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Canada isn’t becoming a tech leader, it’s been one for decades

2020-09-21


Canada has a long history of leading the world in science and technology. Toronto physician Frederick Banting discovered insulin, one of the most life-changing medicines, in 1921. The original Canadarm was an important part of space development efforts for more than 30 years — and played a starring role in building the International Space Station. Even artificial intelligence, now one of the hottest emerging technologies, can trace its roots in Canada to a time when it was still considered science fiction.

Canada as a tech superpower

The Canadian hype came to a head in 2016 when Canada unveiled its ambitious Innovation Agenda which included millions of dollars for incubators, STEM-based post-secondary programs and granting councils. Today, hubs across the country are building Canadian tech and showcasing our expertise on the world stage.

To understand how this perfect storm came to a head, below is a non-exhaustive list of characteristics that make the Canadian innovation economy tick. 

The role of research institutes 

Canada has always made big bets on the future. Computer scientists Yoshua Bengio and Geoffrey Hinton were working on the AI technology at the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR) going back to the mid 1990s. Today that Canadian global research organization boasts a community of 20 Nobel laureates and more than 400 researchers from 20 countries.

And that’s only one of several research institutes today dedicated to helping Canada get ahead of new technologies. The Institute for Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo launched in 2002, 15 years before China and the U.S. dedicated investment in the area. 

The government has also set the foundation for joint technology ventures between the public and private sector. Its $950 million supercluster initiative pairs non-profits, start-ups, and enterprises towards a common innovation in five regions. Canada’s ocean supercluster, concentrated in Atlantic Canada, is expected to generate over $14 billion and create 3,000 jobs disrupting the ocean sector. The Canadian government’s $450 million commitment for researchers working on a COVID-19 cure also provided support during a critical time when many labs faced closures. 

Open borders

It’s becoming increasingly challenging for international tech workers to get an H-1B visa in the U.S.. Many have turned to Canada instead — and start-ups are propping up to bring them here. Calgary-based MobSquad helps international engineers immigrate to Canada where they can work with American companies facing challenges issuing visas. Similarly, Vancouver-based VanHack helps software developers find jobs in Canada.

“There is a whole world out there, and you are probably better off going somewhere else because you'd be treated more human," said Asim Fayaz, a Pakistani immigrant and founder of a Toronto-based online restaurant business, told Business Insider

Canada is not afraid to signal its doors are open. According to one study, 40 percent of Canada’s tech workforce are immigrants. Communitech CEO Iain Klugman spent $100,000 on Silicon Valley billboards in August 2020 telling workers to consider Canada.

The AI edge

Across the country, some regions have positioned themselves as innovation-friendly hubs. AI in particular has emerged as a technology to double down on. 

Toronto-based AI research hub Vector Institute has attracted $80 million in investment from public and private partners. Companies have launched research and development labs, including Uber for its self-driving car technology, as well as Nvidia, a multinational tech company valued at US$11 billion. 

Similarly, Montreal is home to the Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms (MILA) where aforementioned AI pioneer Yoshua Bengio is still supporting the next generation of tech talent; Nvidia also has a lab in Montreal. McGill University and Université de Montréal collectively have more than 250 researchers and doctoral students in fields, making it the largest AI academic community in the world.

Edmonton’s Alberta Machine Learning Institute, which began as an early bet, is now an important hub for corporate partners in the region. One of its most renowned researchers, Rich Sutton, a pioneer in reinforcement learning, moved to Edmonton in 2003 after being unhappy with the political landscape in the U.S. 

Building Canadian tech hubs

AI isn’t the only technology field where Canada is leading the way forward. UBI Global has consistenly ranked Toronto-based DMZ as one of the top incubators in the world. And the University of Waterloo’s Communitech initiative has been helping scientists turn their research into reality for years. 

With its proximity to Silicon Valley, B.C. has become an important research arm for many U.S. tech giants — injecting millions of dollars into the economy and giving burgeoning Canadian talent an opportunity to grow. Amazon’s Vancouver office is poised to be the largest corporate tenant in downtown Vancouver, while Slack, Microsoft, Salesforce and Fujitsu also call the region home.

As the site of the Digital Technology Supercluster, B.C. is also using its strong health care research foundation to build precision healthcare solutions — an emerging field to improve diagnosis and treatment of disease. 

Out east, the University of New Brunswick is home to the Canadian Institute for Cybersecurity and the provincial government has committed to making the area a hub for cybersecurity. In 2016, New Brunswick became the first province in Canada to develop a cybersecurity strategy. 

With these continued investments from all fronts of the innovation community, the ingredients are all there to maintain Canada’s status as a world leader in technology.

To learn more about Canada’s innovation sector and how MNP is helping technology entrepreneurs succeed, contact Katri Ulmonen, CPA, CA at 604.637.1507 or [email protected]