Where’s the big idea?

Where’s the big idea?

Our new columnist, venture capital veteran John Ruffolo, on the state of innovation in Canada

“Worthwhile Canadian Initiative” was once called the most boring possible newspaper headline by New Republic magazine. Now, Canada generates headlines other countries can only envy – from our stable banking system, to our recovery from the 2008 global economic earthquake, to the branding of our top public sector pension plans as “Maple Revolutionaries” by The Economist magazine.

Our financial house certainly looks much more orderly than many of our competitors. But we have no time to rest on our laurels. In fact, I believe we have in our grasp at this time a unique opportunity to secure continued economic success for Canada – success rooted in us embracing a future centered on innovation and knowledge based industries.

On July 1, 2017, Canada will celebrate its 150th birthday. Our country has seen massive economic shifts over time. We’ve gone from exporting beaver coats, to manufacturing goods and machinery, to our current service-based economy. The next shift we need to make involves retooling ourselves for knowledge-based industries. This includes industries covering a wide array of opportunities, such as high technology, digital media, telecommunications, clean tech, life sciences and alternatives energies. At the core of each is intellectual property – valuable property that can be developed and exported for significant value.

What are the obstacles we must overcome to make this shift? For one, we have to finally lay to rest that old canard that Canadians don’t like to take risks and shy away from ventures with uncertain outcomes. In truth, Canadians are just as willing to take risks as anyone. In fact, a recent survey of Canadian executives and entrepreneurs demonstrated a tolerance for risk that was similar to Americans.

The task, then, is to find ways to harness the desire to innovate, to nurture and support it whenever possible, and to give it every opportunity to thrive on Canadian soil. Without this, our success in the knowledge-based sector will be difficult, if not impossible.

It starts with education. Each year, Canadian schools produce a large pool of very talented people, all of them bound for success in whatever profession they choose. Too frequently, however, the best and brightest opt for a traditional, safe and less innovation-oriented career path: law, accountancy, banking, medicine, academics. Even those who get into high growth technology areas such as the ones I listed above are not always looking for anything more than a steady job.

Our students need to know that entrepreneurship in the knowledge-based industries is just as viable as this “safe” route. From grade school to grad school, these energetic, smart, ambitious young people ought to be taught that their horizons can encompass much more than the traditional professions of their parents’ generation.

While there is no discernible difference in the risk tolerance of Canadian and American entrepreneurs, this does not tell the whole story. Canadians tend to be more embarrassed by failure. American entrepreneurs view failure as a learning experience and tend to jump right back in the start up saddle after falling down. Canadians sometimes appear reluctant to embrace failure as an important stepping stone to eventual success. We need to change that attitude, to recognize that most people fail before they succeed, and that success depends on the lessons learned from failure.

Of course, it takes more than an individual with a good idea to create a successful venture. Entrepreneurial role models, public policy and private capital are vital, and I will share my thoughts on these three key ingredients in future articles in this space.

Canada needs to get more of its citizens passionate about ideas that will keep our economy robust, diversified and growing for future generations to come.

- John Ruffolo / Illustration by Erik Mohr