If you hadn’t heard it already, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty confirmed it today: Waterloo Region is “Canada’s most important tech cluster.”
Premier McGuinty made the remark during an upbeat address at the grand opening of the Communitech Hub’s bright, new expanded space in Kitchener’s Tannery complex.
The Hub, a digital-media incubator whose initial 30,000 square feet reached capacity just 18 months after it opened, now boasts another 14,000 square feet for the region’s innovative entrepreneurs.
The expansion, which includes ample space for the University of Waterloo’s VeloCity “dormcubator” program, coincides with strong growth at Communitech’s key Tannery co-anchors, Google and Desire2Learn.
“It’s hard to keep up with all the good news that’s coming from this place,” the Premier told an enthusiastic crowd that surrounded him in the airy new space. “Desire2Learn is about to create 200 more jobs this year, and we all learned today that Google is expanding here, too.”
He characterized the growth as part of “a remarkable revolution” embodied by the Lang Tannery, which sat more or less silent between 1954 to 2010, but now buzzes with commercial creativity.
“In the old economy it was a tannery where they made leather; now it’s a place with a bright future in the new economy, as a hub for digital innovation,” Premier McGuinty said.
Citing the region as a place he visits often “to get my energy fix,” he thanked “everyone involved with Communitech, and everyone in this community who contributes to the amazing energy in Waterloo Region, Canada’s most important tech cluster.”
After the formal presentations, I had a chance to sit down with Premier McGuinty for an exclusive one-on-one chat, about Waterloo Region innovation and its growing importance to Ontario and the world. Here’s how it went:
Q – How important is Waterloo Region’s tech cluster to Ontario given the state of the economy these days?
A – It’s very important for a couple of reasons in particular.
There’s the obvious one; it’s an economic generator. They’re creating new companies here, they’re hiring more young people every day, and that’s acting as a powerful contributor to our GDP.
But it’s also a symbol of what it is we can do and what it is we can accomplish together.
If people are looking for best practices in terms of how to nurture creativity, harness creativity, and commercialize that creativity into products and services of value in a global economy, then you can look at this place. You can look at Waterloo Region.
It should be source of pride for everybody in our province, the activity that is taking place here, the results that they are getting, the successes that they are enjoying.
We are a global leader in so many ways because of the great work that is taking place here.
So, at a time of challenging global economics, which cannot but impact us here in Ontario, people need to know that we can, and in fact are, winning.
This region, and the work that is taking place here, demonstrates clearly that we are a winner.
Q – You’ve been premier for a while now, almost nine years. You’ve been to every corner of the province, every big and small community. What do you think it is that distinguishes Waterloo Region from other places in the province?
A – If I had to put it into one word, it’s energy.
Every time I come here, the energy is palpable; the enthusiasm, the dogged determination, the entrepreneurial drive.
And then, the symbiotic relationships that have been fostered here, and in a very deliberate way, beginning maybe with more serendipity, but now people understand how important it is to have a deliberate strategy.
You’ve got to have strong connections between your post-secondary institutions and your VC community and your entrepreneurs and your mentors. You’ve got to pull all that together.
At one point, I think we thought of it as magic. Now we know that it is in fact formulaic. There is a science to success.
They’ve created that science here; they’ve developed that body of knowledge in terms of helping us understand what are, really, the fundamentals for sustainable growth and prosperity.
That’s what distinguishes this community.
Q – During the recent election campaign, your party proposed a tax credit for angel investors and VCs. That got quite a bit of attention around here, obviously, because there’s been a bit of a drop-off in that kind of investment in Canada. What are your government’s plans to encourage innovation going forward?
A – Let me start with the general and move into the specific.
We live in a world where everybody can borrow capital, everybody can eventually copy somebody else’s technology and everybody can buy natural resources. So it seems to me that the foundation for sustainable growth and prosperity is to be found in two things principally.
That’s the education; the skill level of your people, and it’s innovation.
It’s harnessing this magnificent human capacity to imagine your future.
So, we will continue to support and promote innovation in Ontario.
We’re not an oil-and-gas jurisdiction; we’re not a low-wage, low-quality-of-life, low-standard-of-living jurisdiction. We aspire to more than that, and we understand our greatest strengths are to be found in our people.
So, we’ll continue to educate them, we’ll continue to provide them with skills and we’ll continue to find ways to harness their creativity.
With respect to that particular commitment in our platform, I leave it to the Minister of Finance as to when and how to execute that, and he’ll find ways to speak to that in due course.
Q – Much is said about Canadians, and by extension, Ontarians, being a little bit too timid about going out and claiming their share of the new economy. What can we do to shake off that perception, if not that reality?
A – There are a couple of things, I think, that maybe we need to do, and I say this as someone who’s had the opportunity to lead trade missions to China and India; I’ve been to Japan, Europe and the U.S., of course.
I’m not sure if Canadians and Ontarians understand just in how high a regard we are held globally.
The soundness of our financial institutions has further elevated our stature, exponentially.
I just met Tuesday with the head of 3M globally. He said the Number 1 reason they are in Ontario is the talent and creativity of our people.
So, the fact is, we have a brand. We have a recognizable strength in the global economy. So we need to recognize what it is that people see in us.
Secondly, we need to keep raising our sights. We don’t have a big enough market here in Ontario alone purely to do business with ourselves. About 80 per cent of the stuff that we make at present, we are exporting to the United States.
We need to extend our reach beyond the U.S. They will always be our single greatest trading partner, long into the distant future, but we need to move beyond that.
There are faster-growing markets in different parts of the world and we need to expand our reach.
And, when it comes to small and medium-sized businesses generally in Ontario, we need to find a way to work together to again raise their sights and look to world markets.
Q – Final question: What are you most likely to tell others about your visit to the Communitech Hub today?
A – If you ever want to be energized, if you ever want to restore your sense of idealism, if you want to get a massive injection of unadulterated optimism, come to Waterloo Region, pop into the Communitech Hub, look into the eyes of the young people who are working there, and take home their energy and their enthusiasm and their can-do attitude.