Despite challenges, Canada

There may be some truth to the complaints often heard from Canadian entrepreneurs, but they’re the same problems that business founders around the world face, or at least that was the consensus of a panel at the World Congress on Information Technology (WCIT) in Montreal last week.

The Digital Innovation in Canada panel took place at the Palais des Congres de Montreal.

”I’m always reticent to talk about a Canadian problem,” said Aled Edwards, a professor at University of Toronto and Oxford University and founding chief executive of the Structured Genomics Consortium, a pre-competitive research group backed by drug companies, “because if you go to a meeting in Boston you’ll get the same kind of stuff.”

“Entrepreneurship is hard regardless of where you’re based,” said Kunal Gupta, chief executive of mobile applications developer Polar Mobile in Toronto. Gupta said Canada has a great culture for producing engineering and technical talent, but has a shortage of sales and marketing talent.

“One of the big challenges we have in Canada is the fact that we are pretty young at it still,” said Isabel Bettez, president and chief executive of 8D Technologies, a Montreal-based firm that develops wireless point-of-sale technology. “We don’t have any generations that have done it.”

“I don’t think there are enough experienced entrepreneurs that younger guys like me can learn from,” Gupta said. To help address that problem, he urged fellow entrepreneurs to devote some effort and time to mentoring others.

“I think Canada is both an amazing place to start a company and obviously there are some challenges being an entrepreneur here,” commented Jennifer Evans, chief executive and chief strategist of Sequentia Environics, a small Toronto marketing firm that helps its clients build online “communities” and sells content marketing measurement software called Squeeze.

Specifically, Evans said, investors in Canada usually are a bit less adventurous and like to see a little more proof of an idea than ”some of the folks in Silicon Valley.” But they are willing to give entrepreneurs a good shot.

“You need to understand that when you build a business, failing is part of the success in a way,” said Bettez – and not only entrepreneurs but backers have to understand that.

“It’s been fascinating to me as an entrepreneur to see the amazing flowering in Toronto in particular,” Evans said. “What I think we struggle with though is getting companies to sort of the proverbial next level.”

One reason for that problem might be the lack of sales and marketing talent that Gupta mentioned. A theme that emerged in the discussion was the need for universities to give scientists and engineers more than just scientific and technical training.

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Gupta noted, close to a quarter of the classes an engineering student must take are outside the engineering faculty. He believes that’s a policy more universities – including his own alma mater, the University of Waterloo, should adopt.

“The skills that I use day in and day out are not the skills and topics that were taught to me by my engineering professors,” Gupta said. He would like to see more engineers take courses in psychology and marketing. It’s too easy, he said, for engineers to get stuck in a bubble where you focus on what the technology can do rather than how it will be used.

Edwards, himself a professor, agreed. He is distressed by the direction the educational system is taking, which he says is moving toward turning out “product” rather than thinkers. Students need to have a broad-based background, he said. “Ninety per cent of my courses were science. I didn’t realize until I was 40 – that was 10 years ago – how important sociology was.”

For universities to emphasise a more well-rounded education, though, businesses will have to be willing to recruit based on broader knowledge rather than narrowly defined skills – which is Edwards believes they should be doing anyway. “You cannot just recruit to a skill set because in two years it’ll be an obsolete skill set.”

Gupta also said co-op programs are a very good way for students to prepare for employment and more companies should participate in them.

All the panelists pointed to some challenges that may affect Canadian entrepreneurs more than those elsewhere. Even Edwards, in the question period, noted that Canada’s sheer size makes it harder for people to make connections. But ultimately, he said, what Canadian business people need to do is ”just do it for ourselves and don’t compare ourselves to other people. We’re constantly navel-gazing in Canada…. We’ve just got to get off our you-know-whats and do it.”

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