It's back, baby

By Alexia Naidoo

It’s never been better than it is right now for Ottawa’s technology landscape, according to a preponderance of the city’s tech leaders. After going through massive upheaval in the 2000s, a full-fledged tech resurgence is underway.

“A lot of people in Ottawa didn’t move away when the big players, like Nortel, disappeared,” says Bruce Lazenby, Invest Ottawa’s president and CEO. “As a result of that, companies like Ciena, Avaya, Ericsson, Alcatel-Lucent, Cisco, and Huawei, among others, have started moving in to take advantage of that pool of talent.”

But this isn’t just a phoenix rising from the ashes of defunct companies. The diversity of the sector, particularly in software, is greater than ever.

Harley Finkelstein, Shopify’s chief platform officer, believes it’s as good, if not better, than it’s ever been in Ottawa for technology in terms of access to capital, access to talent, support and role models for younger companies.  

“Technology is completely rejuvenated now. There is an incredible energy in Ottawa today that didn’t exist 10 years ago,” says Finkelstein. “Now people in Ottawa want to have world-class talent, they want to work for world-class companies, and they want to sell to a global audience.”

He attributes part of this growth to a grassroots movement in town. Groups, such as Fresh Founders, a local entrepreneurs club, decided that Ottawa has the potential to be a place for high-growth companies.

“It was just a group of us, who cared deeply and passionately about the Ottawa technology scene, that used to meet at a coffee shop,” says Finkelstein. “Now we’re a couple hundred people meeting at Shopify’s offices.”

Jason Flick, a serial entrepreneur who recently joined the board of Invest Ottawa, says he has watched the evolution from “cash-rich, venture-backed” hardware companies and “over-funded” software companies from 1999-2004 to today’s “incredible boot-strapped companies that are finally hitting their stride.”

The Youi.tv CEO and co-founder adds, “I think the huge IPO hits in Ottawa this year underscore what we have, but that’s just the start. It takes five to seven years to get a company off the ground and we are seeing gems surface now.”

Flick says his Youi.tv venture has grown quietly, doubling in size every year from “an irrelevance of three guys to more than 135.” And his company has already booked enough revenue to double again next year.

He sees the region’s new tech sector flagship company, Shopify, as a proof point for the long-term impact of emerging entrepreneurs. “I have big hopes for the next big startups spawned from them.”

Debbie Pinard, CEO of her own startup called InitLive, points to another gathering that’s taken off: Tech Tuesday, an event hosted by Wesley Clover. “In the last year, it’s full to the rafters with people who are interested in networking and finding out what’s going on in the hi-tech community in Ottawa,” she says.

Pinard is noticing more tech business names appearing on Ottawa office space, as well as job postings and career fairs. “It’s getting harder to hire which is a good indicator. A good Android or iOS app developer gets pretty hard to find.”

Developing and attracting people with the requisite skills is part of the challenge. In Ottawa, colleges and universities have collectively 120,000 students, about 27,000 of which are in science, technology, engineering, and math.

Luc Lalande, executive director of the Entrepreneurship Hub at the University of Ottawa, is working to make Ottawa a destination for innovators by supporting students from all fields in gaining entrepreneurial skills.

“Ottawa is a place that’s always built things. We’ve been doing it for 50-plus years, even preceding Silicon Valley. There are people quietly creating some pretty cool things here,” he says. “We need more of them to think about whether or not they could build a business around their ideas. Celebrating the culture of startups and entrepreneurship is great, but at the end of the day you have to go past that boosterism and get to building real products.”

If we want to take our place as a world-class tech city, what are the main challenges in doing that? Having a more active angel community and more access to venture capital funds are key, says Pinard. “We’ve got L-Spark and Wesley Clover, Invest Ottawa and the universities offering money. It’s not a lot, but at least it’s seed money to get a couple of guys working for two or three months.”

Finkelstein agrees that investment is needed, but says the region’s strengths far outweigh its weaknesses. “I would challenge anyone to find a better city to build a multi-billion-dollar company than Ottawa.”