To the general public, Tony Lacavera is probably still best known as the former CEO of Wind Mobile (now rebranded as Freedom Mobile), a role he stepped away from in 2014, though he remained on the company’s board until December 2015, when it was sold to Shaw Communications for $1.6 billion.
Yet he’s stayed busy since then, with a particular focus on Globalive Communications Corp., the diversified investment firm he started in 1998 which has supported dozens of software, technology, and telecommunications startups around the world, including Wind, which he admits catapulted his company into higher-level investments; and Yak Communications, which was acquired by Distributel in October.
In 2014 Lacavera cofounded Globalive Capital, the company’s funding arm, which less than two years later has invested in more than 25 private companies, 10 venture funds, and 15 public companies, including such well-known brands as TouchBistro and Timeplay, making it a rare example of a Silicon Valley-style angel investment firm in Canada.
The company is an especially enthusiastic supporter of fintech and artificial intelligence, he says – sectors in which he believes Canada could become a leader.
“We feel really bullish about Canada’s chances to become a leader in artificial intelligence,” Lacavera says, noting that Globalive is particularly interested in researching ways to apply machine-learning to new industry verticals, including agriculture, healthcare, finance, and distribution networks.
However, to fully take advantage of that latent potential, Lacavera also believes that Canada’s institutions – government, education, and corporate alike – need to step up their respective games when it comes to pursuing a culture of innovation.
The word has been a popular one this year across Canada’s tech industry and beyond, particularly with the federal government’s much-vaunted “innovation agenda,” yet for the most part that’s what it remains – a word, with few actions to support it, he says.
“I truly believe that we have an opportunity to be a world leader in several areas if we just focus our expertise on them and really make an effort to mitigate the number of Canadians that have sought opportunities in the Valley or in New York just because there wasn’t a platform for them to use all of their capabilities in Canada,” he says. “We need to create that environment so that we don’t have the situation we have today perpetuating itself, where approximately 350,000 Canadians live in Silicon Valley and approximately 150,000 Canadians live in New York City.”
“Some of my passion is nationalistic – I’m a proud Canadian,” he continues. “But the other reason is that we really do have what it takes to be leaders, and I’m extremely tired of our country being satisfied with second best, or third best, or also-ran. We need to be number one. And we have the ability to be number one in something like artificial intelligence if we focus our energy on it.”
Putting his money (and time) where his mouth is, Lacavera is a founding donor of leadership initiative the Next 36, and will be co-chairing the program’s next iteration. He’s also a founding sponsor of the Rotman School’s Creative Destruction Lab; the University of Toronto’s Hatchery; and a supporter of startup incubators OneEleven and MaRS.
But while Globalive’s investors don’t plan on leaving Canada behind, Lacavera acknowledges the company is casting a global net.
Here’s what he thinks Canada’s government, businesses, and educational institutions can do to draw more of his company’s money back home.
Government must walk the innovation walk
Justin Trudeau’s Liberals have often been criticized for having a nicer disposition than their Harper-led predecessors while correcting none of the flaws – an observation that could easily apply to their innovation agenda, Lacavera says.
“The government has a very significant role to play, but it can’t just talk the innovation talk – it needs to walk the innovation walk,” he says. “We can’t just be having presentation after presentation followed by broad allocations of government resources – it needs to narrow down its actions and focus on the areas where we can win.”
Based on his experience, Lacavera sees five sectors in which Canadians can be leaders already: Fintech, AI, machine-learning, autonomous vehicles, and quantum computing, noting that at present Vancouver’s D-Wave Systems has produced the world’s only working quantum computer.
“We need to have government supporting these industries directly and aggressively by making strategic investments in them,” he says.
For example, southern Ontario is already a large producer of automobiles, he says. Given that the industry’s future is going to be dominated by autonomous vehicles, both the federal and provincial governments need to help the province’s automakers and training facilities ensure future autoworkers have the expertise needed to assemble and roll out autonomous vehicles with world-class quality and speed, lest the country lose its industry market share.
Clean tech is another example, Lacavera says: a favourite buzzword of both federal and provincial governments, its development needs to include incentives and direct investment support for the country’s sizable oil and gas industry, to help it invest in greener technologies.
“We need to be taking action, and the action needs to be in areas where Canada can lead,” he says.
Education must evolve
Another institution that Lacavera thinks needs to change if Canada wants to become a digital innovation leader is education – and not in the way you might think.
While acknowledging that investments in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) education are important, Lacavera says it’s far more important for Canada’s elementary, high schools, and postsecondary institutions alike to encourage their students to pursue careers as entrepreneurs.
“Canadians are risk-averse compared to other countries, and that puts us at a competitive disadvantage with places like India, China, and, particularly, the United States,” he says. “We need our young Canadians to know from an early age that creating their own path in life is a choice that is both valid and in fact should be encouraged.”
“It doesn’t have to be about starting a small business or building a new company,” he continues. “It can be inside a large corporate environment, or a social enterprise, or the public sector, or a not-for-profit – but that spirit of innovation, that mentality of entrepreneurship, needs to be instilled in Canadians at a much younger age.”
At present, he says, the “Canadian” mentality encourages youth to pursue more conservative, less risky paths, while not frowning upon, exactly, but questioning the validity of those who want to create their own.
“Frankly, just emboldening Canadians, point-blank, to take a leading role is important, because we don’t do that today,” Lacavera says. “We only look at the downside and risk to the person, instead of the upside and their potential to change the world. Education plays a huge role in that.”
This suggestion also ties back to government, he notes, since the provinces themselves need to shift the focus of their education systems to entrepreneurship.
“I know STEM education is a big focus of investment, and I call that a tactical investment that needs to be done, but there’s a strategic element you need to evolve as well – promoting a culture of entrepreneurship,” he says.
Large enterprises should take on a leadership role
Finally, he says, Canada’s largest enterprises – which some reports say lag behind other nations – need to acknowledge their own role when it comes to fostering a culture of digital innovation.
“We have some of the most powerful, well-run companies in the banking, insurance, and oil and gas industries,” he says. “We have a world-leading telecommunications industry… Our biggest companies are strong and healthy and well-run, and they need to play a very big role in creating an innovation environment going forward.”
Here, again, Lacavera refers to the importance of government incentives, which he says should include meaningful investments into research and development – but the companies themselves need to recognize R&D’s value as well.
“Instead of having all the banks focus on returns to shareholders, they need to be talking about R&D in fintech,” he says. “It’s the only way the Canadian banking system is going to set the standard for financial services globally.”