In Position: Ontario is betting on innovation to drive our economy Julie Garner March 8, 2016 Columns, Featured, In Position Unless you are a political hack like me, you probably took about one second last week to register that something was happening with the Ontario budget. If you have huge amounts of student debt, you may have paused a little longer on the free tuition announcement – while a twinge of jealousy rose up – before you returned to your long list of to do’s. But that said, there was significant emphasis placed on innovation, and a number of new items that warrant a little more time and attention. Investing in the innovation super-corridor The Toronto to Waterloo Region corridor contains the vast majority of Ontario’s startups, research institutions and world-class talent. To support the corridor, the budget included funding announcements for the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, a new advanced manufacturing consortium with the University of Waterloo, and commentary on the need to invest in disruptive innovation and the work under way to get people moving between Toronto and Waterloo faster. Specifically, the Budget promises two-way, all-day GO train service on the Kitchener corridor, subject to agreement with freight rail partners. While no new details were released on the timing of the enhanced service, local MPP Daiene Vernile, speaking at a post-budget event hosted by Communitech and the Greater K-W Chamber of Commerce, hinted strongly about a major update coming this spring. Vouchers for leading high-growth firms This UK-modelled program will support targeted growth-oriented firms. The program still needs to be fleshed out but will give these high-potential firms vouchers that can be used for activities such as market research, proof-of-concept testing and securing new export customers. Government as an early adopter of innovation Governments are regulators but are also huge consumers. If you doubt this, look at the government’s purchases of educational software from D2L, drones from Aeryon Labs or smartphones from BlackBerry. The Government of Ontario has typically been risk averse when it comes to trying new and unproven technologies, but is shelving some of its caution to help support growth and innovation. The support will come in the form of a pilot program where government will identify internal needs and purchase successful new technologies to address them. Details will be rolled out shortly and could represent huge opportunities for local firms with new products they are taking to market. The sharing economy Ontario has announced that it is going to determine what to do about the sharing economy. Provincial consultations will happen separately from the ongoing work of the Region of Waterloo, City of Toronto and others, but will all come together to determine how this potentially $300+ billion sector will operate and contribute in the province. If you read my colleague Allan Gregg’s blog last month, you will see that this is one of those times when regulation is good for business. Investments in strategically important sectors A number of other important initiatives deserve a quick mention and follow-up if they could impact you. Clean tech: $55 million to develop new approaches to make investments that will decrease greenhouse gas emissions and grow the sector, in exchange for equity in clean tech firms. Automotive: $15 million over four years to boost competitiveness through initiatives aimed at auto parts and research and technology for light-weighting and autonomous-vehicle software. Industrial biotechnology: $3 million over four years to accelerate growth of the bio-economy and biochemical sector, and to develop more success stories like BioAmber in Sarnia. Existing programs such as the Southwestern Ontario Development Fund, the Venture Capital Fund and the Rural Ontario Development Fund will continue for another year. These funds have already helped firms like Ontario Drive & Gear, Fibernetics and Shopify. Incentive programs that support hiring new grads and co-op students, skills upgrading, and other initiatives will remain available and in some cases get a funding boost. There were no major tax or fee hikes for business announced, but employers in the sector should keep an eye on the Ministry of Labour’s Changing Workplaces Review interim report expected in late March for changes that may impact access to talent, and certain employment standards rules. What’s next? The federal budget and a deficit over $18 billion will be unveiled on March 22. We expect more positive news for the tech sector and Waterloo Region. We also anticipate learning more about the federal government’s plan to tax stock options over $100,000. We will have more to share when the budget is tabled and will let you know what is in it for you. Photo: Queen’s Park Legislature, Toronto by Martyn is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. In Position is a monthly column focusing on communications, public relations and government relations for tech companies. It is produced for Communitech News by the Earnscliffe Strategy Group in Toronto.