FROM THE APRIL PRINT EDITION OF  

Cover%20Shot%2C%20LeftIII-145X290.jpgCover%20Shot%2C%20RightII-145X290.jpgNOW and THEN

By Tony Patterson

From the Westin downtown to the Tory Building on Carleton’s sprawling campus is an eight kilometre drive along the historic, beautiful and magnificently engineered Rideau Canal. But on the final days of March the hotel and university are separated not just by what the odometer measures. They are world’s apart.

On Friday March 30 at the Westin, Ottawa’s high tech establishment gathers to discuss Building Silicon Valley North Bit By Bit. Consolations abound about the sad state of venture capital (there is none), government policy (predominantly wrong-headed) and the labour market (dysfunctional).

A hundred strong, they are led by entrepreneur extraordinaire Sir Terry Matthews, technomillionaire and now mayor Larry O’Brien, and the man who has made more money faster than anybody else ever in Ottawa, Antoine Paquin. At the tail end of a long panel Bob Gillett, president of Algonquin College, quips that the speaking order is determined by “level of personal wealth,” which gets a good laugh but is surely a mistake because Paquin has more money than O’Brien but who’s counting? When they disperse, no minds have changed, no action plans are under discussion and, as far as I can see, nobody has met anybody new.

None of these people come to Carleton the next day, Saturday, when a group half their age but twice their number shares knowledge and experience and finds like-minded entrepreneurs at BarCamp Ottawa3. Almost all leave the day echoing Tobi Lütke’s call to action: “This is the time for startups.” Lütke is CTO of jadedPixel, which produces and successfully markets easy-to-instal software for selling stuff online.

It’s not a barcamp-235X68.jpgweekend to be indoors. The first real signs of springing into the new season are all about. I walk the gorgeous Carleton campus in open jacket though signs hanging on outdoor stairwells still read “Closed for Winter”. There’s no snow anywhere. It’s a bright new world.

On Friday nobody wears jeans. On Saturday hardly anybody wears anything else.

On Friday the moderator has to ask most of the questions of the presenters because almost none are volunteered from the audience. On Saturday the questions, comments, critiques and discussion flow fast and furious, extending every session into the corridors.

Ottawa’s BarCamp series began in December 2005 and Saturday’s event is the third, drawing double the last crowd, including visitors from Montreal and Toronto

The Friday OCRI-logo-233X90.JPGevent proceeds under the auspices of OCRI, Ottawa’s acronymphomaniacal economic development agency. Pierre Coulombe, president of the National Research Council, which is supposed to cover the country but has half its assets in Ottawa, is a panelist. NRC and OCRI between them account for at least 20% of the day’s audience. In fact there are fewer than a dozen ‘builders’ among the participants, if builders are defined as companies that produce technologically advanced goods and services for sale at home and abroad. The Westin ballroom is chock-a-block with government officers, accountants, lawyers, consultants and association executives, all circling and anxious to help the building process.

Deborah Weinstein retires this month after four years sitting in the OCRI chair. She will focus more intently on LaBarge Weinstein’s practice, which she says is enjoying a spectacular run by helping successful Ottawa tech companies sell themselves abroad. When I ask about the low turnout by actual tech companies as distinct from their professional support network, she quickly replies, “I’m very glad they’re not here because I hope they’re all out doing business rather than here listening to me.” It’s a fond hope but surely misses the point that if OCRI is going to sponsor a conference about building the tech community, it’s important to attract some practicing or potential builders.

In fact LaBarge Weinstein is the only company on the program both Friday and Saturday. Mike Dunleavy of LW speaks at BarCamp about legal considerations for companies starting up. It’s hard not to think that Dunleavy is gathering the next generation of candidates for LW’s pipeline to American VCs.

Matthews is much revered but probably just as much feared because so much of what the local workforce uses and depends on ─ the companies, the buildings, the Brookstreet hotel, the Marshes golf course, the executive jets ─ are his property. By his own count he has started 65 companies around the world since 1972, most of them successful. He has a lot and he got it all by his own smarts and sweat.

But it’s an open question whether Matthews is now too big for the neighbourhood. He admits he gets most of his capital from London’s AIM market. In the 1990s five out of six of his companies were here. Now it’s one out of three, and one of these, Ubiquity Software, has just been sold to Avaya. Last year he sold $20 million worth of Mitel stock in order to finance the Ryder Cup golf tournament in 2010 at his Celtic Manor Resort. This massive development in Wales has been built out from the maternity hospital where Matthews was born and which he acquired in 1980. It now includes a conference centre, hotel, four restaurants, health club and three golf courses, including the only one ever built specifically for the Ryder Cup.

Paquin, who hasn’t yet turned 40, would be the best possible bridge across the great divide between the old guard and the new. He’s a Carleton grad and founder of Skystone Systems, a networking chip company he sold to Cisco in 1997 for US$89 million. This single deal is credited with changing the way companies are (or should be) developed in Ottawa by introducing a dollop of American impatience and aggression. Paquin had come to appreciate these qualities during an intensive hunt for capital through the U.S. (To be fair and spread the credit somewhat, Matthews was an important investor in Skystone and it was one of the earliest deals worked on by the recently formed LaBarge Weinstein.)

He then became CEO of Philsar Semiconductor and quickly sold it to Conexant for $280 million. All around Ottawa companies were suddenly going public or being bought, bringing greater wealth to many people in Ottawa than they ever dreamed possible. It was the nineties, remember, but a lot of it came from following Paquin’s lead.

Then he was gone, off to California where the big boys play. Now, after four years, he’s back, running the Canadian arm of a $2.2 billion New York venture capital firm, Roh Capital Partners. His plan is to mobilize private and government pension funds to back early-stage technology companies. Unfortunately, when he came back to Canada, it was to Montreal. He was just in Ottawa for the day on Friday.

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