Canada has a real shot at becoming a dominant player in global tech if we combine our talent for innovation with authentic Canadian values such as trust, integrity and diversity, according to a panel of distinguished tech founders and leaders.

“There’s a real opportunity for Canada as a country, and the tech community in Canada, to brand itself as a place where you can come and trust that you will be accepted, your work will be accepted and you’ll be able to stretch beyond your comfort level because you feel like you have this ecosystem that allows you to do that,” said Jacqui Murphy, Chief Marketing Officer for Waterloo-based Auvik Networks Inc.

Murphy was speaking at a panel discussion called Spoiler Alert: Canadian Tech is Winning, which was organized by Communitech and CityAge. The virtual event attracted viewers from around the world.

Chris Albinson, President and CEO of Communitech, kicked off the discussion with a message about Canada’s trust advantage.

“In a world where technology, and especially big tech, is not trusted coming out of the United States and not trusted coming out of China, there’s an opportunity for Canada to build technology that has trust inherently built into it and for us to be able to bring that to the rest of the world,” he said.

As several panel members noted, Canada is fast becoming one of the largest tech centres in the world.

“Canada is now the second largest innovation cluster on the planet, and the fastest growing by 4x, at 26 per cent year-on-year,” Albinson said. “We just crossed 200,000 tech workers in the Waterloo-Toronto corridor, making it the second largest innovation cluster on the planet.”

As part of the event, Albinson spoke with Olympic silver-medal winning speedskater Cathy Priestner, who helped create Canada’s Own the Podium program to support the country’s best Olympic athletes.

As with the Olympic program, Albinson is a champion of using data to identify Canadian tech companies with strong potential to become global leaders and then provide them with the support they need to succeed on the world stage.

Priestner said she sees similarities between the Olympic Own the Podium strategy and the opportunities for Canadian tech companies to be dominant global players. It is important to use data to determine what resources and supports are needed to convert strong athletes into world champions, she said.

“It’s so similar to the tech industry,” the former Olympian said. “Innovation was key, and innovation kicks in when you want the conversion rate to go up.”

Several panel members, including Priestner, said Canadians are often shy about their ambition and desire to win. But setting lofty goals and winning can co-exist with typical Canadian values such as trust and collaboration.

“That’s really what defines Team Canada – the fact that we’re a trusted nation,” said Melissa Chee, a former innovation leader with Constellation Software who currently serves as President and CEO of ventureLAB in York Region.

“You can be very collaborative, which is Team Canada, but you can also own the podium,” Chee said. “We have seen a shift in terms of the ambition of the founders of this country, but we haven’t lost sight of the fact that we’re an incredibly inclusive and a very diverse and collaborative group of people.”

Priestner agreed, saying Canadians need to stay true to who we are, in sport and in business.

“We can improve the way we do things, we can get better, but we need to be who we are.”

Canadian values such as diversity and inclusivity can also help tech companies succeed in other ways.

Andrew D’Souza – co-founder and CEO of Clearco, which uses data and artificial intelligence to identify startups to invest in – said his company is committed to finding the most innovative founders in the world, and that requires a co-commitment to diversity and inclusion.

“The idea is to get more people who look different and think different, who have different sets of experiences,” he said. “If you think about what a founder is, a founder is somebody who goes and creates a future, right? It’s basically somebody who sees that the world could be different, and then wills it into existence. And so what we aim to do is give a million people around the world the tools to go and create that future. And we think if we’ve got a diverse set of people that see a better future and can go do that, we think the odds of the future (being better) will be higher than if it’s just a handful of people who all sort of think, or are about, the same, or come to it with about the same set of experiences.”

On a similar note, the panel talked about the role of remote work in helping founders address the fierce competition for talented technology workers.

Most agreed that the growing acceptance of letting workers live in a different city, region or country expands the talent pool and gives Canadian tech companies a greater opportunity to hire skilled workers. 

“I think with distributed work there is an opportunity to present the quality-of-life argument for living in Canada, as opposed to some U.S. centres, as a way of attracting talent back to Canada,” said Jack Newton, co-founder of Vancouver-based Clio, which provides cloud-based legal technology.

He also said that the growing number of Canadian tech companies, and the growing presence in Canada of global leaders such as Google, give skilled tech workers more options to stay in Canada after spending several years with one employer.

“Distributed work also really changes the math for these candidates,” he said.

The panel also discussed the need for tech leaders to take an active part in helping government understand and shape the kind of policies that will keep Canada competitive in a rapidly changing world.

“There’s all kinds of different government policy areas that have an impact,” said 

John Baker, founder and CEO of Kitchener-based learning technology company D2L.

As a member of the federal government’s Industry Strategy Council (ISC), Baker led the digital-and-data consultations for the group’s recent recommendations for a national pandemic recovery strategy.

He said digital infrastructure is fast transforming how the world operates and learns.

“What I saw as I looked at the data was that about half the world economy was going to become digital or digitally transformed in the next four years, so that’s about a $38-trillion transformation of the economy almost overnight,” Baker said. “And so we have to capture that, we simply just can’t sit back and watch that happen. We need to create world leaders here in this country who go out and build the digital infrastructure that powers governments, health care, education and other sectors as quickly as we can because otherwise we will be left behind and will simply be just consuming those technologies (developed by other countries).”

Canada’s big advantage in becoming a world leader in tech is solidly rooted in the country’s core values, panellists concluded.

“We will not out-Silicon Valley by being Silicon Valley,” Albinson said. “And I love the fact that we’re the place where trust is built right into technology, leaning into Canadian values and driving our global success.”