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Businesspeople stretching near graphs (Comstock Images)

Guest column

Time for Canada to own the entrepreneurial podium Add to ...

One year ago, on the heels of the Vancouver Olympics, Canada’s trademark humility and politeness were cast aside for unabashed confidence and patriotism. As hosts and gold medal champions Canadians proved to the world and – perhaps most importantly – ourselves, that we can compete to win.

Canada should apply these Olympic lessons to other endeavours in which we seek to compete internationally. A timely example is entrepreneurship.

Prime Minister Harper has declared 2011 the Year of the Entrepreneur to highlight the essential role that entrepreneurs will play in securing Canada's ongoing economic recovery.

While entrepreneurs deserve to be celebrated, they’re not all of Olympic calibre. Only a subset of businesses produce consistent and extraordinary growth in employment and revenue. These “high-growth” enterprises are found in any industry and often transform markets with radically innovative products and processes. Think Google, Facebook, and Ikea. Like Olympic athletes, high-growth businesses are hungry for international competition, and the winners can have a significant economic impact on their home countries in terms of innovation, job creation, long-term growth.

According to a new report, published by the Action Canada Task Force on High-Growth Entrepreneurship, Canada is falling far short of its entrepreneurial potential. While we lead the world with our significant public investments in research and development, our highly educated population, and low barriers to starting a business, we have too few gold medalists. Smaller countries such as Sweden, Finland and Israel have been able to punch above their weight, but in Canada, Research In Motion and Cirque du Soleil are exceptions, rather than the rule.

The Action Canada report is the result of nearly a year’s worth of research, and includes cross-country interviews with entrepreneurs, investors, industry experts, and government officials, as well as a public dialogue with the Honourable John Manley, Dr. Ilse Treurnicht, and the Globe and Mail’s own Jacquie McNish. The report shows that much more can be done to support high-growth firms and keep them anchored in Canada as they mature. Some initiatives include increasing Canada’s pool of experienced managers and early-stage investors, and strengthening connections of founders to domestic and international networks of mentors, customers, partners and suppliers.

The report contains specific recommendations for these key areas of weakness. But what Canada needs most urgently, say the authors, is a national strategy to marshal the many stakeholders whose collaborative efforts are required for meaningful change to happen.

Canada’s competitors are already catching on to the economic potential of high-growth entrepreneurship and launching comprehensive plans for action. In the United States, President Obama recently announced Startup America, an initiative that is mobilizing private sector partners and resources, in concert with federal agencies, to connect the country’s most innovative entrepreneurs with leaders from top corporations, universities and non-profit organizations, to spur the creation, scale, and support of high-growth firms. Startup America will invest in research, training, and collaboration to scale up successful community-based entrepreneurship accelerator programs, develop new entrepreneurship education and mentorship programs, and identify and remove barriers to the commercialization of research.

Canada must adopt a similar strategy. As the Action Canada Task Force points out, an independent organization with an explicit mission to fuel high-growth entrepreneurship can play this role – by conducting research and identifying best practice to understand how we can improve performance, better equipping our entrepreneurs and investors through rigorous training, and becoming the nexus for university research centres, entrepreneurs, investors, and mentors to create more opportunities for innovative businesses to succeed.

Without a national program to accelerate our high-growth startups and to keep them in Canada, we will continue to trail international competition, and, more critically, will risk both our economic recovery and long-term prosperity.

Until 2010, Canada had never won an Olympic medal on home soil. But with a focused strategy, Canadian athletes won the most gold medals ever at a Winter Olympics. The Canadian Olympic Committee’s Own the Podium initiative invested heavily in research to learn how Canadian athletes could improve performance and competitiveness, drastically increased training programs for athletes, and established centres of excellence tailored to each sport. We should apply this model to entrepreneurship – to support and train our top “athletes” of business. Let’s turn Canada’s Year of the Entrepreneur into a legacy for owning the entrepreneurial podium.

Shannon Wells is a member of the Action Canada Task Force on High-Growth Entrepreneurship. Action Canada is a non-profit organisation with a mandate to build leadership for Canada’s future.

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