Canada chooses right time to 'get in' to innovation

BDC call to “Get in.formed. Get in.cluded. Get in.novative!”

Canada might be “150 years young”, according to one keynote speaker at the Canadian Corporate Innovation Summit in Toronto earlier this month, but it has a wise head on its young shoulders judging by the succession of speakers under Chatham House rules exhorting its businesses to avoid complacency and invest more in innovation.

Two of these speakers, David Johnston, Canada’s governor general, and Tom Jenkins, founder and chairman of the country’s largest software company, OpenText, were promoting their book – Ingenious – which covered some of the inventions made by its people before and after its foundation in 1867.

The book ascribed the word invention to the Latin invenire, meaning coming in or arriving at, and really being the act of finding out, of discovering, whether accidentally or as a result of search and effort.

The book said this was why the term innovation was so helpful. “To innovate (from innovare, meaning renew or alter) implies a deliberate change in the nature or fashion of something, precisely to make it more useful to more people.”

So while Canadians’ discovery of insulin or stem cells might be invention, the creation of the foghorn or canola oil was innovation by building or creating something out of existing or understood component parts.

Canola oil was also an example of “just in time” innovation, one speaker said. The country responded to declining demand for its traditional demand as a lubricant in steam engines after the mid-20th century by turning to researchers for modifications and new uses. Now, canola oil from rape seed plants is a C$26bn ($19.3bn) export crop as a food “and tastes delicious”, another speaker added to laughter from the audience.

Johnston’s talk was a highlight of the conference. One American said on stage he now felt Canadian having met Johnston, and there was a feeling of confidence that the nation had found a way to lead a “good life” built on its abundant natural resources and people’s diversity and creativity.

Partly, Canadians’ feeling of self-confidence seems to have been encouraged by the shift of its larger neighbour, the US, towards populism and isolation by cutting immigration from certain places under President Donald Trump.

Described as a nationwide “experiment in diversity”, Canadians’ differences in a “small and caring country” permit things to be looked at from different angles.

A number of speakers referred to the difference in constitution between the US and Canada with the latter’s 1867 Act describing its founding principles of “peace, order and good government” – a collective proscription when compared with the US’s more individual “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness”.

The conference discussed how the country was trying to find a balance between risk aversion shaped by the extreme temperature differences between summer and winter and being more promotional about its abilities.

The tension shows up in a number of small ways. The Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC) used its hosting of the summit to launch a corporate innovation and venturing programme and separately announced the hire of Michelle Scarborough as managing director for strategic investments and its women in tech fund.

The fund had been signalled in November as a C$50m fund to support female entrepreneurs, but BDC admitted privately that the fund size was actually C$70m.

And with regards to the summit itself, BDC hosted what many of the delegation of international corporations brought by Global Corporate Venturing said was a world-class event with great speakers and active engagement by an audience eager to learn about cutting-edge innovation and corporate venturing strategies. BDC said it had set itself a “modest” goal for the summit – that two of these delegations would engage more with the Canadian ecosystem and that two local corporations would develop their innovation strategies.

Already, this objective has been half met. GE Canada, the local subsidiary of the US-listed industrial group, and the parent’s corporate venturing subisidary, GE Ventures, along with BDC Capital, the state-owned bank’s investment unit, and Ryerson Futures, which operates corporate accelerator programs, announced the ZSC Seed Accelerator Fund during the summit.

The fund will help companies in Zone Startups Calgary (ZSC), an accelerator that drives growth of startups in the industrial internet of things, cybersecurity and energy sectors, on their paths to commercialisation.

However, rather than a one-off example, BDC has refocused the organisation, under CEO Michael Denham, on speed of decision and execution. As well as GCV, it has partnered the Business Council of Canada, involving the 150 largest companies, for the summit, and in another for the CEOs of these corporations this week. The council’s meeting will be the start of a year-long innovation agenda for CEOs to meet first in Waterloo, Ontario, travel to California’s Silicon Valley in the autumn, then to Munich, Germany, next spring.

Before the summit, Ailish Campbell, the new head of Canada’s Trade Commission, described its concierge-style service to the international delegation, one where its 1,000 trade commissioners could help make introductions, appreciate the challenges of working in a multinational and help cut through the bureaucracy of various government agencies to get things done.

As a country, Canada works from city through province to federal levels, with networks, such as Toronto’s non-profit Mars (previously profiled by our sister publication Global University Venturing), encouraging communication, activity and, probably the most-repeated phrase of the summit, teamwork. However, data presented by GCV Analytics indicated relatively few of these local teams were leading to joint corporate venture capital deals involving Canadian and international corporations.

This data was supported by local feedback. Paul Santerre, a professor at Toronto University and founder of startup Interface, told GCV’s delegation of life sciences-focused corporate venturers at Mars how it had raised $35m over its lifetime, including from Netherlands-based chemicals company DSM this year. DSM joined US-based Genesys, private equity firm VenGrowth (now a subsidiary of Covington Capital) and BDC, he said.

But local corporations are looking to help. One speaker at the summit described their involvement in a government-led innovation initiative as partly altruistic to help the local ecosystem. As a large corporation he said it felt a responsibility to give back to the community.

Another described how corporate venturing was like being film actress Ginger Rogers – effectively having to do everything VCs had to, but backwards and in high heels – a vivid expression of the challenges of corporate venturing and innovation in large business.

And while “ideas are scary and change even scarier, as they threaten the way things are done now”, according to one keynote speaker, the biggest risk is in doing nothing, another said.

And in an era of change, speed aligned to long-term vision and teamwork is a powerful place to be.

The history of OpenText gives one of the best examples of visionary thinking. Under Jenkins, OpenText partnered Microsoft in the 1990s to help the latter’s development of SharePoint. In return it was able to develop the back-end in order to see the data flowing through the system. In an age of machine learning, social data and algorithms are controlled by groups such as Facebook, Tencent and Google, but the machine-to-machine or internet-of-things economy has OpenText at is heart.

Mark Barrenechea, now CEO and chief technology officer at OpenText, in a blog last year said: “As the machines evolve, they will herald in the next great shift in the history of technology – the cognitive era.”

With artificial intelligence expertise at Canadian universities and forward-looking corporations and government allied to a culture of openness, tolerance and diversity, it is a powerful moment of opportunity and one BDC is trying to capture with its call for attendees at the summit to “Get in.formed. Get in.cluded. Get in.novative”.

GCV’s thanks to the international delegation to Canada, including those from:

Toyota Tsusho Canada
Sabic Ventures
BASF Venture Capital
Henkel
Coca-Cola
Asahi Kasei America
Monsanto Growth Ventures
GM Ventures
JSR Micro
Thermofisher Scientific
Centrica
SoftBank Telecom America
LG Electronics USA
LG Innovation Ventures
Repsol
Repsol Energy Ventures
Shell
DuPont – DuPont Ventures

– A version of this editorial first appeared on our sister site Global Corporate Venturing.

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