The host had it right: the Waterloo Innovation Summit started the day with the view that government needs to be more involved in innovation, and ended the day with the news that government can’t possibly cope with the disruptive-data future awaiting it.
It was a huge landscape that event chair David Fransen surveyed as he welcomed an audience of 250 to the first full day of the annual innovation summit, at the University of Waterloo.
The summit audience was still working over their morning coffee when they got a double-double of support for government’s role in the innovation economy.
First up was Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, who used her appearance to talk about provincial support for the innovation corridor between Toronto and Waterloo Region.
Premier supports high-speed rail link
She promised more attention to a high-speed rail link for the “fast-emerging tech scene” and said, “it is not a question of if the innovation supercluster will be linked with all-day transit – it is only a question of how and how soon.”
The premier said that like business, governments can take steps that fail. And like business, governments don’t give up after the first failure, she said. “We need innovation to compete and grow. So it follows that we need failure, too, and we need to remind people of that.”
Wynne’s address segued nicely into the opening keynote from Mariana Mazzucato, the University of Sussex professor whose controversial 2013 book, The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public Vs. Private Sector Myths, stirred the waters of the international economic community.
Thank your government for the iPhone
Mazzucato told the room about the long-term role governments play in innovation. As an example, she showed how every technology behind the iPhone was government-funded: the Internet, GPS, touch-screen displays and even the voice-activated Siri. She gave credit to the “dynamic people (who) put those technologies together in cool ways and found a market for them,” but urged a new attitude toward the governments that get so little credit for the environment in which innovative projects flourish.
BlackBerry CEO John Chen brought good news about the innovative startup, formerly known as Research In Motion, that made Waterloo famous. The BlackBerry handset is part of the end-to-end security package that BlackBerry offers its customers, Chen told the audience, and although it has lost traction to products from what he called “another fruit company” (to audience laughter), the handset remains part of the business.
Patents are BlackBerry treasure trove
Chen reminded the audience that BlackBerry holds 44,000 patents, most dealing with security, and that in an insecure world where privacy issues are constantly in the news, the BlackBerry brand is still valuable.
In the morning panel, university leaders defended the role of universities in the enterprise sector, with Suzanne Fortier, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of McGill University, saying that the investment in innovation satisfies the three basic missions of universities: “teaching/learning, research and service to the community.”
Feridun Hamdullahpur, President of the University of Waterloo, agreed: “The issue is not to rush these grads into the market underprepared. How do we give them best quality education in the world, but ensure that they are also career-ready?”
Risk was a four-letter word with a lot of impact in the afternoon panel on Making Big Bets on Science.
How much risk is enough?
Various panel members took differing positions on the degree of risk that academics, researchers, investors and employees might have to embrace in the startup culture.
Philip Low, founder, Chair and CEO of NeuroVigil Inc., urged all parties to take time to listen as well as innovate: “Scientists like to talk about their own work; as entrepreneurs, we have to learn to listen.”
David Cory, Deputy Director, Research for the Institute of Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo, extolled the virtues of the Waterloo innovation ecosystem: “This is a wonderful place to build. . . It’s been a very energizing place to be.”
And energizing it was when Salim Ismail, angel investor, tech strategist and global ambassador for Singularity University, took the stage.
The future is now
With a rapid succession of slides, Ismail offered a dizzying vision of a disruptive future that is unfolding right now. From mood-observing software to an open-source meal replacement beverage, Ismail revealed a disruptive present, where no company can afford to be a big company, at least not in the traditional sense.
The same could be said of nations, Ismail said: Society “is not set up for a trillion systems coming down the line.”
How society responds to that sensor-driven future is “Part of why I’m excited about what’s happening here in Waterloo,” he told the audience.
On Friday, the summit shifts to the heart of Waterloo Region’s thriving startup scene – the Communitech Hub in Kitchener – where the 250 attendees will hear from Silicon Valley sage Steve Blank, who is making a rare trip out of the American startup epicentre. Also appearing are San Francisco venture capitalist Ajay Royan, Bjoern Lasse Herrmann of Compass, Audrey Russo of the Pittsburgh Technology Council, Jennifer Smith of Christie Digital Systems, Jonathan Ortmans of the Global Entrepreneurship Network, and more.