The House

Jim Balsillie deplores 'colonial policy for innovation'

The former co-CEO of Research in Motion, Jim Balsillie, argues the three main party leaders are failing to address crucial questions about Canada's high-tech future.
Former RIM co-CEO Jim Balsillie wants to start an innovation lobby to help focus Ottawa's attention on Canada's high-tech future. ((Dave Chidley/Canadian Press))

By Chris Hall, CBC News

Jim Balsillie is on a mission. The man who helped make the BlackBerry into a global giant is trying to force innovation on to the political agenda in the waning days of the federal election campaign.

"We have a colonial policy for innovation," Balsillie says in an interview with CBC Radio's The House that airs Saturday.  "All three of the parties have no strategy for getting money for Canadian ideas."

Forget all the talk about free trade and new markets for Canadian lumber, fish and resources. And don't get too excited over the promises to spend billions of dollars on road and bridges.

Balsillie firmly believes our future economic growth will depend on the success Canadian entrepreneurs have in getting their new technologies into global markets.

He's not optimistic any of the political parties gets that. He's not sure public servants and Canadian bankers do either. Or the media for that matter.

"Where is the new wealth going to come from? You see all the promises, and I love this country, but how are we going to pay for the things we want if we can't sell our ideas?"

Internet intensive

All you have to do is look south of the border to see what Balsillie is talking about.

A study for the U.S. Department of Commerce in 2012 showed industries that create intellectual property (new inventions, technology and other innovations) accounted for 27 million jobs — nearly 30 per cent of the overall workforce — and totalled 60 per cent of all American exports while adding nearly $6 trillion to U.S. GDP.

Giant technology firms like Amazon and Google aggressively lobby the U.S. administration, Balsillie says. Google executives alone visited the White House an average of nearly once a week since Barack Obama took office.

And Balsillie says the lobbying registry in this country shows those same companies, and others, also have been going after the Canadian government on issues like copyright and data protection.

But Canada's top companies are doing none of that, he told me. And the rest of the world isn't sitting on its hands either.

A report prepared earlier this year for the Lisbon Council — a European think tank — underscored that digital technologies are revolutionizing European business, too.

"We live in an era where successful companies can acquire a million new customers a day without investing a single eurocent in marketing,"  said report author Benjamin Gilbert.

"It's a world where one company with 9,100 employees and 1.2 billion users will pay $19 billion for another company with 55 employees and 450 million customers — an employee-to-customer ratio of one to eight million and an average value of $345 million per employee."

Just tweaking

The numbers are staggering. The growth potential enormous. 

But in Canada, Balsillie says, the focus is on tweaking the same programs to promote innovation that have been in place for the past 30 years.

They're not working, he says. And not changing either.

Looking through the campaign proposals of the Conservatives, NDP and Liberals shows an unwavering focus on the same types of things, he argues.

All three talk about the importance of building traditional infrastructure like roads and bridges to stimulate economic growth.

But all three major parties have also announced funding for innovation in various sectors of the economy, including auto and aerospace and, in the Liberals' case, $200-million-a-year over three years to help create a network between tech start-ups, government and academic institutions.

I put that to Balsillie. His answer is that their approach still amounts to tweaking.

Trade deals, like the Trans-Pacific Partnership that was completed just this week seem to be focused more on potential resource markets than on writing new rules that will allow Canadian high-tech firms to commercialize emerging technologies.

"The problem is that we've had the same thinking that we did with the Free Trade Agreement and NAFTA by the same people," Balsillie says.

"We haven't updated our understanding of how an innovation economy works, we haven't updated our discourse, we haven't updated our policies and engagement."

Innovation lobby

Right now, Balsillie says, Canadian high-tech start-ups like Hootsuite, a social media manager for companies, and Shopify, which sells the retail software for online stores, are succeeding in spite of, not because of federal policies.

Balsillie currently works with entrepreneurs hoping to develop and profit from their ideas, and his frustration with the lack of attention and political action to support them is evident during the interview.

"All these entrepreneurs are being sent into a gunfight armed with knives."

So what's his solution?

He says a critical piece is creating an innovation lobby to promote the kinds of policies and rules that will allow Canadian entrepreneurs to thrive.

Canada must establish its own rules for innovation, he says  rather than allowing others to tell us what to do.

Universities, venture capital funds and business have to do more to promote commercialization of research.

Those are the kinds of measures Balsillie wants to see.

But it won't happen, he says, when the federal political leaders are doing their best in this campaign to avoid talking about innovation policies.