Procurement barriers and government red tape were top of mind as founders and leaders from the Waterloo Region tech community met today with Ontario Associate Minister of Digital Government, Kaleed Rasheed.

“It’s all about risk tolerance,” said Alex Millar, co-founder and CTO of Waterloo Region-based software company Bonfire.

Large companies and public-sector organizations are often reluctant to take a chance on buying from a young company, no matter how innovative and effective their services or products might be.

“We lived through begging, borrowing and stealing to get people to use our software,” Millar said. “The culture of procurement is, ‘Don’t rock the boat, don’t do anything beyond the status quo’… I don’t know what the solution is to shake that up.”

Rasheed, a former account manager for BlackBerry and current MPP for Mississauga East-Cooksville, visited the Communitech Hub in downtown Kitchener to hear from tech leaders.

The Ontario government is in the midst of developing a digital and data strategy, including a plan to create a new provincial data authority.

Rasheed said his role is to listen to stakeholders and work with colleagues in the government to do what the province can to help companies succeed.

“Government cannot create jobs,” he told the roundtable-style meeting. “Our job is to create the environment so that you can create jobs.”

One positive example of overcoming red tape and improving the procurement process was provided by Dr. Mohamed Alarakhia, Managing Director of the eHealth Centre of Excellence, a provincial delivery partner.

 Six years ago, the eHealth Centre studied the issue of long wait times for patients in need of hip and knee surgery. A big problem was the lack of organization and co-ordination in the medical referral process, which left patients with little or no way to track where they were in the wait line.

Working with Communitech, the eHealth Centre of Excellence spoke to a large number of companies – large multinationals as well as area startups – about possible solutions.

 “We had a special day for startups,” Alarakhia said. “The startups told us what they needed. They also told us the challenges with the procurement process. You know, (many organizations) almost eliminate them from the beginning in that process, but we listened to them.”

The eHealth Centre team initiated an RFP process that ended up choosing a made-in-Ontario solution that gives patients full transparency into the referral process, allowing them to follow each step of the way.

 “We have about 30,000 referrals a month (now),” Alarakhia said. “We’ve reduced wait times for orthopedic surgery by 52 days, and reduced inappropriate testing by 12 per cent, saving $13 million.”

Communitech CEO Chris Albinson said that an important factor in the success of that initiative was the Ministry of Health’s decision to set aside a certain amount of money to allow eHealth to look for home-grown, innovative solutions.

He suggested that government could use a similar approach with other purchasing needs, setting aside, say, 15 per cent of a procurement spend for Canadian-controlled private companies that have a solution that can improve either service or cost savings by five per cent.

Another example shared by Albinson was the role that Waterloo-based Axonify has played in providing frontline training to hospital staff during the pandemic.

Like many hospitals across the province, nurses and other staff at Grand River Hospital in Kitchener have been so busy during the pandemic that it is hard to take staff off the floor for ongoing training. Communitech put the hospital in touch with Axonify, which specializes in online training for frontline workers. The match-making was a huge win for the hospital and for Axonify, which used that relationship to secure business right across the country.

“It’s awesome for Axonify to have Grand River Hospital and Ontario as a customer as they scale their business,” said Albinson, adding that it is an example of how to solve problems for Ontario while helping companies grow and stay in the province.

Based on his experience with eHealth, Alarakhia said he believes that government and other organizations need to study best practices in innovative procurement and “start to put them out there.

“We need to say, ‘This is how you do procurement, this is how you get the field involved, and then this is how you may land on Ontario companies and make them successful.’ I would say that if tomorrow we wanted to digitize any access to services where a clinician was sending a form, we could do it. We have the technology, it has been provincially procured, it’s actually provincially funded and we could move forward.”

Other topics raised with Rasheed included talent recruitment and retention, fostering the growth of new companies and keeping them in Canada, the governance of data, the importance of international students, and intellectual property strategies.

“Please consider me as your friend and your partner,” Rasheed said. “I believe that public-private partnership is so important and that’s how I want to move forward, where we partner with organizations such as yourselves to make sure that we achieve our goals together.”