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Four ways to accelerate growth in Canada’s tech industry.

Melissa Chee, President and CEO of ventureLAB, shares her thoughts.

Melissa Chee ventureLAB

By Melissa Chee

 

In 2006, I joined a tech startup that was little more than a concept and a PowerPoint presentation. I remember going into meetings with global decision makers, armed only with an animation that demonstrated what our product could do. Two years later, the chip was in full production with global consumer electronics brands, and we would eventually provide semiconductor chips to over 70-million televisions worldwide. 

The trials and tribulations of that start-up journey, coupled with a nearly decade-long tenure at global multinationals in telecommunications and enterprise software have helped shape my understanding of the Canadian tech landscape in the context of a global ecosystem. Now, as President and CEO of ventureLAB — a leading technology hub that works with tech entrepreneurs who we believe should be born global and built to scale — I’m eager to share this cumulative experience with Canadian tech founders, to play my part in enabling our ecosystem to scale and grow. 

Canada’s tech and innovation has come a long way since then, but there is still a lot of work to be done to accelerate growth in our tech industry to truly harness an environment that creates globally competitive tech titans:

We need to foster a founder’s mindset.

In order to succeed in a tech start-up, you must not only have the brains, but also the grit. We know success is a culmination of focus and relentlessness, and I think one of the biggest challenges in growing a company is developing that laser focus. That means knowing what to say ‘no’ to, and what you should not be doing. Whether it’s making the right hire, building out the team from day one, or adding new features that a customer requested (but which isn’t on your roadmap) — these are tough decisions that can make or break a company. As Canadians, we need to own the podium when it comes to our talent, which continues to be a major export for this country. To be successful, Canada needs to reverse this trend. To be viewed as a globally competitive ecosystem, we need to scale and build in key technology and economic sectors that have global reach — not just start companies which enables us to retain, attract, and grow our talent pool. 

For Canadian startups, a global focus is essential. 

Our market provides much too small a customer base, so companies coming out of this country must be born global, with a focus on building to scale. For the past decade or so, too much focus has been placed on chasing the unicorn — a company that starts small but grows quickly and significantly to achieve billion dollar market value. Canadian entrepreneurs need to focus on taking one step at a time towards sustainable, long-term growth — instead of exiting at low valuations way too early — and figuring out what it takes to really build a global enterprise. The questions you want to ask yourself are: Where does our expertise lie, and how can we leverage that to scale on a global basis? Success for Canada’s tech ecosystem is about creating a sustainable pipeline of anchor companies that really build to scale here in Canada, and sell into the global market. 

Now more than ever, diversity, equity, and inclusion must be ingrained in every tech company’s values, and it’s important to understand that the three values mean different things.

We can’t ignore hardware innovation.

Hardware innovation has been underwhelming in Canada over the past 25 years. If COVID has shown us anything, it’s that we are lacking the expertise to build out essential, IP-rich technology. Take the ventilator, for example. While we can ramp up production, we don’t create the electronics here, so we’re still dependent on foreign suppliers. Right now, global manufacturers are sounding the alarm about chip shortages — which are already resulting in delayed production in laptops, smartphones, and even automotive plants here in Canada. That’s just one unique opportunity that COVID has shed light on, to do some moon-shot investments and put Canada back on the map. After all, hardware and semiconductor development and manufacturing is essential in almost every sector — from healthcare to automotive,  clean energy, and agriculture — all hugely important for both the Canadian and global economy. For our country to leapfrog in a new, post-COVID world, we must invest with a long-game perspective in foundational technology as a modern form of infrastructure that will support jobs, growth, and a competitive IP strategy. 

Diversity, inclusion, and equity must be ingrained in the tech industry.

Now more than ever, diversity, equity, and inclusion must be ingrained in every tech company’s values, and it’s important to understand that the three values mean different things. It’s not just important that we have a diverse pipeline of founders, but we need to ensure that every organization fosters an equitable and inclusive organization that believes in creating equal opportunity — particularly for those underrepresented groups.

It’s with this in mind that we created Tech Undivided at ventureLAB, an initiative focused on bridging gender and diversity gaps. Our goal is to bring awareness to those biases that may be prohibitive for women founders while creating a merit-based environment where they can thrive. Leveraging our Strategic Mentor Network — a gender-parity community of seasoned entrepreneurs, innovators, and tech leaders — Tech Undivided gives these founders the tools and resources to grow and scale their businesses to become globally competitive. Our Tech Undivided founders work with advisors and mentors with a focus on four pillars: raising capital, talent retention, commercializing technology and IP, and customer acquisition. 

To make this work, our belief is that everyone must be at the table; ensuring the success of women entrepreneurs is not just a women’s issue, and so all genders need to be involved. We work closely with ventureLAB’s venture capital and angel partners to bring light to any unconscious bias they may have. Our goal? To re-tool the narrative and perspective. We want investors to see the founder before them, not a man or woman, but a leader with a great technology and business plan to commercialize at scale. Success comes when you can match the right people with the right founders in order to make a difference; that’s what we’re after. 

We also know we’ll be more successful achieving equity when individuals can see themselves in roles they aspire to be in and can relate to their own journey and experience. From CEO to Founders, to Chief Scientist or Engineer, in the tech world, we must shine a spotlight on successful women founders, and share both their challenges and triumphs — it’s these shared experiences that will inspire the next generation.   

Technology and innovation — our digital infrastructure — is the underpinning of everything we do here and around the world. Investing in tech start-ups means investing in a modern digital future that will power the key economic sectors Canada needs to lead.

Since joining ventureLAB in 2017, Melissa has been a tireless champion and advocate for the organization’s vision, guiding York Region’s leading technology hub as it enables thousands of tech companies to scale through growth-oriented programs. We've partnered with Women of Influence to bring you Level Up, a deep dive for leaders looking to scale their tech business, featuring inspiring stories and expert advice from some of the entrepreneurs and partners we work with.