'Amazing' talent fuelling Ottawa's tech boom, TiECon panellists say

Moodie Cheikh
Searidge Technologies co-founder Moodie Cheikh was a panellist at opening night of TiECon Canada on Thursday. (File photo)

Executives from a trio of local companies with global customers delivered a straightforward message on opening night at TiECon: Ottawa has the technology ​– and the talent ​– to take on the world.

“We’ve got essentially every sector covered,” Moodie Cheikh, co-founder and CEO of Searidge Technologies, said Thursday night during a panel discussion that kicked off the two-day entrepreneurship conference at Kanata’s Brookstreet Hotel.

“Whenever we’re looking to recruit people, it’s amazing that whatever it is that we need, we can find it here locally.”

Cheikh was joined on stage by two other noteworthy members of the city’s tech community ​– Erin Crowe, the chief financial officer at Kanata-based Martello Technologies, and venture capitalist and serial entrepreneur Mike Weider.

The panellists at the fireside chat moderated by OBJ publisher Michael Curran come from varied backgrounds, but they all agreed that a growing number of companies with global market aspirations have sprouted up in the National Capital Region. A big reason for that, they said, is Ottawa’s pool of highly educated workers.

“Hiring software talent is very, very difficult,” said Weider, who’s been a key player in the local tech scene for more than two decades and is now CEO of medical health IT firm Clearwater Clinical. “Anywhere you are in the world, there’s a massive scarcity. But we have been able to attract some pretty amazing people right here.”

Clearwater makes mobile devices that can detect early signs of hearing loss, allowing general practitioners to conduct tests that traditionally needed to be done by specialists. Its groundbreaking technology was “homegrown” right in the capital, Weider said, calling it a testament to the city’s depth of engineering expertise.

He said the company, which employs about 60 people, earns 80 per cent of its revenues from customers in North America. But Weider expects that ratio to drop to closer to 50 per cent over the next few years, singling out China and India as markets with “huge potential” where there is a severe lack of hearing health specialists to meet the needs of a growing ​– and aging ​– population.

The story is similar at Searidge, which uses video and AI technology to help air traffic controllers monitor aircraft movements.

The company, which is based in south Ottawa and has a headcount of about 60, does business in almost 30 countries and generates 90 per cent of its revenues from foreign clients. Cheikh told the audience he expects Searidge to gain traction in China, India and other Asian markets, where air traffic is projected to soar and hundreds of new terminals are expected to be built in the next decade or so.

“We want to be the leaders enabling how that air traffic operation actually happens in a digitized (format),” he said.

The panellists also cited Ottawa’s maturing investment scene as a driver of tech growth, noting the emergence of locally based VCs such as Mistral Venture Partners and the rising number of firms from Boston, New York and Toronto that are setting their sights on enterprises in the capital.

“We always need more (venture capital), but it is a lot better than it was 20 years ago when I started,” Weider said.

Crowe agreed, saying Martello wouldn’t be where it is today without the early financial backing it received from Terry Matthews and his Wesley Clover investment firm.

“You need people like that to keep developing the city,” she said.

Women making gains

Later on Thursday, an all-female panel weighed in on the state of women in entrepreneurship, telling the crowd that despite making great strides over the past decade, female founders still have to make up a lot of ground.

Michelle Scarborough, a manager at the government-backed Business Development Bank of Canada, manages a $200-million fund aimed at high-growth tech companies led by women. She said that just five out of every 100 Canadian CEOs are women, and of those, only 16 per cent actually started the businesses they run.

But she noted that women are making steady headway, aided partly by programs such as the one she oversees at BDC.

“I think we’ve got a long way to go, but the conditions are absolutely perfect right now to enter the (entrepreneurship) space,” Scarborough said. “Certainly for women, the time has never been better.”

Fellow panellist Peggy Van de Plassche, managing partner of Toronto’s Roar Ventures and a former business owner herself, said women-owned firms are a often sound bet for VCs looking for solid returns.

She cited a 2015 study from Silicon Valley venture capital firm First Round Capital that found that among 300 of its portfolio companies, those with at least one female founder outperformed those with all-male launch teams by 63 per cent.  

“When you say that you invest in a woman, people always tend to think it’s charity,” Van de Plassche said. “It’s not charity – it’s actually good math.”

She also advised women entrepreneurs seeking funding to think strategically when targeting potential investors.

“Doing homework allows you to avoid a lot of nos,” she said.