British Columbia

Digital discussion lacking in federal politics

Canada's high-tech sector is looking to the federal election campaign for a vision of its future — but so far the politicians have turned a blind eye, its leaders say.

Entrepreneurs are appalled at the lack of federal vision: say it needs kickstart

Entrepreneurs are appalled at the lack of federal vision, and say the digital discussion needs kick start or they do not have a party they'd vote for. (Shutterstock / Rawpixel)

Canada's high-tech sector is looking to the federal election campaign for a vision of its future —  but so far the politicians have turned a blind eye, its leaders say.

Entrepreneurs such as Jeremy Shaki, co-founder of Lighthouse Labs, which ran free HTML coding camps for 2,500 people in four cities over the past year, are calling on the parties to clarify their plans to foster innovation, education and coding literacy.

"I don't know that I support any of them, because I don't support their vision for the future of Canada right now," said Shaki, who says thousands of skilled knowledge workers are struggling to decide how to vote.

"In a massively long election, there is a huge section missing," he says.

In order to kick start the conversation the Vancouver-base entrepreneur and his co-founder Khurram Virani sent an open letter to the federal parties.

They call the tech sector the "beating heart to drive progress" and warn that the country could fall behind internationally without champions on the national level.

They don't have specific demands as such — at least not yet. For now, all they want is to be part of the conversation.

"We're asking them to bring it up and start the discussion, because it can't be a bottom-up approach forever," Shaki said.

"The industry here has done as much as it can off very little funding and very little money to advance technology here, but the leaders of this country have to be the ones to help the rest of Canada to embrace it."

The call is supported by other leaders in the startup sector who say the bulk of growth in the economy over coming decades will be driven by innovative, young companies — including many that haven't even been imagined yet.

Many of Canada's current startups didn't actually exist during the last election, said Ray Walia, chief executive of Launch Academy, which has helped more than 350 early-stage companies in Western Canada since 2012.

"These people are going to shape our country and our economy," said Walia, whose non-profit has collectively raised about $50 million and created more than 500 jobs.

"If they're not given the tools and the support that they need to compete on a global level, then we're really going to fall behind quickly."

Growth won't be coming from the resource, finance or manufacturing sectors as they exist today, agreed Steven Forth, co-founder of TeamFit.

The parties have largely failed to address the top three issues critical to the tech-driven economy: a shortage of skilled labour, a lagging financing system and slow adoption of innovative technologies, he said.

"They just fundamentally don't get it," said Forth, whose Vancouver-based business helps management consulting and professional services groups build high-performance teams.

Political promises

Until this week, no party had outlined a broad blueprint for tech innovation, although each made related promises.

The Conservatives say they already offer low small business taxes and a venture capital plan, with a commitment to an advanced manufacturing hub.

The NDP is promising innovation tax credits and to make employment insurance more flexible and applicable to coders.

The Green party would establish a fund to support emerging technology.

The Liberals want to invest $600 million over three years to business incubators and accelerators, research facilities, and in financing. The Liberals have also promised $100 million more each year for an industrial research assistance program, and $200 million annually to specific sectors to support innovative and clean technologies.

The Liberals and NDP say they plan to respond to the letter, while neither the Conservatives or Green party answered requests for comment.

The Conference Board of Canada recently gave the country a "C" grade and 9th-place rank on a report card called "How Canada Performs: Innovation."

But it earned its only "A" grade for a new indicator — entrepreneurial ambition — which measures the number of the working-age Canadians reporting entrepreneurial activity, such as setting up a new business.

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