Bring back OCRI

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

If you’re not a part of Ottawa’s technology community you probably haven’t noticed that Ottawa doesn’t have a technology community any more. It used to have one called Silicon Valley North.

It’s a bit odd because companies founded on technology create more jobs in Ottawa than anything except the federal government, just like when there was a Silicon Valley North back at the end of last century. There are lots of leaders in Ottawa leading tech companies. They just don’t make up a community any longer. The one they used to have, stirred by a dynamo called OCRI, was dismembered five years ago.

OCRI%20Logo.jpgThat’s when the city created Invest Ottawa (I/O).They don’t talk technology so much at I/O. It’s “knowledge-based business” they’re concerned with, which when you get down to it is just about any business. As I/O’s first chief famously said, "If you get off the bus in Ottawa and say, ‘I want to start a barbershop,' we'll help you out." The city would fund I/O at $3.6 million annually. Tech of course would be included in its mandate but there would no longer be members. Networking events were sharply curtailed.

Born in the 1980s, supported by tech company members, OCRI was the heart of a tech community that grew to be known around the world as Silicon Valley North. For decades it was the builder of networks, applauding success, featuring leaders, encouraging mentors, facilitating partnerships and doing a wide range of things to bring people together and encourage cooperation and interchange. Monthly breakfast meetings for hundreds were held at the Corel Centre. Educational and networking events from Kanata to downtown were common. There was even a time when pre-competitive, commercial, joint research projects were managed (OCRI was originally the Ottawa Carleton Research Institute, later the Ottawa Centre for Research and Innovation).

OCRI inspired and was model for a number of tech sector growth engines, not least Communitech in Waterloo, which today is the strongest backstop that city has to counteract the implosion of Blackberry, which has cascaded during the past five years from 20,000 employees and $20 billion in sales to 6,000 employees and just over $3 billion in sales.

Blackberry’s collapse has been a catastrophe for Waterloo (pop.<100,000), a crippling blow to its economic mainstay. That’s the reality. But the perception is quite different. Serious champions from government and industry loudly proclaim Waterloo’s praises. Constant communiqués from Communitech accentuate the positive. One of the country’s most powerful communications and government relations firms has been brought on board. As Jeffrey Dale wrote in an article in OBJ (April 25, 2016), “Communitech and its supporters have a clear plan to develop the Toronto-Waterloo corridor and are executing it brilliantly.”

The campaign to create/brand a Toronto-Waterloo tech corridor is increasingly finding its way into media references. Some headlines:
How to make the Toronto-Waterloo corridor into a world-leading innovation centre, by Kevin Lynch (former Clerk of the Privy Council) and Iain Klugman (CEO of Communitech), Globe and Mail
Toronto-Waterloo Corridor the Star as California VCs get Taste of TIFF, TechVibes
Toronto-Waterloo corridor poised to become Canada's 'innovation super ecosystem', Report on Ontario Investment (Government publication)
Toronto-Waterloo corridor could be Canada’s own Silicon Valley, Iain Klugman and Kevin Lynch, G&M

If this becomes the common perception, it must have negative impact eventually on support for tech development, skills education, job creation and venture capital placement elsewhere, not least in Ottawa.
“Waterloo companies know the plan, they know the numbers, they know their priorities and they can speak knowledgeably about them to anyone who asks,” says Dale. He knows whereof he speaks. He was a long serving executive director of OCRI. There are close to 70,000 technology workers in Ottawa, 1,700 tech companies and leading-edge capabilities in aerospace and defence, telecommunications, clean tech, photonics, ecommerce and life sciences. But Ottawa’s tech leaders are not primed the way they once were to talk the talk.OCRI%20Logo.jpg

It’s a bloody shame. Not only that, it’s economic suicide. Far and away the most support for technology in Canada, as in the United States and every other industrialized country, comes from government. Government puts its resources where it believes it will get the most bang for its bucks. If government comes to believe, as the prime minister of Canada and premier of Ontario have recently indicated they do, that the hot spot for Ontario tech is Waterloo, then that’s where bureaucrats will be looking first to dispense grants, loans and subsidies of all colours.

Or as Jeff Dale writes, “Ottawa had better get its act together soon or any new federal funding for technology clusters in Ontario will be going to Toronto and Waterloo, with the full support of Queen’s Park.”

The city of Ottawa’s lack of leadership and support for tech, lack of political leadership, lack of support by the responsible authority, has left a sector in disarray at precisely the moment when the cup of technology, largely drained by the Harper government, is ready for a top up. But the way the table is being set, Ottawa will get a sip only after Waterloo drinks its fill.

Tony Patterson was publisher of Silicon Valley North from 1995-2000 and has been connected with Ottawa’s tech sector one way and another since the 1970s.

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