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Canada’s uniquely co-operative culture is a boon to tech innovation

Eric Bosco is chief business development officer at Mitacs, a national, not-for-profit organization that connects top-level research with private-sector needs.

Various tech centres in Canada are often referred to as Silicon Valley North. Just like California, northern regions like Halifax, Waterloo, Vancouver and more offer concentrations of spinoffs, startups, and the talent and venture capital that support them. But as we grapple with innovation policies in Canada – and often seem to try to replicate the practices of our southern neighbours – I think it's important to note our differences. Our entrepreneurial culture has unique strengths of its own.

Canada has a distinct collaborative spirit in establishing business opportunities for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and startups. In the competitive world of business, we often don't stop to take notice of something important in our country: working together is a defining characteristic of our innovation centres.

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You can see this trend in consortiums. There are many in Canada, established to promote knowledge transfer between universities, business and government, and to help Canadian SMEs rise to the next level of growth. Academic researchers not only partner with industry but also work side-by-side with multiple business partners – even competitors – to co-develop technologies. It is a model that favours SMEs by giving them affordable access to top research talent, and it solves problems by helping people in the same domain address them together.

For instance, CRIBIQ is a Quebec City-based consortium that promotes collaborative research projects in bioprocesses and bio-sourced products. Recently, it fostered a relationship between Atrium Innovation, a large natural health product company, Fruit d'Or, one of Canada's largest organic cranberry producers, and Nutra-Canada, an SME specializing in fruit, vegetable and medicinal extracts. Together with the researchers at the Institute of Nutrition and Function Foods (INAF), these companies are working to develop and commercialize new cranberry extracts that can create innovative consumer products. All participants stand to benefit, and the project is expected to have the additional advantage of potentially increasing the country's cranberry production.

A similar example is found in MEDTEQ, a consortium for industrial research and innovation in medical technology. This organization brought together a global medical device company with a private Canadian business called Spinologics and researchers at the École de Technologie Supérieure in Montreal. Together, they're developing ground-breaking 3D simulation software that will help surgeons more effectively plan spinal surgeries and obtain better patient outcomes. Each organization could never have achieved this outcome individually; it was possible only through their combined effort.

Consortiums may be one example. But even without them, Canadian SMEs can find numerous avenues of collaborative support that can help them grow their business. Initiatives such as Mitacs' industry-academic collaborations, the National Research Council of Canada's Industrial Research Assistance Program's (IRAP) concierge service, and Ericsson Garage's tech incubator link businesses with co-collaborators and other supports. At Mitacs, we recently worked with Quebec Metro High Tech Park, Canada's first technology park, to facilitate a partnership between international cosmetic giant Lise Watier and SiliCycle Inc., a Canadian manufacturer of silica-based specialty products. Combining their expertise, the two companies plan to bring new silica-based cosmetics to the Canadian market.

What this collaboration amounts to is a willingness to partner that is unparalleled elsewhere in the world, including Silicon Valley. There's a unique appetite in Canada to find common ground, share strengths and move forward without feeling that your business is somehow at a disadvantage if you partner with a competitor.

Canadians have our own set of circumstances converging to create something beyond what's happened elsewhere. Our highly skilled talent, competitive taxation levels, open society, and quality of life – a 2016 ranking of global cities placed Vancouver fifth, Toronto 16th, Ottawa 18th and Montreal 23rd – are not the only advantages we have to celebrate. Our "nice" Canadian tendency to co-operate gives us a competitive advantage as well. Our business environment isn't silicon. Its opportunities are golden.

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