- The talent pool provided by the University of Waterloo makes its region incredibly attractive to entrepreneurs and investors.
- Waterloo’s lower cost of living coupled with its access to amenities and infrastructure make it a great destination to live and work.
- The government programs and supports offered in Canada makes it easier for business owners and investors to grow their startups and scaleups.
The Waterloo region has many attributes that make it an attractive destination for foreign direct investment, but it needs to do a better job of marketing itself to make investors aware of the benefits that it provides.
What makes Waterloo an attractive place to do business and in what areas could it improve?
The Waterloo region is such a great place to start and operate a business for a number of reasons, but I would start by highlighting what the University of Waterloo brings to the ecosystem. There is a tremendous talent pool available through the University of Waterloo. It is one of the top technology institutes in North America. The Co-operative Education Program that they have there is unique in the breadth and depth of experience that all of its technical programs offer and so the graduates from the co-op program are really unlike any from other schools that we have had experience with.
“There is a tremendous talent pool available through the University of Waterloo. It is one of the top technology institutes in North America.”
If you look to any business leader, availability of great talent is often going to come up as a key challenge and so to have this really valuable and proven partnership for talent next door is unlike anything else. That, for me, is one of the most important parts of starting a company in the region, and so I would say the strengths of the Waterloo region are its people. When you look at a knowledge economy and technology-based, innovation-centric businesses, the people power the innovation and the technology. Having the University of Waterloo produce such remarkable talent creates a very powerful strength for the region and the companies that choose to operate here.
In terms of what the region could do better—I wish we did a better job at marketing how great it is. There are lots of really amazing things happening in the Waterloo region and doing a great job at telling the world about it is something that is not always our first focus. Secondly, I would probably say solving the high-speed transportation problem would be incredibly impactful for the region. Connecting Waterloo to Toronto with high frequency, high speed, reliable public transportation would probably be the single most impactful public initiative or infrastructure initiative that comes to mind.
What are Waterloo’s best attributes to foreign investors?
For the attributes for foreign investors, I would say there are so many. I would start by highlighting proximity to the US as a key market without being in the United States.
As a Canadian entity, you take advantage of a tremendous number of government programs that allow and support innovation to happen in a very efficient and effective manner. Coupled with the Canadian dollar, if you are a foreign investor looking to deploy your dollars in an efficient and effective manner, you gain a tremendous amount of leverage. Culturally, and from a business perspective, we behave and act like many other East Coast, United States companies. As such, you are able to access the market that the United States presents with great ease while still taking advantage of initiatives and support structures that just simply do not exist in the United States. That would be the first and most immediate one to highlight.
“The immigration policies in Canada allow you to set up a home base in Kitchener or Waterloo, but really effectively pull from a global talent pool.”
Secondly, back to my earlier point about the role that people play in creating a really important and impactful business, the immigration policies in Canada allow you to set up a home base in Kitchener or Waterloo, but really effectively pull from a global talent pool to cultivate that talent ecosystem even further in the region. You contrast that against some of the immigration policies that exist in the United States, and you are able to get talent. If I related that to my business and our particular experiences and challenges—we work in the domain of autonomous systems, and that is a highly specialized discipline—the talent pool of autonomous systems engineers is dispersed globally. There is a very small number of highly capable autonomous systems engineers coming from specific technical institutes everywhere in the world. It is just the nature of an autonomous system, where you really need to be hands-on with the actual vehicle that is driving itself. Having a distributed workforce globally works in a lot of ways but there is often a need to bring everybody together for key milestones in the development process and being able to do that effectively in Canada is a very valuable thing.
What are some of the incentives in place in Waterloo to support entrepreneurs or newcomers during COVID-19?
The federal and provincial governments create programs that make Ontario highly attractive for foreign direct investment. When you look at the mid-sized cities that exist inside of Ontario at the municipal level, you are dealing with smaller budgets than at the provincial or federal level and the ability to offer major programs is not the same.
“From a quality of life adjusted for cost of living perspective, you end up with a tremendous value proposition in Waterloo.”
I would shift it more to what the markers are in a mid-sized city that make a region more or less attractive to somebody trying to select from a list of mid-sized cities within a region that federal and provincial interests have attracted attention to.
When you look at the Waterloo region, and even before COVID-19, it straddles a really interesting balance of the amenities of a big city with the cost of living and the space of a smaller community. From a quality of life adjusted for cost of living perspective, you end up with a tremendous value proposition in Waterloo. If I reflect back on when we were starting the company, we did not take a salary for the first couple of years and trying to do that in Toronto would have been a substantially harder proposition for us. It was not without its own challenges here but I think it would have been a non-starter in Toronto.
What are some of the supports that Waterloo and the federal government have put in place to support the ecosystem through COVID-19 while continuing to attract foreign investors?
At the municipal level, we need to advocate for support from provincial and federal interests to make sure that great companies like Clearpath Robotics come out of the COVID-19 blip on the radar stronger.
“Economic Development Canada put $5 million into our company and I am tremendously grateful for that. That is a very quantified and practical example of how federal government stepped up to support an important business in the tech ecosystem.”
There are so many great companies that got caught off-guard by this and need the support from the government more than ever in order to ensure they have the fortitude to get out of the other side of it. There was a lot of work in the early days that organizations like Communitech did to advocate for increasing support at the provincial and federal level, by getting programs initialized urgently to support startup and scale-up businesses through the COVID-19 process. That advocacy is only possible because they represent such a large base of the tech community and so everyone came together as one voice to say, “This is going to be a really make or break decision point in the Canadian tech history timeline—what are we going to do about it?” There are small and medium-sized businesses that we need to help.
For example, we were in the process of raising a round of investments right as COVID-19 hit, and Economic Development Canada (EDC) stepped up with a matching program. We were the first company to receive funding through the EDC’s co-invest program. EDC put $5 million into our company and I am tremendously grateful for that. That is a very quantified and practical example of how federal government stepped up to support an important business in the tech ecosystem.