Shopify Takes Vacant BlackBerry Throne—And What’s Next for Ontario
Shopify revived confidence in a region battered by the high-profile failures of Nortel and BlackBerry, adding to optimism even as infrastructure and other challenges remain.

Analysts tempered their expectations in early 2015 when Shopify announced an IPO to raise $100 million. At the time, the e-commerce software company had 165,000 clients ranging from press-on tattoo retailer Tattly to Tesla Motors. If share prices held during the IPO and Shopify retained its $713 million valuation, the offering would be deemed a success.

After the implosion of Nortel and the missteps of BlackBerry, Canada wasn’t exactly a symbol of tech success. Ottawa-based Shopify’s IPO offered a chance to restore some faith in the country’s innovation capability. A free-fall in the price of oil, which was about wipe out tens of thousands of jobs in the energy sector, raised the stakes even higher.

Shopify’s valuation didn’t just hold, share price soared. By the time the IPO was over, the company was valued at $1.9 billion — more than double initial expectations.

Success stories like Shopify underscore the importance of Ontario’s startup ecosystems of Kitchener-Waterloo, Ottawa, and Toronto to the economic growth and innovation of the province and nation. They generate wealth and attract foreign investment.

In 2015, Canadian venture capital investments hit a 10-year high thanks to 536 deals totalling $2.3 billion (Canadian). Of that amount, $1.25 billion was invested in Ontario, according to the Ministry of Research and Innovation.

Direct Economic Returns and Job Creation

Ontario tech ecosystems also provide significant, direct economic returns and spur job creation. According to the Kauffman report, The Importance of Young Firms for Economic Growth, new businesses account for 20% of gross job creation in the U.S., while research findings from Nesta in the U.K. indicate that 6% of young, high-growth firms create half of all jobs in that country.

These patterns align with the economic impact seen in Ontario, as noted by the Ministry. Within the Ontario Network of Entrepreneurs (ONE), 5,899 new jobs were created and an additional 8,970 jobs/year were retained over the last two years. Furthermore, through the risk capital programs currently in place, the ministry expects a return of $10 for every dollar invested.

While startups make substantial contributions to Ontario’s economy, the province also has much to offer tech startups. Software engineers making less than half of what their Silicon Valley counterparts do are abundant, and this will help keep the operating costs of startups down.

Cultural diversity within the province brings different perspectives and skill sets to the table. Federal and provincial R&D tax credits are generous – a company spending $210,000 (Canadian) on R&D could receive a refund of $135,000 in investment tax credits.

Given the increasing desire by the national government to support Canadian tech, and the province’s recent investment in the IBM Innovation Incubator Initiative, the Kitchener-Waterloo, Ottawa, and Toronto tech ecosystems may improve their global clout.

While tech companies are spread out throughout the province, clusters of high-performing startups exist within the Kitchener-Waterloo, Ottawa, and Toronto areas. These regions are producing internationally recognized tech companies with high valuations other than Shopify, including Freshbooks, Open Text, Kik Interactive, and Wattpad.

The characteristics of Ontario’s main tech ecosystems, and their respective economic impacts, are outlined below.

Kitchener-Waterloo:

Shopify was not the only Canadian tech company in the spotlight in 2015. Kitchener-Waterloo’s Kik secured unicorn status, and is one of two Canadian companies currently holding that title. Altogether, the Kitchener-Waterloo ecosystem has produced 1,845 new tech startups, thanks to the era ushered into the region by BlackBerry.

Communitech, an innovation centre, home to 1,000 startups, was co-founded by regional entrepreneurs including Jim Balsillie, former of CEO of RIM, the makers of BlackBerry. Today, BlackBerry’s former employees fill the workspaces of the region’s most successful tech startups including D2L and Freshbooks.

From 2014 to 2015, financing in Kitchener-Waterloo grew 97%, compared to the Canadian average of 5%. Although Kitchener-Waterloo is no longer considered a top 20 tech ecosystem, its drop from the ranking follows the removal of “startup output per capita” as a performance metric, not poor performance. It retains a growth index of 2.45, higher than half of the world’s top 20 ecosystems.

A 2013 PriceWaterhouseCoopers survey attributes more than 20,000 jobs to tech companies located in Kitchener-Waterloo. One of the biggest components of its success is the University of Waterloo, which accounts for $2.614 billion (Canadian) in annual “economic impact,” according to the study. The university’s comprehensive co-op program churns out top entrepreneurs and engineers sought by Silicon Valley’s tech giants, and its incubator, Velocity, has contributed to the success of startups like Kik and Vidyard.

Despite its impressive overall performance, a number of factors prevent Kitchener-Waterloo from fulfilling its potential. Techvibes notes that startups in the region raise a quarter of the funding received by their U.S. counterparts, and are four times less likely to obtain financing. In Silicon Valley, the bulk of angel investors are former startup CEOs who reinvest in the ecosystem.

