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Suzanne Grant
CEO - Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance (CATA)

Canada’s National Economic Strategy Requires Input from All Voices

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Takeaways

  1. Canada is underperforming on innovation and competitiveness due to our lack of ability to commercialize our R&D and products.
  2. Canada needs a national economic strategy that places innovation at its centre and must include government as well as leaders from all sectors.
  3. Our approach to talent has to be more open-minded in terms of its global orientation and the value placed on youth talent and the talents new Canadians bring with them.

Action

To come up with a strong national economic strategy, the Prime Minister needs to be sitting at the innovation table along with very diverse voices: players from every sector, youth, new Canadians and leaders of top companies. We also need to channel capital and investment, so that these people can effectively influence Canada’s future economy.


How would you grade our governments’ and industries’ efforts to foster a culture of innovation in Canada?

I would give Canada a ‘C’ grade in terms of innovation and competitiveness because we are not able to successfully commercialize and get our innovations to the market.We have a good education system and plenty of motivated entrepreneurs. However, we are lacking boldness when it comes to our investment strategy. We are not supporting our bold entrepreneurs.

“I would give Canada a ‘C’ grade in terms of innovation and competitiveness because we are not able to successfully commercialize and get our innovations to the market.”

Canada is exceptionally strong in research and development, and in product development. As a nation we have a wonderful brand, and this is something that our technology industry can harness. However, we have not made the most of that branding as we are still struggling on the international commercialization front. There are so many examples of great Canadian technology that did not make it to the market because the marketing and sales savviness was not there.We need to improve the global recognition of Canadian companies as being robust and owning the podium.

Innovation is not just about coming up with a new idea or building something new. It is the whole process of realizing the potential of an idea, whether it be a service or a product. If innovators are not scaling their inventions and getting their products into the hands of people who can benefit from those products, then they are not truly innovating.

“There are so many examples of great Canadian technology that did not make it to the market because the marketing and sales savviness was not there.”

We need a national economic strategy, and innovation is a key part of that. To a certain extent, innovation will drive that strategy by supplying the economy with innovative technology, technology companies, or just economic growth. That said, our approach to formulating such a strategy should not be top down. We need to work together to educate our politicians to make informed decisions.

One of the positives is that the current leaders in business are quite open to mentorship. This is important because mentorship is a big investment that could really help new Canadian entrepreneurs.


What do you believe a Canadian national innovation strategy should focus on?

The business community needs to be a part of the national economic strategy. The government has data sets and analysis, but a lot of information and experience is lost by not having stakeholders and the leaders of innovation at the table 100% of the time.

“The business community needs to be a part of the national economic strategy. The government has data sets and analysis, but a lot of information and experience is lost by not having stakeholders and the leaders of innovation at the table 100% of the time.”

During the last four years I spent living in Ottawa, I did see a significant outreach from our government into the private sector. But the private sector also needs to reach out to the government. If you are building a company, especially if you are on the cutting edge of a new field, you have to be aware of how policy and regulation will impact your business. When do we ever leave any major decisions to anybody else? We know that as individuals; so if companies or industry want something to happen, they have to be a part of the process. They can’t sit back and expect it to work. Now is the time when our business leaders need to work with our government leaders and public service to lead the country and design its vision.

One of the main issues that we need to compete on is how we are adopting new technologies.We have a small population. We all need to work together to raise the whole tide for Canada in the competitive marketplace. So procurement strategies are another big step in solidifying a national economic strategy.

Also, the private sector needs to be considering branding and marketing as well. And we must help brand and market the strengths of Canadian innovation companies. There is a whole process of structuring a company for the global market and fine-tuning a vision. Within our small population, we have a lot of smart people who do not have enough experience in this space. With that said, we can dramatically speed up the learning curve here by expanding connections from executive to executive around the world.

“Canada needs leaders from every sector participating in a roundtable discussion facilitating collaboration and improving our innovation ecosystem.”

Another point to consider is that we should start looking beyond the US for investments. Canada has the highest percentage of free trade agreements in the world. Other countries do not see us as the underdog the same way the US does. We need to think about how we can bring in more money and FDI from other countries.


What specific actions can our governments take to create a better environment of innovation and growth for Canada’s economy?

