Tech startups call for more 'vision' from party leaders
Canada's high-tech sector is looking for more attention during the federal election campaign. (AP / Wally Santana)
VANCOUVER -- Canada's high-tech sector is looking to the federal election campaign for a vision of its future -- but so far, its leaders say, the politicians have turned a blind eye.
Entrepreneurs are calling on the parties to clarify their plans to foster innovation, education and coding literacy. Thousands of skilled knowledge workers are struggling to decide how to vote, they say.
"I don't know that I support any of them, because I don't support their vision for the future of Canada right now," said Jeremy Shaki, co-founder of Lighthouse Labs, which ran free HTML coding camps for 2,500 people in four cities over the past year.
"In a massively long election, there is a huge section missing."
Vancouver-based Shaki and his co-founder Khurram Virani sent an open letter to the federal parties asking to "kickstart" a digital conversation. They call the tech sector the "beating heart to drive progress" and warn that the country could fall behind internationally without champions on the national level.
They don't have specific demands as such -- at least not yet. For now, all they want is to be part of the conversation.
"We're asking them to bring it up and start the discussion, because it can't be a bottom-up approach forever," Shaki said.
"The industry here has done as much as it can off very little funding and very little money to advance technology here ΓÇª but the leaders of this country have to be the ones to help the rest of Canada to embrace it."
The call is supported by other leaders in the startup sector who say the bulk of growth in the economy over coming decades will be driven by innovative, young companies -- including many that haven't even been imagined yet.
Many of Canada's current startups didn't actually exist during the last election, said Ray Walia, chief executive of Launch Academy, which has helped more than 350 early-stage companies in Western Canada since 2012.
"These people are going to shape our country and our economy," said Walia, whose non-profit has collectively raised about $50 million and created more than 500 jobs.
"If they're not given the tools and the support that they need to compete on a global level, then we're really going to fall behind quickly."
Growth won't be coming from the resource, finance or manufacturing sectors as they exist today, agreed Steven Forth, co-founder of TeamFit.
The parties have largely failed to address the top three issues critical to the tech-driven economy: a shortage of skilled labour, a lagging financing system and slow adoption of innovative technologies, he said.
"They just fundamentally don't get it," said Forth, whose Vancouver-based business helps management consulting and professional services groups build high-performance teams.
Until this week, no party had outlined a broad blueprint for tech innovation, although each made related promises.
The Conservatives say they already offer low small business taxes and a venture capital plan, with a commitment to an advanced manufacturing hub. The NDP is promising innovation tax credits and to make employment insurance more flexible and applicable to coders. '
The Liberals want to invest $600 million over three years to business incubators and accelerators, research facilities, and in financing. They have also promised $100 million more each year for an industrial research assistance program, and $200 million annually to specific sectors to support innovative and clean technologies.
The Green party would establish an annual $1 billion green-technology commercialization grant for entrepreneurs working with emerging technologies.
The Liberals, NDP and the Greens say they plan to respond to the letter, while the Conservatives declined to comment.
The Conference Board of Canada recently gave the country a "C" grade and 9th-place rank on a report card called "How Canada Performs: Innovation." But it earned its only "A" grade for a new indicator -- entrepreneurial ambition -- which measures the number of the working-age Canadians reporting entrepreneurial activity, such as setting up a new business.
Julien Smith, CEO of Montreal-based Breather, which uses a mobile app to rent out flexible spaces, said tech entrepreneurs are high-leverage people whose votes should matter.
"We want to keep smart people, who want to do amazing things."