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Lobby group to help Canadian tech firms scale up

The Canadian Council of Innovators, created by Canada’s elite tech startups, will be chaired by Jim Balsillie.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Some of Canada's elite tech startups have formed a lobby group to advance their interests in Ottawa, less than two months after former BlackBerry Ltd. chief executive officer Jim Balsillie exhorted them to do a better job of working the halls of government.

The group, known as the Canadian Council of Innovators, got its start last week after 20 firms, including Shopify Inc., Hootsuite Media Inc., Wattpad, Hatch Ltd. and D2L Corp. signed on and committed an undisclosed amount to fund a "small but mighty" organization based in Toronto. Mr. Balsillie will be chairman, while John Ruffolo, CEO of the venture-capital arm of pension giant Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System, will serve as deputy chair. Mr. Ruffolo estimated that membership would top out at 50 firms.

Membership is open to a specific type of company: It must be Canadian-based, be increasing revenues rapidly via "organic" growth rather than acquisitions, have annual sales of at least $15-million (U.S.) and be scaling up for global expansion. Canadian subsidiaries of foreign companies are not invited.

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Mr. Ruffolo said there is ample support for early-stage companies through incubator and accelerator programs and tax-credit schemes. "Canada doesn't really have a problem on startups, but it has a problem when they are scaling and commercializing."

Mr. Ruffolo and Mr. Balsillie said the federal government should introduce policies and standards that favour their homegrown tech companies, as other countries have done on behalf of their local tech firms. "We need an infrastructure for scaling Canadian innovators and having a lobby to support these indigenous companies is a critical part of that infrastructure," Mr. Balsillie said.

Ottawa could also improve immigration rules to make it easier for fast-growing Canadian firms to bring in talent from abroad, a key pressure point for many.

"Public policy has been focused" on providing capital to startups, but the council's members could use the government's help to spur revenue growth and improve their access to talent, Mr. Ruffolo said.

Global tech giants have spent dearly lobbying governments to the extent that "you can parse the Trans-Pacific Partnership [proposed trade deal] and see the lobby effect of large companies getting what they need from governments," Mr. Ruffolo said. "Then you ask, 'Where is the Canadian government as it works with our Canadian-based intellectual property companies?' Not one was even asked for their viewpoint. Nor did they actually go to government – it goes both ways."

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