Q&A – Fortifying Canada’s Next Generation Exporters

We’ve coined the term ‘Born Global’ to describe the mindset of our knowledge-based companies, since the majority of their sales come from outside Ottawa.

For 27 years Invest Ottawa, formerly the Ottawa Centre for Research and Innovation – OCRI, has been passionately advocating for small business and innovation. The recent name change to Invest Ottawa reflects the organization’s expanded vision and desire to play a leading role in helping develop next generation Canadian exporters. This will be done by maintaining a laser-like focus on its new operating principles, which can be summarized in three words: innovation, collaboration and speed – those are the criteria its new CEO Bruce Lazenby says are essential to help build technology companies in a knowledge-based community.

“To get Canada where it needs to be (in the technology sectors),” he adds, “groups like ours across this nation have to become more relevant to all, including emerging entrepreneurs in the 20 to 35 age group, college and university graduates and the diaspora (new Canadians).”

What’s unique about industry in Ottawa?

We have one key export in Ottawa – one that’s core to everything we do, and that’s technology. We’ve categorized this as a knowledge-based industry because this term is more inclusive of all that happens here from an intellectual property perspective. It’s not just technology, it’s life sciences, cleantech, engineering and more. We have close to 1,950 knowledge-based companies in Ottawa. This makes us pretty unique. We’ve coined the term ‘Born Global’ to describe the mindset of these companies, since the majority of their sales come from outside of Ottawa.

What benefits do you see Ottawa’s knowledge-based community delivering for Canada?

Virtually all employment growth in Canada comes from small business: you talk to a three-person company, they want to be a six-person one; you talk to a 12-person company, they want to be 20. When we look at our knowledge-based community in Ottawa, some 1,500 firms each employ fewer than 10 people; that’s where a significant portion of Canada’s growth will come from. Invest Ottawa will continue to play a major role in strengthening this cluster of small technology businesses, working together with groups like EDC, Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) and others, to help drum up new business opportunities for those in this region.

Are there any particular technology clusters that are more prominent in Ottawa?

Yes, we have very active defence and security, mobile, life sciences and cleantech clusters. Invest Ottawa has 40 people, many of whom are dedicated to the life sciences area alone, that’s how important we think it is. Ottawa also has extensive research support focused on this area. In November 2011, we hosted the Canadian National Medical Devices Summit, where we came to a consensus on where Canadian medical devices, as a cluster, need to go nationally. To support such clusters you need not just an anchor company, but an anchor CEO as well. One of the things that positions this sector for success is that it has an anchor company like Nordion and its CEO Steve West, who is the cluster chair and highly regarded globally. He, along with the Executive Life Sciences Council, is committed to seeing the sector succeed and has been very active in getting organizations working together.

What is a key challenge to laying a strong foundation for the next generation of high-tech exporters?

One of the things we consistently talk about is how some Canadian companies get sold too soon. We don’t have a lot of people in this region who have been part of a billion-dollar company. We use an expression: ‘If you haven’t seen the movie, then you don’t know how it’s going to end.’ If you don’t know how it’s going to end, it’s hard to be a successful player in it. So, you grow to be a $30-million company in Ottawa, and then the script ends, and you go, what happens now?

So, what’s the answer? How can you help these businesses “see the movie”?

There are many Canadians at billion-dollar companies working in Silicon Valley – a group of them, known as the C-100, have approached DFAIT, EDC and other organizations wanting to give back to Canada. So here’s something we’ve been thinking about: Cisco has good Canadian leadership; the CFO of Google is a Canadian. Maybe we can take a VP from a company here and get him or her involved in a two-year exchange with someone from Cisco, or maybe just send that person to work at Google in California for two years. Then they’ve seen the movie and can translate it for others. This is just one example of the kind of thing that Invest Ottawa and groups like us can help do.

What thoughts do you have about what makes a successful exporter?

When I looked at some of the great founders of Canadian technology companies in Ottawa (which grew globally) – Terry Matthews, Jozef Straus, Adam Chowaniec, Michael Cowpland – guess what they all have in common? They weren’t born here. One of the riskiest things you can do as a person is to leave your homeland and go where you don’t know anybody. All immigrants have taken that risk and have developed key skills and attributes that go along with it. That’s not unlike the risk profile of an exporter and other entrepreneurs. Another trait we find in these entrepreneurs is that often they were making money before they were 12. They had a paper route, they were selling pop cans; they were doing something business-like. I look at that and think, okay, how do we find these people now?

Could immigration and the diaspora help produce Canada’s next generation exporters?

Within the 20 to 35 group, we have a sub-group of hundreds of immigrants and diaspora members in our universities who are about to graduate. They’re an entrepreneurial generation just waiting to be discovered. They’ve self-identified as entrepreneurs, whether they realize it or not, by virtue of leaving their homeland for a new life in unknown territory. Yet we largely ignore them. We need to connect with them in their third or fourth year of engineering, commerce or whatever it is.

I was surprised to learn that there are 4,600 undergrad engineers at one of Ottawa’s local universities alone. We have to reach out to these students and make connections between employers and graduates through internships, co-op programs and summer jobs. So that’s another thing Invest Ottawa is going to be doing.

Meet Bruce Lazenby, CEO, Invest Ottawa

The CEO of Invest Ottawa is a seasoned technology industry executive. Former chief executive of FreeBalance, an enterprise software company, he helped raise millions in venture capital while expanding the company. Prior to joining what’s now Invest Ottawa, in 2011, Lazenby served as regional vice-president of Canadian operations for the Corum Group, a mergers-and-acquisitions consultancy firm.

Categories Technology & Telecom

Comments are closed.

Related Posts