In the Kitchener-Waterloo region, only 20% of former CEOs are investing in 80% of the companies, suggesting that an underlying fear of failure is hampering the region’s success.

In addition, its small size and relative isolation from Toronto is preventing the region’s startups from connecting with funding and resources. Infrequent, one-way trains hinder easy transit between Kitchener-Waterloo and Toronto, and a high-speed rail initiative connecting the two tech ecosystems will take 10 years to build and cost $2-3 billion (Canadian).

By contrast, Slovakia has entered discussions with Hyperloop Transportation Technologies to build a high-tech train that will carry passengers from Bratislava and Vienna or Budapest in 10 minutes or less for $200-300 million by 2020.

Ottawa:

Shopify’s success has revived some of the recognition that Canada’s capital city once received as a tech ecosystem, and the area buzzes with hopes of potential IPOs in the coming years. Ottawa hosts 1,700 tech companies, ranging from startups such as Series B, funded Kilpfolio, as well as being the location for the regional offices of multinationals including Apple and Facebook.

Ottawa also has the highest concentration of science and engineering employment in North America, outside of Silicon Valley, perhaps due to the numerous multinationals that also make Ottawa their Canadian headquarters, including IBM, Cisco, and Ericsson.

The Conference Board of Canada estimates Ottawa’s tech industry enjoyed a robust 8% annual growth over the past 5 years, higher than the global annual tech market growth rates. Aside from Shopify, its most notable and successful startup, Ottawa companies brought in upwards of $100 million (Canadian) in VC financing in 2015, including Corsa Technology, GaN Systems and You.i TV.

While the Ottawa tech ecosystem has experienced a recent bout of success, it still has a long way to go. Ottawa enjoyed its ‘Silicon Valley of the North’ status for number of years with notable examples including Nortel.

When the dotcom bubble burst in 2000, Ottawa’s pedigree fell. To date, there are no direct flights from Ottawa to San Francisco, an unnecessary obstacle between startups and Silicon Valley VCs. During the 2000s, Ottawa experienced dozens of venture-backed startup failures and former giant tech companies were either downsized, sold off, or disappeared.

For the most part, recovery has been slow and bootstrapped. If Ottawa wants to regain its global status in the sector, it needs to capitalize on recent success by pursuing venture capital both within and outside the city. At the very least, it needs a direct flight to San Francisco.

Toronto:

According to the 2015 Global Startup Ecosystem Ranking report, Toronto ranks 17th among the top 20 global tech ecosystems, the highest of any Canadian city. Canada’s most- (and North America’s fourth most-) populous city hosts between 2,500 to 4,000 active tech startups, with notable examples including Nymi and Chematria.

Efforts to cluster startups in the downtown core are underway. Increased support for incubators and accelerators such as Ryerson DMZ, home to IBM’s Bluemix Garage, has created 1,833 jobs. Foreign investments, driven by the elimination of taxes on capital gains, are bringing more money into the province. In 2015, Toronto saw a 30% increase in total venture deals from 2014. These are all signals that the city’s tech ecosystem is headed in the right direction.

However, unlike Kitchener-Waterloo and Ottawa, Toronto has yet to produce a unicorn. Despite efforts to cluster startups, tech companies are still dispersed throughout the city and its surrounding suburbs. An underdeveloped transit infrastructure is seen as an obstacle.

Unlike other global tech ecosystems such as Tel Aviv, Toronto lacks founders with hypergrowth-company experience, an important factor in scaling up. Toronto dropped 9 spots in the 2015 Global Startup Ecosystem Ranking report, largely due to a slow growth rate, which lagged behind Berlin, Sao Paulo and Bangalore, among others.

Support for billion-dollar companies:

In the near future, the current decline of the Canadian dollar could make Ontario’s tech ecosystems more lucrative in the eyes of foreign investors who contributed $591 million in venture capital in 2015, as reported by the Research and Innovation Ministry. Disruptive tech startups in emerging industries such as fintech, connected cars, artificial intelligence, IoT, and smart city technologies will have a critical economic impact in the next 5 to 10 years.

In response, Canada’s federal government has identified the need to attract large corporations to participate in incubators and accelerators as one of six key priorities to ensure Canadian tech startups become billion dollar companies. This could translate into more strategic partnerships that would yield benefits experienced in other global tech ecosystems, such as Singapore.

There’s one wildcard for the health of Ontario tech innovation: how the province’s basic income pilot program could impact startups and entrepreneurs.

In the meantime, Ontario’s entrepreneurs face the same headwinds hitting those in the U.S. and elsewhere in terms of funding. The volume of venture capital investment in North America dropped off sharply in the last quarter of 2015. A joint report released by KPMG International and CB Insights pointed out that a number of IPOs fell short of expectations. It also stated,“VC investors could be less willing to invest in innovative companies without a far stronger business case for how their new business models should create profit over the longer term.”

 

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