Our governments must look at instances of international best practice for inspiration. Take Israel for example: what worked for them is their government actually procured products from Israeli entrepreneurs. This benefits everyone: the government will automatically be more innovative, and the entrepreneurs need that investment to grow. They need customers because customers help them meet their milestones, and it helps them learn how to be a robust company. 

Another example to learn from is the US. They have a strong system of self-advocacy where they have innovation councils, entrepreneurs, and businesspeople that are at the White House daily. Canada needs leaders from every sector participating in a roundtable discussion facilitating collaboration and improving our innovation ecosystem.

“We have heard from entrepreneurs that it is more complicated to do business between the provinces than it is internationally.”

Also, Europe has some good policies around data ownership. I do believe that governments need to step up in some way because even though the borders are completely open in the digital world, government can and should still come up with regulation and policy to stop some of these monolithic companies from coming in and eating all the data. The monopolistic strategy of some of these big companies to own all the data will severely limit entrepreneurial opportunities for everyone else.

Lastly, some of our weaknesses as a country include having a complicated regulatory environment. We have heard from entrepreneurs that it is more complicated to do business between the provinces than it is internationally.Government must tackle this problem.

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What are some of the shortcomings that you have observed in terms of the way we train and utilize talent in Canada? What must we do to address them?

There is a cultural aspect to this – Canadians have not been brought up in a commercial culture. We do not necessarily value salespeople and the art of sales, which is the bedrock of business. Where other countries are looking to innovate and diversify, we are more comfortable sticking with what we know. So, we are lacking in terms of long-term vision. We need to start by changing the culture, and that will take some time. 

We need to be more globally-minded and globally competitive in regards to our talent, because we are not going to be able to keep international companies out. They are our competitors. Just because Canada is a G7 country, it does not mean that we are the most sophisticated in the way that we conduct our business. 

Looking at our resources and talent, we need to ask ourselves: how much of our talent problem is a lack of imagination about how we actually engage our talent? We offer this utopia, this panacea of a beautiful life to immigrants and then, when they get here, we do not know what to do with them when they are actually rather entrepreneurial. We need to be more open-minded and embrace our new Canadians and our minorities because if not, we are getting in the way of our own progress.

“We need to be more open-minded and embrace our new Canadians and our minorities because if not, we are getting in the way of our own progress.”

American companies have tremendously more investment than we do in Canada, and this limits Canadian companies’ to attract and hire top international talent. Companies in Ontario get valued much less because investors see that there is a risk in terms of access to capital here. A lot of companies here have complained that they are struggling to get the investment they need to grow and hire. We may very well lose our leadership position in terms of AI if we do not get the investment that we need. 

On top of that, Canada has so many small companies that fresh graduates do not necessarily know about. Furthermore, many do not have the patience and the resources to look after and train a new graduate. Considering all these factors, it should not come as a surprise that we are losing a lot of Canadian talent to overseas companies. It is not enough to just put our students through university – we need to utilize them.


What shape must collaboration take in Canada to increase our competiiveness in the future economy?

Canada has a small population. We all need to work together to raise the whole tide for Canada in the competitive marketplace. It is not enough for entrepreneurs to demand that the government fix things, they also need to get people together and help them understand the complex issues that are at hand.

For example, CATA was actually conceived 50 years ago when there were just a few technology companies in Canada and their leaders got together and decided they needed to all prop each other up. It started in a spirit of collaboration that recognizes that we need brilliant minds and industry leaders all around the same table and learning from one another.  

When we speak about a national innovation strategy, we need to make sure that this strategy incorporates a diverse array of voices. The world ahead is very challenging, and we will need a lot of different perspectives to overcome the hurdles of the future. Everyone from technology CEOs to social activists will need to answer the call of citizen responsibility and be part of building the future we want for Canada. 

Suzanne Grant
CEO - Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance (CATA)

Suzanne Grant is the CEO of the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance (CATA). She is a veteran with a military communications, engineering and intelligence background. Before her position at CATA, she founded a digital publishing and strategic communications agency in Qatar, and co-founded an award-winning brain-machine interface med tech company developing a retina implant to return sight to blind people.


The Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance (CATA) is an trusted industry alliance with a mandate to help Canadian innovation thrive and elevate a bold and confident podium culture within the Canadian innovation ecosystem. It focuses on commercial capabilities and access for homegrown technology businesses. The alliance brings together industry and thought leaders with policy makers to advocate for Canadian competitiveness.