Canada: A values proposition

As social unrest and political tensions continued to roil south of the border throughout August, Canadians stepped up their efforts to show global tech professionals there’s a compelling alternative to Silicon Valley. And that alternative is Canada.

In an opinion piece penned for TechCrunch, Communitech CEO Iain Klugman and veteran Canadian software technologist Tim Bray touted Canada’s thriving tech sector, openness to skilled immigrants and social cohesion as key selling points for top international talent.

As that piece circulated, the San Francisco Chronicle picked up on a related Communitech billboard campaign aimed at Bay Area tech workers, which kicked off a flurry of media coverage from outlets including CNBC, the CBC, Toronto Life and the Logic, among others.

WIRED contributing editor Clive Thompson also weighed in on the issue with a story highlighting global tech workers who had bypassed the U.S. for Canada, citing our fast-track visa processing and the impressive growth of Ontario’s innovation sector in recent years.

One of Canada’s brightest homegrown beacons is Shopify, whose e-commerce enablement platform was already on a rocketship trajectory before COVID-19 – and the resulting surge in online buying – turned on the afterburners. Dubbing the Ottawa-born company “Amazon Junior,” Bloomberg reported on Shopify’s outsized impact on Canada’s stock market. This followed news of a 97-per-cent increase in year-over-year revenue for the second quarter of 2020.

Side effects may include...

At the same time, Shopify’s COVID-induced shift to a permanent “digital by default” workplace model means changes to the company’s physical footprint. At month’s end, the Ottawa Business Journal reported Shopify would vacate its 170,000-square-foot headquarters in the nation’s capital, raising questions about the company’s plans for its offices in other cities, which include Waterloo.

Shopify’s move to remote work aligns with the findings of a survey of subscribers to the Logic, a news site aimed at Canada’s tech community. Fewer than seven per cent of respondents to the late-July survey said they wanted to return to the office full-time, with 23 per cent favouring fully working from home and 70 per cent preferring a combination of home and office work. In another COVID-related survey by consulting firm KPMG, more than half of the 1,000 Canadians polled said they feared returning to the office, with about 60 per cent saying they would refuse to go back if they felt their workplaces weren’t safe enough, Bloomberg reported.

Indoor air filtration will no doubt play a key role in protecting workers against spread of the coronavirus, but conventional HVAC systems are typically not up to the job, a University of Waterloo professor warned in an interview with the Waterloo Region Record. Prof. Chao Tan suggested that governments consult more fully with indoor air specialists when making decisions on managing COVID risks.

Business-related pandemic concerns extend beyond health risks in the workplace. There is growing fear that the virus is having a dampening effect on angel investment, a vital source of early fuel for startups. Communitech CEO Iain Klugman voiced those concerns in an interview with the Record’s James Jackson.

A drop in angel investment would coincide with a general decline in funding at Canada’s most promising tech firms between mid-March and late July, as shown in an analysis by Charles Plant of the Narwhal Project, published by the Logic. It found that funding had dropped 25 per cent while employment numbers stagnated.

Meanwhile, Canadian tech leaders also called on the federal government to extend the Industrial Research Assistance Program’s (IRAP) Innovation Assistance Program, which was implemented earlier in the pandemic as a lifeline to early-stage companies, specifically those yet to be earning revenue.

And, in an op-ed for the National Post, Rogers CEO Joe Natale and Communitech CEO Iain Klugman made the case for Canada to look beyond highways and bridges, and consider the crucial role of digital networks, when considering investments in vital infrastructure.

Downside, upside

For all the turmoil COVID-19 continues to deliver, August saw several positive developments in and around the tech community related to changes wrought by the pandemic. In an interview with Iain Klugman for an episode of True North TV, John Baker – founder and CEO of edtech company D2L – described how the crisis accelerated the evolution of education by 10 years. 

In another episode of the same video series – which focuses on the “tech for good” theme of Communitech’s annual True North Festival, which had to be shelved this year – former Netflix Chief Talent Officer Patty McCord said an upside of the work-from-home movement has been the confirmation that employees “are adults” who don’t need constant supervision from managers.

And in yet another instalment of True North TV in August, Ash Maurya, the brain behind the “Lean Canvas” method of business planning that’s seen wide adoption in tech, said the pandemic presents huge opportunities for entrepreneurs, but cautioned that some of the benefits might not be seen until a COVID-19 vaccine is in place.

Nonetheless, Vidyard, the 10-year-old video marketing platform built in Waterloo Region, has experienced no such delay. The company has seen a 400-per-cent increase in adoption of its products due to the pandemic. It announced in August that its video collaboration tools are now available for use on Android devices.

For Sweat Free, a company specializing in apparel that resists perspiration, COVID-19 led to an order for 10,000 facemasks from Metrolinx, Ontario’s regional transit agency (Communitech helped with an introduction).

And IMS, the Waterloo company whose connected-car technology helps insurers provide usage-based coverage, has also seen a surge in business due to the pandemic’s effects on driving behaviour. As a result, the company plans to double its local workforce from its current roster of 70, the Record reported.

Beyond the tech community, the Kitchener Waterloo Community Foundation – which collects donations for local charities – has also seen an unexpected bump for the better, reporting a three-fold increase in giving this year. That includes more than $200,000 in proceeds from a Communitech-led initiative called “This, Too, Will Pass”, which we told you about in earlier editions of the Roundup.

Startup moves

In a vote of confidence in Waterloo Region’s “insane tech scene,” the founders of gaming startup Odyssey Interactive, who formerly worked in the U.S., decided to launch in Canada on a US$6-million investment from some high-profile backers, BetaKit reported. The Waterloo Chronicle profiled Odyssey CEO Richard Henkel, who graduated from the University of Waterloo before making a splash with Riot Games in Los Angeles, where he was a key contributor to development of the popular League of Legends game.

Odyssey’s decision was in line with a recent CBRE ranking of North America’s top 25 up-and-coming tech markets, which placed Waterloo Region in the No. 1 spot overall.

Canada’s new Google for Startups Accelerator, meanwhile, named nine startups to its inaugural cohort, including Waterloo Region’s LumenEd, an online platform that connects tutors and students.

On the topic of accelerators, 11 Canadian companies took part in the Summer 2020 Demo Day at Y Combinator, the exclusive California program for promising startups. The cohort included TyltGO, an on-demand courier service for last-mile deliveries, which cited support from the Accelerator Centre, Communitech and MaRS.

SWTCH Energy, an alumnus of Communitech’s Fierce Founders program for women entrepreneurs, announced it had raised CAD$1.1 million to expand its network of smart charging stations for electric vehicles.

Meanwhile, SaskTel, the province of Saskatchewan’s Crown-owned telecom carrier, partnered with Waterloo Region’s eleven-x to build smart-cities wireless networks in Regina and Saskatoon.

And Catalyst Commons, the 60,000-square-foot co-working space in Waterloo Region’s Catalyst137 facility, has partnered with Waterloo’s Accelerator Centre to deliver mentorship to local tech companies, Exchange Magazine reported.

In other news

    • The Founder Institute’s Toronto-Waterloo and Silicon Valley accelerator programs joined forces to help startups succeed across both ecosystems.

This edition of the Roundup compiled by Anthony Reinhart.

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