It can be so again

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Tennis%20August%2016%2C%202009%20057Mugshot400X400.jpg By Tony Patterson

UPDATE Oct. 1: Shopify announces it will open a development centre in Waterloo, hiring 300 to start.
Ottawa was the tech capital of Canada in the last quarter of the 20th century and it can be so again.
Ottawa was a world capital for telecom in the last quarter of the 20th century, and it can be so again.
We did it once. We know how. We can do it again. The talent pool is deep. Most of the pillars are still firmly in place. The government is here, the biggest spender on science and tech in Canada by country miles (not unlike the U.S.). Two universities are still churning out engineers. The most sophisticated (by which I mean expensive) equipment is housed here. There are more than fifteen hundred technology firms here, about the same number there were in the halcyon days.
But where are the cheerleaders for technology among our here-and-now political and business leaders? We used to be proud to call ourselves Silicon Valley North. It isn’t appropriate any more and in fact was always a narrow label for a community that includes biotech, life sciences and medical devices, clean tech, aerospace, defence and security, as well as digital media, software and chip-based telecom products. But we wore it proudly for a time and we were recognized around the globe. Jim Balsillie said that “Ottawa was the worst hit city in the world” by the tech bubble collapse at the turn of the millennium. But our hurt was proportional to our achievement. Some of the most advanced work of the era was done here and companies that could bestride international markets were built here. They didn’t last and that story has yet to be told nor blame allocated because quite clearly, at least in the case of Nortel, the cruel ending was thoroughly preventable.
John Diefenbaker said upon one of the defeats that are the common lot of politicians (he was quoting a Scottish privateer), “I am wounded but I am not slain; I’ll lay me down and rest a while and then I’ll rise to fight again.” It’s a quote that fits Ottawa as well. We took a hard body blow. We’ve rested fifteen years. It’s time to start fighting again. How about a three part strategy.
The first thing to do is to rally the troops. The Mayor, the Ministers, the Councillors and the Grandees at the Chamber and I/O might resurrect their enthusiasm for a sector that still employs more of us than anyone else but government and start to speak of the glorious then, dynamic now and brilliant to-come of Ottawa tech.
Second, pay attention to the competition. Watch out for the poaching of strays. Have you noticed that Ottawa’s current, some say only, tech star is taking his show to Waterloo? Here’s how Communitech describes the coup, “Shopify founder Tobias Lütke makes his first visit to our hometown in a public appearance more uncommon than ice cubes on a hot skillet. (We’re not kidding.)” And they aren’t kidding. How often is publicity-shy Tobi (downright below) seen in public in Ottawa? When Shopify is featured locally, the oleaginous Harley Finkelstein is generally delegated. Communitech was designed in acknowledged admiration of OCRI, the Ottawa Centre for Research and Innovation of fond memory, sadly deceased. Communitech carries the spear for technology in Waterloo that has been blunted here by Invest Ottawa (I/O) trying to be all things to all businesses.
Lutke129X210.jpgThird, let’s share the enthusiasm of a revival. Ottawa isn’t a tech solitude. We’re a link along a corridor of technology.
Way back when, all the talk along the length of the Ontario Technology Corridor was of JDSUniphase and Nortel, both ablaze in Ottawa. Then came RIM and OpenText, both in Waterloo. Now Shopify brings some luminescence back to the capital. For half a century, Ottawa’s National Research Council, with a Nobel and other international prizewinners on staff and more prizes than their cases can display, including an Academy Award, carried the flag for Canada’s science and tech smarts. Today it’s Waterloo’s Perimeter Institute that captures global imagination as a new knowledge heavyweight that can attract Stephen Hawking, the best known physicist since Einstein, as visiting scholar.
When the lights dim at one end of the corridor, they brighten at another.
And the GTA keeps pumping at the heart of a mega-region that boasts more than 250,000 tech workers, 6,000 tech companies and 30 colleges and universities brimming with tech talent for today and tomorrow. Toronto is where insulin was first imagined and made, where the electron microscope was developed, where there is the largest medical and biotech cluster of any metropolitan area in North America and the third largest concentration of private ICT companies after San Francisco and New York.
No place along the Ontario Technology Corridor is distant from any other. All are connected not only by the ubiquitous electronic highway but also by a physical network of trains, planes and autoroutes. Engineers, geeks and academics in one locality know their counterparts along the corridor. Companies of size often have operations in two or more campuses along the corridor. With homes in both Waterloo and Ottawa, RIM is also in Mississauga and OpenText in Richmond Hill and Kingston.
But here’s the rub. The elite of Waterloo, currently in a dominant position, see the corridor not nearly as extensive. It stretches, they will say, from where they are to Toronto. The Toronto-Waterloo Corridor is much talked about, or the Waterloo-Toronto Corridor.
Mark Barrenechea writes in the Globe and Mail (May 16, 2014), “California’s Highway 101 stretches 95 kilometres between San Francisco and San Jose, connecting small and large technology companies, students, innovators and venture capitalists. Nestled around Highway 101 is the largest innovation corridor in the world – Silicon Valley.
“Similarly, Ontario’s tree-lined Highway 401 stretches 115 kilometres between Toronto and Waterloo, also connecting small and large technology companies, students, innovators and venture capitalists. Last year, this Ontario corridor surpassed all other cities and regions and became the world’s second largest innovation corridor. It is the Silicon Valley of the North.
“In my 25 years in technology, I have traveled both valleys end-to-end and the similarities between the two corridors are more striking than their differences.”
Mark is the CEO of OpenText. There’s no doubt that he reflects the views of other senior tech executives in Waterloo. Their corridor extends no further than Toronto. This is an idea we have to cut short. There is a government-sponsored Ontario Technology Corridor but it doesn’t have anything to do with collaboration or entrepreneurship. It’s set up to attract foreign enterprise to the province, a noble pursuit but not at the core of innovation.
An inclusive Ontario tech corridor embraces all, is non-threatening to any and, with its stretch and size and strength, is inherently more stable and has great potential as a tool for branding, international marketing and improving connection and collaboration among all the tech clusters from Ottawa (even Cornwall) to London (even Windsor).
Ontario must celebrate its technology corridor, which is a reality even if few people know it. Ottawa must celebrate its tech sector, which is still here and once again on the cusp of greatness. And the Ontario tech corridor must be stretched full length, not stunted at Toronto-Waterloo.

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