Kingston Collegiate and Vocational Institute sounds like an unlikely gateway to the world, situated, as it was, in a small city better known for its prisons.
Still, for a precocious ’80s teen named Chris Albinson – who will become Communitech’s next CEO next month – “KC” was a happening place to be.
“KC is right beside Queen’s [University], which made it a really cool high school in the sense that it blended every part of the city,” says Albinson, adding that the university’s profs – his dad was one – welcomed KC students to drop in on their lectures.
“It had a really diverse population; most of my best friends were Greek kids or first-generation immigrant kids from China or India,” Albinson, now 54, recalled in an interview this week. “There were a lot of parents who were really involved and wanted their kids to be successful.”
It didn’t hurt that his schoolmates included Gord Downie, Paul Langlois and John Fay, whose band, the Slinks, would go on to become the Tragically Hip, Canada’s most celebrated rock band.
“Gord would go over to the English department at Queen’s and take poetry classes and stuff like that, so it was a really rich environment that you could go and explore, which was cool.”
Albinson hasn’t stopped exploring since. From KC and the Slinks, he went on to study computer science and business at Western University; help build the market economy in the collapsing Soviet Union, lay track for the early internet in Russia, China, India and Europe; invest in dozens of Canadian companies for Newbridge Networks, launch startups, and deploy tens of millions of dollars as a Silicon Valley venture capitalist over two fruitful decades.
He wasn’t the only kid from Kingston – or even the only kid from his elementary alma mater, Welborne Public School – to become a Valley VC.
“There were four people in that public school, who were all there at the same time together, who ended up going to Silicon Valley and becoming venture capitalists. Riddle me that. I don’t know how the heck that happened, but it did,” Albinson said.
“It was myself; Scott Bonham, who founded GGV Capital, which had the first cheque into Alibaba and is a fabulously successful venture firm; Heather Preston, who is one of the most talented life sciences investors at TPG; and Vik Gupta. So, all in the same little public school in Kingston Township, at the same time.”
Notably in 2009, Albinson co-founded C100, a non-profit organization based in San Francisco that has helped scores of Canadian tech leaders through mentorship and connections to investment and talent. Among founders Albinson has mentored: Tobi Lütke, CEO of Shopify, now Canada’s most valuable company by market capitalization, at CDN$180 billion.
A die-hard sports fan, Albinson is now set to return to Canada, take the helm at Communitech and do for Canadian tech what the country’s Olympic committee set out to do for athletics in the lead-up to the 2010 Games in Vancouver: Own the Podium
After he was named as Iain Klugman’s successor as Communitech’s CEO on Monday, Albinson sat down for an in-depth interview with Communitech News.
Q – You’ve spent 21 years in the Valley. Why is now the right time for you to come back to Canada, and to Communitech and Waterloo Region, specifically?
A – In the blog post that I wrote almost two years ago, I talked about Canada's opportunity to really dominate global innovation and how the Valley is not a fixed thing. It only became the Valley in the mid-’90s when Boston kind of lost its way, and lots of people have written about why the Valley is kind of losing its way. So, that’s a part of it.
For the same reason I went to the Valley, because it was Mecca, I really, really believe that Canada and Waterloo Region have the opportunity to be the most interesting place on the planet to go and do tech investing.
In part it’s because of the raw horsepower and the talent of the place, the access to global markets, global capital, all of that stuff. But also the ethos of the place. We say Tech for Good and we don’t necessarily think about it sometimes, but the way companies are built and the cultures of places matter. I was an early mentor to [Shopify CEO] Tobi [Lütke] and [President] Harley [Finkelstein] through the C100, and to just see the intentionality of how they built the culture of that company, it just shows up in everything that they do and how they interact.
Chris Albinson mentored Shopify’s Tobi Lütke (left) and Harley Finkelstein, shown here
at a C100 event in California in 2014. Shopify is now Canada’s most valuable company.
