Yvonne Pilon
President & CEO - WEtech Alliance

Collaboration at Every Level to Boost Canadian Competitiveness in the Future Economy

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Takeaways

  1. Having a global mindset is the key to getting Canadian start-ups, scale-ups, and SMEs to become more competitive on the world stage and sustaining their business for the long term.
  2. Canadian companies need to continuously invest in technology, put more investment into retraining and up-skilling talent, and must not lose sight of the importance of data and security.
  3. Every corner of society, especially education and government, has to rally to the cause of lifelong learning so that Canadian talent does not get left behind in the ever-evolving technology-driven future of work.

Action

Partnerships among Canadian businesses, civic leaders, and taxpayers will set us up for the next 20 years of growth. We need to find ways for all stakeholders to work together and aggressively collaborate. We cannot continue to operate in silos as the future economy requires a more connected approach


How is technology impacting the Canadian economy and its companies, and how do you see this progressing in the future?

If we look at the impact of technology on the Canadian economy at large, we can see its influence everywhere: in fashion, beauty, health, wellness, food, entertainment, travel, energy, automotive, and more. Technology has impacted every sector of the economy.

Take automotive manufacturing, for example. Ford Engineering has predicted that roughly 50% of a vehicle’s value will be in hardware, such as its powertrain, suspension and body, and 50% will be in software. This is a transformation from the values of 90% for hardware and 10% for software of the past. A VP of GM recently spoke about how they no longer see themselves as an auto company or a car company, but as a tech company. And we see this not just in the automotive industry, but in many Canadian industries, including our more established ones like agriculture.

“Canadian businesses need to learn to strategically leverage IP protections for commercial advantage.”

In the next five years, technology is not only going to become smarter, but faster, more connected, and even more personalized. So, to be relevant in 10 years, every Canadian company is going to have to become a tech company or a tech-enabled company. Looking at what we need to do to get there, our companies need to continuously invest in new technologies and/or look at partnering with other technology companies. They also need to invest in talent retraining and up-skilling in order to build sustainable future workforce strategies. On top of all of that, as we get more connected, we can’t lose sight of the importance of data and security.

One fact we should remind ourselves of,is that the average lifespan of a “successful” company in 1950’s was about 60 years. But the average span today is 20 years due to technological disruption and software.


What challenges are faced by Canadian businesses right now, and what must be done to strengthen our business ecosystem?

One of the challenges faced by our start-ups and scale-ups is a lack of a global mindset, and thus the lack of a global reach. With only a small fraction of our SMEs becoming strong exporters, acquiring a global mindset has become a crucial factor in sustainability and success.

“There is a lack of engagement of young talent in Canada. Oftentimes, there is nobody under the age of 35 around the decision-making table.”

When it comes to strengthening the business ecosystem, there is also a lack of engagement of young talent in Canada. Oftentimes, there is nobody under the age of 35 around the decision-making table.We need to invest in the youth, engage with them, talk to them, mentor them, and adapt to them. Today’s entrepreneurs and talent are very different from entrepreneurs and talent from 20 years ago. We need to listen to them, and the most important thing is we need to hire them. We need to bring them on boards, committees, and help pave the way for leadership opportunities. I see so many missed opportunities because we do not even engage the youth.

Finally, in the global race to innovation, we must not lose sight of intellectual property. Canadian businesses need to learn to strategically leverage IP protections for commercial advantage.


What must industry and government be thinking about differently in order to help our businesses overcome the challenges they face?

It takes seasoned mentors and advisors to help coach a growth mentality. Canada needs to continue to engage growth-mindset mentors to assist our companies. 

Furthermore, there are a lot of concentrated resources, talent, and funding in larger super cities. The access to capital at all stages of company growth is crucial. So another question to tackle is how we build mechanisms for all startups and scale-ups to access what they need from those stronger centers of resources in order to grow their businesses.

Program funding is crucial, and government must continue to help with this. Over the last 10 years, WEtech Alliance has been able to raise millions of dollars in additional partnerships because we had that core funding given to us from the province of Ontario’s investments. It has helped us to build, understand, provide, and grow our client portfolio of entrepreneurs from a variety of sectors. It has allowed us access to a broader network of experts.

