Talent and innovation: Twin drivers of Canada’s tech industry

Ian McKay, CEO, Invest in Canada

programmer reading computer codes on a desktop computer

Canada’s technology industry is thriving—and more global investors are taking notice.

With the second event in a multi-year commitment to hosting the world-attracting Collision tech conference coming up soon, Canada is proud and excited to again be part of this important global event.

When conference co-founder Paddy Cosgrave was finalizing a decision in 2018 to move the growing conference—it had already been hosted in Dublin, Lisbon and New Orleans—indications were that a singular Canadian location would be ideal as the conference’s new home.

Mr. Cosgrave wrote in an article on LinkedIn that, “At the very moment when some countries around the world seem to be shutting their borders, when intolerance is on the rise, Toronto stands for something very different.” 

Collision in Toronto brings technology in Canada to the world

Following its successful launch in Toronto in 2019, Collision now finds itself in both a new and familiar world.

The new is, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic, which in this specific context has resulted in Collision From Home—bringing together 30,000+ attendees, 1,000+ investors and 1,000+ journalists from 100+ countries to hear 450+ speakers from June 23-25 in a virtual setting accessed from attendees’ homes around the world.

The familiar includes Canada—a friendly face that sends a message of openness to the world. Open to global investment that brings jobs and prosperity to Canada. Open to immigration policies and programs that help make Canada home to the highest educated workforce in the world and help fuel the tremendous innovation ecosystem in this country.

Which brings me to my central thesis: that Canada’s workforce and Canada’s innovation are the two main drivers for Canada’s emerging leadership in technology. Whether the technology companies in Canada reflect AI or 5G, fintech or cleantech, talent and innovation are essential and ever present. 

Talent, the new currency

All across Canada, talent is the human capital that makes innovative technology companies possible.

Let’s begin by looking only at a few software platforms, starting in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, where Verafin—the industry’s leading financial crime management platform and Canada’s largest venture funding deal ever, at $515 million—is based. Moving across the country from Atlantic to Pacific, you’ll also find, for example, Montreal-based point-of-sale payments platform Lightspeed; Ottawa-based ecommerce platform Shopify, and Vancouver-based social media management platform Hootsuite.

Meanwhile, back in Toronto, a 2019 report from CBRE, the world’s largest commercial real estate services company, has found that city to have North America’s fastest-growing tech talent market, the fastest among all 50 markets measured. With Toronto being North America’s number 3 market overall for tech talent, Vancouver rose 13 spots to number 12, the largest year-over-year improvement of any North American market. Montreal placed at number 13 and Ottawa 19 on the list of the 50 top tech talent markets.

Whether homegrown startup or global multinational—Canada is home to Fortune Global 500 technology companies ranging from Accenture, Alphabet, Amazon and Apple to Mitsubishi, Nokia, Panasonic and SAP—a richness of talent is Canada’s common denominator.

Why is Canada so rich in talent?

A summary of Canada’s talent advantage can be expressed in four statements.

First, Canada has a very diverse, multicultural population that has brought connections—ideas, insights, relationships—from all over the world.

Second, this Canadian diversity benefits from the country’s high-quality education system and investments in critical research through our institutions of higher learning.

Third, to meet the demands of companies and investors seeking specific talent they can’t easily access in Canada, there’s the Global Skills Strategy, which can bring these highly skilled people to Canada within two weeks.

And, fourth, there’s Canada’s international students—642,000 in 2019, a 13% increase over previous record numbers in 2018. Today, Canada has policies to attract and retain these students when they graduate. And with 96% of international students saying they would recommend Canada as a study destination, more graduates are choosing to stay: 60% of international students plan to apply for permanent residence in Canada.

(These and many additional advantages are also conveyed in more detail in my interview with TheFutureEconomy.ca.)

The talent-innovation connection

Innovation is one of those words that is so important, so vital to success, but can also lose meaning when bandied about too often. For Canada, innovation is more than a buzzword. It is quantifiable and real.

Canada’s innovation can be quantified through, yes, the talent here that is making all the amazing advancements and refinements in technology possible. I also offer here four specific ways in which Canadian innovation manifests itself.

First, there’s the R&D at our educational institutions, which I referenced earlier, including a level of support for STEM students that continues to grow. This commitment to innovation includes Canada’s 2018 R&D investments, reflecting the biggest investment in science and university research in Canadian history.

Second, there are Canada’s superclusters, which are innovation hotbeds centred on five critical industries where Canada is demonstrating global leadership. Canada’s Innovation Superclusters Initiative is investing up to $950 million to support these business-led superclusters.

Third, there are Canada’s programs and incentives built to foster innovation, including the Scientific Research and Experimental Development (SR&ED) program—a long-standing tax incentive—and the Strategic Innovation Fund (SIF), which has an objective of spurring innovation for a better Canada by providing funding for large-scale projects typically seeking over $10 million.

And fourth in this high-level view of Canada’s innovation ecosystem are the tech incubators and accelerators throughout Canada. Here’s a link that presents a sampling of seven startup accelerators and incubators recognized as leaders in North America, including ones in the Toronto region, Vancouver, Victoria and Quebec City.

Tech talent and innovation: advantage, Canada

While the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting the entire world—and Canada is certainly not immune to its effects and its ongoing challenges—our nation has taken steps to both protect all those who live here and to prepare for a smooth transition to economic recovery.

Canada’s workforce and innovation comprise crucial parts of our recovery—and help frame the many advantages in the opportunities that Canada offers global investors.

With Collision planning to resume a non-virtual version of its tech conference in Toronto in 2021, it is expected more technology-focused people worldwide will again see Canada’s advantages while on Canadian soil.

As we look to the day when that can happen again, we at Invest in Canada will continue doing our utmost to promote, facilitate and accelerate global investment for Canada.

Interested in what Canada can offer you, a global investor? Visit investcanada.ca and learn more. Then reach out to an Invest in Canada advisor for assistance in establishing or expanding your global business in Canada.