(Photo by Kris Krüg is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
The opportunity to work with founders like that – Martin Basiri of ApplyBoard is another one. Martin did the keynote for the C100 Summit a couple of weeks ago. It was pretty cool just to hear him talk about building this awesome place and how he had immigrants from 40 different countries speaking 60 different languages, and building this awesome business, all from Waterloo.
I had a little sidebar with him this morning and said, ‘You didn’t realize this, but you were the tipping point in my decision to come back home.’
I’m really excited by it. Just the idea of helping more Martins is super exciting and I think it’s the best place. I can’t think of any other place I’d rather be.
Q – Communitech started in 1997 as a local business association with an audacious goal: to take on the world from the small, little-known community of Waterloo Region. Today, it’s a nationally-regarded innovation hub with government partners and a membership that stretches far beyond Waterloo. What’s your high-level vision for Communitech’s next chapter?
A – That’s the thing that I’m really curious about and excited to have more conversations about, like the one I had with Martin this morning, about what is next, and how do we be in service of those amazing founders and help the country from an innovation point of view.
My gut is, and one of the things that gets me excited is, Communitech is like the Canadian Olympic Committee and we just came off the 2002 Olympic Games. We had a great games and seven gold medals and won the hockey for the first time in 50 years, and that all feels great. But we can do more, and the 2010 games is just ahead of us. What does that look like?
As I learned and talked to more people who were involved in those early days of the Own the Podium program, and how that was birthed from and of the athletes, first and foremost, the echoes to Communitech are pretty obvious. It wasn’t started as a government organization; it was started by founders for founders, to build up to global success.
The foundation is so strong and the organization’s culture is so awesome and pointed in the right direction. It’s like, How do we build from here? And I think that’s going to be really fun.
Q – You put a lot of effort into helping Canadians tap into the magic of Silicon Valley, with its vast investor networks and entrepreneurial spirit. What specific tools will you be bringing back to deploy in building the Canadian ecosystem?
A – If I could broaden it out a little bit, I’ve actually been a weirdly geeky student of ecosystems for a long time, whether it’s kanbans in Korea or the keiretsus in Japan, or what Orna Berry did with Startup Nation in Israel, or what Modi did with India 2020. And one of the common threads – and lots has been written about the Valley and how it became itself and the lore of it – but the big ‘aha’ for me is, if you remove the barriers in terms of access to people, information, capital and markets, awesome things happen. You just do that downfield blocking.
The Valley had an advantage, with more information than anywhere on the planet and more money than anywhere on the planet and better access to some of the biggest markets on the planet, and in better access to talent, frankly, than anywhere on the planet. More than 30 per cent of the biggest companies on the planet were started there by immigrants; they’re not Californians, let alone Americans.
Taking all of that together – what Orna Berry had done with Israel, what Modi has been doing in India, the success of South Korea around the kanban models – my view, outside-in, is that Canada is the best-positioned country on the planet to succeed the Valley.
In terms of our openness to markets, our access to capital, our openness to immigration and talent, the most foundational next technology around AI and machine learning being invented in Canada, you’ve got folks like Satya [Nadella] from Microsoft talking about how we have the deepest density of talent on the planet in these foundational technologies.
And then the ethos, I think, really matters, too. You talk to young entrepreneurs, like the smartest kid from France who’s doing his degree at Stanford and the smartest woman from Bangladesh at MIT, and the Canadian brand is amazing. We just have to make it a little easier for them to start that startup in Waterloo, in Canada.
I actually don't think it’s going to be that hard, believe it or not. All of the ingredients are there.
Then we just have to aspire to doing things a little bit bigger. That's a little bit of the Own the Podium attitude: you’re intentionally trying to build globally competitive, awesome companies.
Q – As a Canadian watching from a distance, how would you describe the evolution of Canada's and Waterloo Region’s evolution as a tech hub over the past decade? How are we now on the map in ways that we weren't when you first went to Silicon Valley in the ’90s?
A – I think, to be clear, it's a 40-year plus journey. I'm also pretty geeky about industrial history, probably from Terry Matthews because we talked about canals and railroads a lot, but I do think the last 10 years has been a pretty massive acceleration. And I think the lifeblood of it is the people.
