Photo: Toronto Mayor John Tory (second from right) during a roundtable discussion at Communitech with Waterloo Region tech and municipal leaders.

Opportunity. Urgency. Crisis, even.

Countless words were spoken during Toronto Mayor John Tory’s all-day visit to Waterloo Region on Wednesday, but they all pointed to the same conclusion: that the two cities are well-positioned to build something big, and that the time to get started is now.

“We are the undisputed centre of Canada’s knowledge-based economy,” Tory told a sold-out luncheon hosted by the Greater Kitchener Waterloo Chamber of Commerce. “We’ve got all the elements for huge success between us.”

Tory was referring to the Toronto-Waterloo Region Innovation Corridor, a concept he and his fellow mayors from Kitchener, Waterloo, Cambridge and surrounding townships are rallying around as the country’s best shot at building a globally significant technology cluster.

Toronto Mayor John Tory addresses a sold-out Greater KW Chamber of Commerce luncheon on March 23, 2016. (Communitech photo: Phil Froklage)

Toronto Mayor John Tory addresses a sold-out Greater KW Chamber of Commerce luncheon on March 23, 2016. (Communitech photo: Phil Froklage)

That can only be achieved, they argue, through a co-ordinated and multi-pronged effort to attract more talent and investment to the entire region.

How to do exactly that was the focus of a day packed with meetings, speeches, interviews and tours, beginning at the Communitech Hub at 8:30 a.m.

There, Tory met first with Kitchener Mayor Berry Vrbanovic, Waterloo Mayor Dave Jaworsky, Cambridge Mayor Doug Craig and Waterloo Region Chair Ken Seiling to discuss strategy for a promotional trip to Silicon Valley in early April.

The mayors then sat in on a private roundtable discussion with more than a dozen Waterloo Region tech leaders, who had plenty to say about the increasingly familiar challenges they face in securing the talent and capital they need to achieve global scale – and about the tools they need to meet them, from streamlined immigration to fast and frequent rail service within the corridor.

In an interview after the meeting, Miovision CEO Kurtis McBride related the central point he had made at the roundtable: “My position is that the whole talent question has become a crisis. I can’t grow my company, he can’t grow his company, he can’t grow his company,” McBride said, pointing to fellow CEOs of growth-stage firms standing nearby.

“The whole tech sector of the economy is being held back by a shortage of software talent, and we’ve got to do things on the immigration front and on the transportation front to make this place more attractive to bring people in and keep them here,” he said. “And if we don’t, we’re just going to keep falling further and further behind against our American and European competitors.”

McBride said it was “great” to see Tory and Vrbanovic taking the lead in rising above regional rivalries and collaborating on a much larger vision for Canada’s tech sector.

“I think they’re right in saying we need to stop thinking about each other as competitors in a local sense,” he said. “It’s a very, very big world, and we need to start to collaborate to strengthen our position globally.”

Kurtis McBride John Tory

Miovision CEO Kurtis McBride makes a point during a roundtable with mayors from Toronto and Waterloo Region, as Caitlin MacGregor, CEO of Plum, listens in. (Communitech photo: Phil Froklage)

Tory made those same points during the Chamber luncheon at Kitchener’s Crowne Plaza Hotel, where attendees were hard-pressed to remember a time when a Toronto mayor had visited the region on substantive business – a fact he acknowledged in his remarks.

“I could have stayed in Toronto and just talked about Waterloo Region, as I did on television this morning in Toronto,” he said. “That would be fine, I suppose, but I think the way you give meaning to the fact that you actually are serious is to come, to talk a little bit about this, to learn . . .”

Tory, who has made a point of getting to know the tech sector in his own city, was nonetheless impressed as he toured the Communitech Hub and University of Waterloo Velocity Garage in the morning, followed by Google’s Canadian engineering headquarters and UW’s Quantum-Nano Centre and Engineering 5 buildings in the afternoon.

As the visit wound down after 5 p.m., I sat down with Tory for a brief interview about the day and what he’d gleaned from it. The transcript that follows has been edited and condensed.

Q – I can’t ever recall a Toronto mayor visiting Waterloo Region. Why did you come here today?

A – It’s partly self-interest, but I meant what I said at lunchtime today.

If our self-interest in terms of growing the Toronto economy is tied up inextricably – and I say that in a positive way – with the success of what goes on here in Waterloo, then I’m well-advised to come here.

If you want to go out and sell Canadian brain power and Canadian resourcefulness as a means of attracting investment and the best and the brightest to come, then it’s going to have to be all hands on deck.

When it comes to technology startups, life sciences and just general innovation, there’s lots happening in Toronto, but there’s a lot happening here, too. And I think showing up, as I said at lunchtime, is an indication that you’re serious.

You can stand and make speeches, you can send people off to meetings, you can issue press releases. But I think if you actually show up and listen to some people, as we did this morning, and see a bit, it says you’re serious enough to show up.

Q – What does it mean for Ontario and for Canada to get this corridor working?

A – I’m not for a minute saying the auto industry is in sunset, but . . . I remember the day when Premier McGuinty commented on the fact that we were the leading automobile producing jurisdiction in North America. We still are pretty good at that, and that will continue.

If you look at all the time and money that was put into making sure we were in that position of excellence, it was a lot, and it was a big focus. So, to me, it just says we have to do the same thing now. Whether it ends up being quantum computing and/or tech startups of different kinds, if we want to have another one of those world-scale, global-quality clusters of innovation and business, then you have to take the same approach.

You have to really go all in, and to me, that includes co-operation between a Waterloo and a Toronto and parts in between.