“If our teachers are teaching our students about the future, they themselves need to know about the future. There needs to be continuous learning on both sides.”

In terms of talent, one of the key strategies to get students involved in STEM is developing more experiential learning opportunities and investing in a culture of lifelong learning. We need to teach students that learning does not stop once you get your diploma or certificate. I also think that as a society, we do not know how to take our time. Giving people time to discover their talents and innovate, and not filling their days with activities, can do a lot to help our young people realize how they can contribute to the world.

Also, we should not just be looking at educating the talent side of things, but also educating the educators. If our teachers are teaching our students about the future, they themselves need to know about the future. There needs to be continuous learning on both sides.


In terms of Windsor-Essex, what is special about this area and what are some lessons from there that the rest of Canada can learn from?

Windsor-Essex has a lot of great advantages, including the fact that half of North America’s population is within a day’s drive. A lot of people do not consider the extent of the cross- border traffic that occurs in the Windsor-Essex and Detroit area. By numbers alone, it is the busiest border crossing between the US and Canada. In fact, 15,000 cars cross on a daily basis as it accounts for 30% of Canada-US trade. About half a billion Canadian dollars cross that border every day. Being so close to the border provides a unique opportunity and the government and companies are recognizing that as an asset.

However, we are still about four hours away from larger Canadian cities. So we often find we have more trouble connecting to the rest of Canada’s resources and markets than we do with that of the United States over in Detroit.

Windsor-Essex also has a very affordable cost of living, a strong workforce and two great academic institutions that are pumping out really great talent. Windsor is a small city, and that means when it comes to supporting entrepreneurs and companies, we have an all-in approach. Everyone is just a phone call away and everyone is here to roll up their sleeves and help. 

In terms of the challenges, we wrestle with what I would call a “car town mentality”. People continue to think that Windsor just makes cars. We also have a talent exodus, where a lot of our strong talent are leaving for other regions like Waterloo, Toronto, Ottawa, Silicon Valley, and New York. There is also our reliance on exports and trade agreements, as we all saw how much the NAFTA discussions affected our local economy.

A lot of companies in Winsor were hit really hard in the 2008 recession. Many were forced to close, but most of them were forced to innovate. A lot of them invested in technologies, new verticals, and a lot of them took risks. One of the biggest forces that we moved towards was automation. We have the largest cluster of automation companies in the world at close to 400. This cluster has created Automate Canada, which is a national association representing companies that are involved in the industrial automation industry. As we look at what’s next for Windsor, we are moving towards automobility. 

In terms of lessons for Canada, I think there’s great learnings from the Province of Ontario’s Regional Innovation Centres network. It is quite impressive what we have achieved in less than 10 years. Getting all of these organizations to work together, capture data, share resources, leverage regional strengths and experts, and build and share programing and networks to help Ontario companies start, grow and succeed. 


What are the opportunities for Canadian entrepreneurs and companies that can be capitalized on through more collaboration between stakeholders?

One of the main assets of having the Regional Innovation Centre network is that we can build a community of not only great programs, events, and advisory services, but also give our companies access to experts and connections from across the provinces and country to help our companies scale. Connecting to this network – and each of the Centres’ broader networks – has been very important piece to helping our companies scale.

“We are all likely struggling with similar problems, like talent and funding shortages. So why not try to tackle those problems together? When it comes to advocacy, bargaining power, and policymaking, there is strength in numbers.”

Better collaboration also allows us to better define clusters of expertise. It also gets us all on the same page. When we all work together and collaborate, we know where we want to go and which regions are strong at what so that we can all play off each other. We are all likely struggling with similar problems, like talent and funding shortages. So why not try to tackle those problems together? When it comes to advocacy, bargaining power, and policymaking, there is strength in numbers.

Collaboration allows us to match-make better and avoid duplication. And at the end of the day, it connects likeminded people. By building partnerships starting at the regional level, and then moving on to the provincial and national level, we will be able to build a web that allows our entrepreneurs to connect to any resource without those resources having to be directly in their backyard. 

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