A lot of that comes from the University of Waterloo and people like [the late Dean of Engineering] Pearl Sullivan and the mechatronics program that was put into the engineering department, and the co-op students that go off and learn stuff and come back, and just the flow of human beings that goes through the place.
That's why I really do think – going back to Silicon Valley – that the flow of people through a place matters a lot. This whole idea of brain drain, I think, is the worst thing you can focus on. What you want is people flowing through, more and more, because that'll give you an advantage on information, give you an advantage on understanding of technology, understanding of and access to capital.
When Fred Wilson, who was with me at JP Morgan Partners, left and started Union Square Ventures in New York, I think some of his biggest winning investments have been in Canada, most recently with Wattpad.
Money follows; it doesn’t lead, and it follows really smart, awesome people with great global ambition. It wasn’t that long ago that Martin Basiri was at my cottage, near Perth, Ont., talking about this awesome company that he wanted to go build. Now ApplyBoard is worth well over a billion dollars and he told me he has over 900 employees now.
So, I'm excited about how the place is set up to be the place where the smartest, most ambitious people who want to build awesome innovation for good will come and congregate and have success.
Q – Communitech plays a big role in Waterloo Region. What's your view of its role in the broader community, beyond just helping founders build their businesses?
A – I've touched and experienced Communitech in meaningful ways over the last 10 years, but I don't want to say I have the intimacy of knowing it from the town perspective. But the thing I loved about it was the ethos of the place, the Waterloo way, that anyone who wants to do good, who wants to work hard, is welcome.
When I was trying to help Western figure out how to do innovation, [University of Waterloo’s] Pearl Sullivan basically said, ‘Look, I'm here for the good of everybody and I'll teach anybody, and make open the whole program for doing co-op engineering.’ [Communitech CEO] Iain Klugman was kind enough to host the whole advisory board from Western when they came to Communitech.
I did that multiple times over the last 10 years. I remember when OCRI (Ottawa Centre for Regional Innovation) was trying to figure out how to actually serve the Ottawa area, and [Shopify’s] Tobi and Harley said they weren't going to work with them at all. I said, ‘Why are the best founders in Ottawa not interested in OCRI?’ And it’s because they were kind of stuck in the way they were serving their community. And I said, ‘Go see what Iain's doing at Communitech and how they're connecting and helping.’ And, to their credit, that's when they changed their name to Invest Ottawa and they moved from Kanata to downtown.
Communitech’s been leading for a long time and been really open about sharing the things that work, the things that don't work. And that's an exciting organization to come into. I just love the ethos of it.
Q – OK, this is the speed round, short answers only. What's your favourite thing to do outside of work?
A – I do triathlons and I try to play funk music very badly.
Q – What instrument?
A – Trumpet. Our band name is Bubba’s Taxi. It's actually a really good band as dad bands go; some exceptionally talented musicians. They have played gigs around North America including in Montreal. I am lucky that they let this bad trumpet player hang around.
Q – What’s something most people wouldn't know about you, notwithstanding what you just told me?
A – The Tragically Hip’s early practice sessions happened on the third floor of my house at 256 Victoria St. in Kingston.
Q – The Western Mustangs are playing Laurier or Waterloo in a big game. Who are you cheering for?
A – ’Stangs, no question.
Q – Wow. Harsh.
A – You gotta love the one that brung you. For the same reason, I’ll be cheering for my Sens, despite the unlikeliness of them being successful.
Q – Pig tails, Oktoberfest sausage or veggie burger?
A – Oh, Oktoberfest sausage, no question.
Q – OK, final question: Drake, the Weeknd or Communitech’s own Ramsay Almighty?
A – I like all of them. But I have to say that the Weeknd, who I spent some time with in downtown Toronto, is just a little closer to my vibe. I like the fact that he doesn't like people watching him do his music, weirdly. He wants to see them experience the music; he doesn't want them to see him doing the music. It's just interesting how he thinks about stuff.
Q – Anything else you want to say?
A – I’m just super excited. It’s gonna be a lot of fun.