As Canada gears up to celebrate its 150th birthday, we should be thinking about the next 150 years and how we can transform from a resource-driven economy to an innovation-driven one. As a rocket science nerd who grew up in a steel town, lived in Silicon Valley and has built companies in Toronto, the news of the economy cratering every time the commodity trade goes off has grown tiresome. It’s time for Canada to become a great innovation nation.
Canada’s promising tech scene looks radically different today than it did even 5 years ago. We’re booming with world class science, entrepreneurial talent, incubators, accelerators, early stage shots on net, more domestic venture capital, foreign venture capital and more later stage companies than ever before.
Now it’s time to put our collective shoulder into it.
Enter the Trudeau government, Minister Bains and the broader cabinet with a focus on innovation as a means, along with immigration, to drive long term growth.
In the last year, I’ve seen more consultations with Canada’s thought leaders, more brainstorming sessions with CEOs, more thought papers, and more hyper vocal support – a nation coming together – than I’ve seen die-hard Leaf fans in Toronto in March.
Good news, the Trudeau government has delivered an innovation budget. A plan to train and attract world class talent, provide greater access to capital for startups, and higher paying brain-trade jobs. It’s a turning point.
Despite the tough backdrop of crafting a budget with the economic uncertainty from President Trump and NAFTA negotiations, we are seeing a commitment to innovation. While there are no dollars today, we can see a commitment to continue consulting with Canada’s tech sector at a feverish pace to create a national IP policy, among other things.
That’s sending a powerful message.
In a country the size of Canada, we need to make big bets in a few categories. We can’t afford to wither in the face of local politics, and spread our dollars too thin across the country. The competition for talent, jobs and dollars is global. There is one global podium. And like we did in Vancouver 2010, we need to push for the podium, a mentality that is traditionally un-Canadian.
That means making bets.
All in for AI
Big bets and superclusters surrounding world-class talent is exactly the kind of wager I’d like to see.
A $400M bet that can be leveraged to deliver $1.5B to later stage companies – while still unclear – is a promising concept to help the bulge of our seed/early stage companies see their way through to scaling and greater returns.
Laying down $125M for a national AI strategy. A powerful first step.
We’ve got the talent. The modern godfathers of AI are here: Joshua Bengio, Geoff Hinton, Rich Sutton. The leading AI accelerator is here at the Creative Destruction Lab. Next AI is here. Element AI is here. Teams in Montreal, Toronto, Kitchener-Waterloo, Edmonton and Vancouver are rallying now.
In a year, I’d like to see the government take the bold step to deliver a $5 billion dollar, 10-year commitment to a national AI strategy. It’s a bet. No guarantees on when it pays dividends, but there’s a global AI-arms race going on and we have a shot to be the place in the world where the best R&D, the best talent, and the best innovations come from. And that means jobs, growth, prosperity. That’s a position that China, the U.S. and others are going after. But we have a distinct advantage over them, and we should capitalize.
Stacking the deck with healthcare
I’s time to bring healthcare to the forefront of this innovation commitment.
Part of the $900M supercluster budget is to be focused on healthcare. As a country, we have leading regenerative medicine research, places like the MaRS Discovery District and a growing number of fledgling digital health companies. Yet we still don’t have digital health records, modern telehealth or widely available telemedicine.
We’ve spent billions in failed health IT projects – more money than Google, Facebook, and many other tech superstars COMBINED ever raised to build their global enterprises. Canada should be a world leader in digital health. We should be taking what’s great about our model, opening it up to entrepreneurs to modernize and export it globally.
I would love to see the Trudeau government set this as a national imperative in the coming year.
Kindergarten coders is our long-term play
Coding. $50M has been dedicated to teaching K-12 to code. Score.
Here is my very simple thought: Invest now in every kindergarten-aged child and in 10 years our minds will be blown. What can a kid who’s been coding since the age of 5 do when she’s 15? Build a next generation time travel company, or something equally amazing. I am counting on it.
Our future prosperity will depend largely on how well we can set ourselves up for success. It’s a long game, and entrepreneurs like me are in the game to win. It seems we’ve found a partner – the first in my lifetime – who’s willing to collaborate with us to create the kind of innovation nation we must build. It’s a long game to shift us from a commodity-driven economy to one that has limitless potential.
Imagine. Combine girls and boys coding from the age of 5, an AI superpower, and a Global Healthcare Hero and we may have among us the first generation whose children will live to see Canada as an innovation trailblazer in the next 150 years.
The time is now.
There has been no better time in history to elevate our tech industry, and showcase the strength of our people and our ideas to the world. The budget is by no means perfect, but it’s a solid step in the right direction. My advice to entrepreneurs and my friends in the tech sector: the only way we can become an innovation nation is to get involved, get engaged, and build, build, build!
This country is ours to shape now.