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Trudeau needs to reshape plan for tech incubator funding

Marcus Daniels is chief executive officer of the pre seed venture capital fund Highline and chairman of Canadian Acceleration & Business Incubation Association (CABI).

This week Canadians spoke with a resounding voice.

Regardless of one's political leanings, Justin Trudeau and his team should be lauded for the tight campaign they ran, and for taking their party from third place to a majority government.

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The mandate Canadians gave the Liberals represents a real opportunity to make Canada more innovative and less dependent on resources.

There are already signs that Canada is moving in the right direction. A recent report by Compass ranking the 20 top start-up ecosystems in the world included Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal. Moreover, medium-sized Canadian startups are raising significantly larger sums of mid-level funding than they previously have and world-class U.S. investors are writing cheques for companies that have headquarters in Canada.

During the election campaign the Liberals unveiled a three-year plan to allocate $900-million dollars for their "new innovation agenda." Part of this money was a stipend of $200-million a year for technology incubators, research facilities and some direct small-business funding. I am not sure that this the best approach.

This campaign promise was made without the benefit of a transparent dialogue with actors in the Canadian start-up ecosystem who have demonstrated an ability to have real impact. As the chairman of the Canadian Acceleration & Business Incubation (CABI) association, I can confidently say that we need real change in our national innovation strategy or we are going to continue to celebrate mediocre results at home and lose the war to lead globally.

Across Canada there is too much duplication and isolation at the accelerator level. Solving this problem begins by recognizing that the needs of founders in both tech and other high-growth areas have changed.

While some some accelerators have evolved, many have failed to adapt and are creating initiatives that keep the lights on, as opposed to new programs to incentivize the best entrepreneurs on the planet to build their ventures in Canada.

This is top of mind for me today as I'm in Silicon Valley meeting with top U.S. venture capitalists to raise awareness about Canadian startups and Canada's Startup Visa Program.

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As Mr. Trudeau and his team readily showed during the campaign, generating a competitive advantage usually involves exploiting opponents' weaknesses.

In the context of competing with major global start-up hubs, one of the most obvious weaknesses is retaining world class entrepreneurs and the shortage of high-end engineering talent in these places. Canada has an unfair advantage through our amazing academic institutions and applied-learning companies to produce talent that can help increase the scale of our companies.

As a venture capitalist who runs a start-up accelerator, I've experienced firsthand the difficulty of finding and retaining great technical founders and talent. Both are essential to creating the venture profile businesses that provide thousands of high paying jobs and can provide a significant edge on the competition. My experience has also served to confirm one thing you often hear: Great tech talent exists around the globe, but as a country we are uniquely positioned to make Canada the best place to both work and live.

The stakes are high. IT World Canada reports that Canada needs 182,000 people to fill positions in IT by 2019. This constitutes a severe labour market shortage and puts the competitiveness of our biggest start-up ecosystems into question.

Let's hope Mr. Trudeau and his closest confidantes take these challenges seriously and look at solutions that address root problems. Many of us in the Canadian start-up ecosystem will happily provide data-backed best practices and advice to help create new policies that have a massive impact while minimizing the amount of public dollars needed.

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