The shimmering opportunities and stark challenges facing Canada’s tech community are getting a full airing in Toronto today, where top entrepreneurs, investors and policy makers have convened for the first-ever Go North summit, hosted by Google Canada.

More than 500 people have gathered at the sprawling Evergreen Brick Works complex in the city’s Don Valley to both celebrate and commiserate, as they work to seize what is widely believed to be a key moment in the country’s development as an innovation nation.

“Canada is no longer a place defined by the limits of our physical geography,” Sam Sebastian, Google Canada’s Managing Director, said in kicking off the event. “Canada’s future potential does not lie beneath the Canadian bedrock. It’s in our universities; it’s in our incubators; it’s in our startups. It’s in this room.”

As slow economic growth, political uncertainty and racial unrest roil much of the world, Canada is increasingly seen as a beacon of optimism, stability and inclusiveness – ideal conditions for innovative entrepreneurs, especially given our proximity to the massive U.S. market.

But seizing this moment will take a concerted, collective, long-term effort, attendees heard.

Underscoring that point early on in the event was Mike Lazaridis, the visionary BlackBerry co-founder who has since moved on to focus on the coming era of quantum computing. In an onstage conversation with Google Canada Engineering Director Steve Woods, Lazaridis laid out his recent activities.

“I’ve been helping to build the Quantum Valley in Waterloo,” he said, “where I’m doing everything I can to help Canada intercept the next quantum revolution, which many believe will have a much more profound impact on industry and society than the first quantum revolution, which was the silicon age.”

As of-the-moment as that might sound, Lazaridis pointed out that his vision has been years in the making. Its first big manifestation was the 1999 founding of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, years before the BlackBerry had revolutionized mobile communications, and which Lazaridis – in concert with government and other philanthropists – helped launch with a donation $100 million, a then-massive proportion of his personal wealth.

PI’s launch, followed by the Lazaridis-backed Institute for Quantum Computing in 2002, and the founding of his investment firm, Quantum Valley Investments, in 2013, has seeded a dense centre of excellence in quantum research in Waterloo, which will be a critical advantage as quantum applications become a commercial reality.

It’s a big bet – no one can say for sure when quantum computing will become a practical, widespread capability – but an example of the kind of focused, educated, strategic ambitions Canadians need to pursue, he suggested.

“It’s pretty well obvious that Canada is a very large geographic country with a relatively small population,” Lazaridis said. “And so, we have to be very choosy and be very strategic in those areas that we want to support and invest in and be good at, and we can’t possibly be good at everything.”

Lazaridis said support should go to areas where “we have the best prospects of success in the future,” and cautioned against short-term thinking.

Such focused areas of specialty will be a boon to startup entrepreneurs with the ability to capitalize on them, Lazaridis suggested. When Woods asked him what specific advice he had for those entrepreneurs, his answer was straightforward: Hire great people.

“The most important thing for a startup are its employees. Really talented employees are the whole reason for your success,” he said, encouraging entrepreneurs to focus on hiring the best.

The Lazaridis interview was followed by a panel discussion, titled Canada as Global Player, that included four startup leaders: Ted Livingston of Kik; Hongwei Liu of MappedIn; Michele Romanow of Clearbanc, Buytopia and CBC’s Dragons’ Den; and Harley Finkelstein of Shopify.

go north panel

(Left to right) Jacqueline Thorpe, Harley Finkelstein, Michele Romanow and Ted Livingston look on as Hongwei Liu makes a point at the Go North summit. (Communitech photo: Anthony Reinhart)

In a wide-ranging talk moderated by Jacqueline Thorpe of Bloomberg News, the four highlighted Canada’s growing ambitions, mutually supportive entrepreneurial culture and growing international reputation as positive signs.

“There is clearly a collegiality and a co-operation that’s happening with Canadian tech that none of our U.S. counterparts have,” Finkelstein said. “Maybe it’s because there are fewer of us, and so we believe we have to stick together.”

When he and Shopify CEO Tobi Lütke returned from a tour of investor meetings at the time of the company’s 2015 initial public offering, they compiled what they learned and shared it with Canadian startup founders aiming to go public, he said.

“I don’t know of any U.S. tech company that would have done something like that,” he said.

At the same time, Canadian tech IPOs have been few in recent years, due in part to a tendency among entrepreneurs to exit through acquisition, often at bargain prices, rather than build global-scale companies.

“I am the story that sold to an American company, probably a bit too early,” Romanow said, referring to the sale of SnapSaves, a couponing app company she co-founded, to Groupon in 2014. She added that Canadian startups have proven to be undervalued, given the benefits their U.S. acquirers have enjoyed from these deals.

“Canadians could become better negotiators, and we should be getting a lot more up front,” she said. “But second, we’re allowing other people to take the value that we created, and leverage that.”

navdeep bains go north

Navdeep Bains, Canada’s Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, took the stage next, and reiterated the federal government’s commitment to make innovation central to its operations across all ministries, and “raise living standards and improve the quality of life of all Canadians.”

“Make no mistake – this is a commitment we have made, and is a priority for this government – we want to turn this country into a global centre for innovation.” Bains said.

While Canada has relied heavily on trade and high commodity prices in the past, “these options are no longer enough. The truth is, Canada is going through some challenging times,” he continued, saying previous gains are being quietly eroded.

Climate change and fewer people joining the workforce are among key challenges, “but low growth does not have to be Canada’s destiny.”

Bains took questions from reporters after his talk. He was asked by Communitech how audacious his government is prepared to be in leading a large and ambitious technological project to attract the world’s best technical talent, an idea floated by Waterloo’s Livingston during the earlier panel discussion.

“I think government can’t act alone; we really, genuinely need to create a collaborative environment,” Bains answered. “What we’re saying is, government is willing to be a partner; we’re willing to be at the table; we’re willing to make investments in people and education; are willing to focus on emerging technologies that will really help some of these initiatives move forward.”

Government purchasing power, Bains said, can “help validate some of these ideas,” adding that the government wants to focus on “areas that matter to public policy, like climate change, or dealing with an aging population.”

During the afternoon sessions, the topic of boosting employee diversity within tech companies surfaced time and again, as speakers, panelists and audience members underscored its importance to the sector’s success.

“We need to make this happen, but it’s not going to happen unless we change our approach,” said Caitlin MacGregor, CEO of Plum, a Waterloo Region software company that helps employers make better hiring decisions.

MacGregor urged entrepreneurs in the audience to approach the diversity challenge with the same vigour they would apply to customer acquisition.

About The Author

Anthony Reinhart
Director, Editorial Strategy

Anthony Reinhart is a veteran journalist who left the Globe and Mail to join Communitech in 2011. Tony has covered everything from crime, politics and courts to business, the arts and sports, and his writing has won numerous journalism awards. He is Communitech's Director of Editorial Strategy and senior staff writer.