Media Inc. CEO Ryan Holmes, to finally be formed?
First, and undeniably most important: We need to work together. With support from the Ontario government, MaRS and Communitech, two of Ontario's established innovation hubs, support more than 1,000 startups at any given time. OneEleven and the DMZ, located at Ryerson University, have incubated more than 190 startups in recent years – not to mention the countless others that are nurturing our talent out of the starting gate.
Despite the support, we need to be better teammates if we want to win. To do this, innovation hubs must carve out their domain expertise so they don't overlap and compete for the same resources. The trick in this region is to create communities that are complementary, not identical.
These hubs must intersect with startups at different stages in their business development – from the early bootstrap stage to validation and scale. We are beginning to see this more with MaRS and OneEleven – shifting strategies to work with fast-growing small and medium enterprises that are capital sensitive, letting the university accelerators focus on early startups.
Second, we need to shake up our look. Global branding requires a new mentality and models: support for networking at international events and trade shows and expanding our efforts across the border – in Silicon Valley and beyond. We need to get better acquainted with the playing field and make our presence known.
Lastly, we need to boast. We need to promote our triumphs together. While the achievements of Kik Interactive Inc., Desire2Learn Corp., Wattpad, Flybits, Ranovus Inc., eSight Corp. and Rubikloud Inc. continue to make us all proud, there are success stories all around us. The Canadian Venture Capital and Private Equity Association recently reported that in the first quarter of this year, $362-million in venture capital was invested over 121 deals across Canada – $237-million in Ontario alone, a clear sign that there's no shortage of talent around us.
Tobi Lutke, CEO of newly publicly traded Shopify Inc., recently shared this sentiment with The Globe and Mail: "We are building incredibly good businesses with incredibly good people, being loyal, dedicating themselves to solving important problems. Canada just needs to tell people." As these Games approach and Ontario is propelled into the spotlight, it's time to tell everyone.
It is time we showcase our truly innovative ecosystem and startup community by working together and getting ourselves out there with no hesitation. We are ready to compete in athletics, and we are ready to compete on the world tech stage.
It's time. Let's show 'em what we've got!