John Tory Velocity Garage

Toronto Mayor John Tory chats with a startup entrepreneur in the University of Waterloo Velocity Garage, as Waterloo Mayor Dave Jaworsky (far left) and Kitchener Mayor Berry Vrbanovic look on. (Communitech photo: Phil Froklage)

Q – You’ve seen a lot here today. What did you learn about the potential of this corridor that you didn’t know when you woke up this morning?

A – I understand much better what is a very complicated set of challenges with respect to talent. And I understand as well – and I say this not in a negative way at all – that there’s politics in everything.

One of the great things about sitting in a room with a bunch of people who are heads of startup companies is you can see all the body language. For example, when I said, ‘I want to get every big company I can possibly find; I don’t care whether they’re big or small or where they come from; whether they want to locate here in Waterloo or in this corridor, I’m delighted,’ you could see some people have this visceral reaction of, ‘No, we don’t want those people here, they’ll compete with us for talent.’

It’s also complicated in the context that I learned in the room today. There were two things, one of which was that 50 per cent of the grads out of the University of Waterloo end up somewhere else. We can’t pass a law to stop that but we sure can launch a series of incentives or programs to try and convince people to stay here, because I also learned at the very same time there are 1,400 unfilled jobs in this area.

I know the jobs don’t exactly match up to the grads, necessarily, but there’s sort of a mismatch going on there.

I learned about the breadth of what’s going on here, all the way from quantum – and I don’t presume to understand it all – to the activities of Google, which I understand slightly better. But there’s a full range here, from the multinationals to the startups like the ones that presented to me in Velocity.

I’ve been to quite a few of the incubators in Toronto and seen the breadth of work that’s being done there, but that’s sort of the point. In both places, if you add it all up, it’s a gigantic critical mass of talent and entrepreneurship and ideas that we need to exploit.

Q – One of the entrepreneurs this morning used the word ‘crisis’ to describe how he feels this situation should be viewed by all levels of government; that the corridor isn’t a matter of making incremental improvements, but is a more urgent matter.

A – I don’t like using words like ‘crisis,’ but I did use the word ‘urgent’ at lunchtime, both in the context of transportation and just the general need to keep moving forward with this.

The reason for that isn’t particularly slothful governments; it’s because the pace of change is so fast, in terms of decisions that are being made by smart people and by entrepreneurs and by big multinational companies in this area, that they don’t wait for you. They just say, ‘Look, we’ve got to find a place to have this new facility, and there are going to be 300 people working there, and if you’re not ready to give us an answer on whether you have the people or the place or the transportation or whatever, then we’ll go somewhere else.’

Everybody wants these jobs. To me, I don’t call that a crisis; I just call it an urgency.

I don’t use words like ‘crisis’ because I think you have to save those for when there really is a crisis, but I think there’s an urgency to it because of the pace of change, and I think there’s a possibility of a missed opportunity.

I think there’s this alignment of the stars. You’ve got all these things; you’ve got Waterloo and you’ve got what goes on in Toronto and you’ve got the building up of the critical mass of the tech startup communities. You’ve got the educational excellence in Toronto and the critical mass of other industries that act as a test bed. And I think you’ve also got people paying attention to Canada.

We’re in one of those windows that was being opened starting back in 2008 when we came through the financial crisis better than other people, and people looked at Canada and said, ‘These people seem to be pretty well-organized and they’ve got a set of rules that stop them from doing crazy things that get them in trouble.’

And now we’re in a different phase, where it’s more about us being a bit cooler. But the bottom line is people are looking at us now.

I said this back when I wasn’t even in politics, but when I was doing broadcasting, and when everybody started talking about us back in 2009 and 2010 I said, ‘That window only stays open for a period of time, and then it’s someone else’s turn.’ It’s not because anybody starts to dislike us; they just stop paying attention to us and they start paying attention to somebody else, because they become the flavour of the month.

So, let’s say our period has three more years to last. Well, wouldn’t we want to take advantage of that while the spotlight’s on us, to say we’re really going to put a push on to get people to move here, to get people to invest here, to get people to come back here, to get the transportation done so that we can help move all that along?

Q – Looking ahead to next month’s trip to California, what will you take with you from today?

A – Just a better understanding, really.

At the first meeting with the mayors this morning, we talked about selling the business case, which involves the currency and various things, and talent. I now better understand the context of those.

If I had been going to sell talent before today, I would have been just going to say ‘Oh, look, we’ve got all these smart people, and it’s diverse, and it’s well-educated and it’s this and it’s that.’ It’s a much more complicated issue than that.

But to hear people tell you that we have probably the best assembly of quantum computing brains on Earth here, or to hear the gentleman we were just with say that the engineering school here at Waterloo is maybe one of the best in the world, or to hear the fellow at Google say the number 1 place they recruited from was Waterloo – I’m sure if you said that to a bunch of Americans, they’d ask you where it was, but it tells you that we’ve got the raw materials here.

So, I understand better just how much you can make that case quite forcefully now than before, and I understand how receptive people are here to the notion.

Back to your very first question about the mayor of Toronto coming down here, I think most of the time mayors from Toronto might show up here because they were getting an honour or because the Rotary Club invited them. But I don’t come here with any ulterior motives.

I have the self-interest of wanting to build up Toronto’s economy, but I realize that’s going to be done in partnership with these folks here, and they’re going to build theirs up at the same time.

What’s wrong with that? It’s all good.

Anthony Reinhart is Communitech’s Director of Editorial Strategy and senior staff writer. View from the ‘Loo looks at the issues, people and events that shape Waterloo Region’s technology sector.