‘Nobody’s thinking about Ottawa’: Startup Canada’s Kayla Isabelle on what’s missing in the local tech scene

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Startup Canada CEO Kayla Isabelle weighs on the challenges facing Ottawa's tech sector. (File photo)

Ottawa’s tech industry is, once again, at a crossroads. 

In July, Sacha Gera, CEO of JSI Telecom, wrote in an op-ed for OBJ about how the region has lost dozens of public tech companies and is struggling to attract and retain talent. 

“As the tech scene seemed to gain momentum pre-pandemic, the post-pandemic era now brings uncertainty, urging us to examine the issues that have led to this concerning situation,” he wrote. “A continuous loss of companies can lead to a lack of innovation and competitiveness in the local tech ecosystem. It is crucial for a healthy tech sector to have a balance of mature, established companies that can mentor and support startups, fostering an environment of growth and learning.”

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In a conversation with OBJ last week, Kayla Isabelle, CEO of the Ottawa-based entrepreneurship organization Startup Canada, weighed in on the health of Canada’s tech sector post-pandemic. According to Isabelle, the tech industry in Ottawa must contend with a multitude of challenges, including a lack of brand identity to attract companies and talent, and a need for leadership and a coherent growth strategy. 

Here is part of that conversation. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. 

Q: What can you tell me about the health of the Canadian tech industry as we’re coming out of the pandemic?

There has been a lot of turbulence in the last couple of years. We’ve seen tremendous growth and then we’ve also seen major dips: losing staff, retention, losing talent to different countries even. Folks aren’t even looking at Canada the same way that they may have been, even a year ago. But I will say that there’s been a lot of movement, to collaborate, to reinspire, to find additional leadership and really seize this moment that Canada has to be a leader in the tech and innovation space. There’s so much buy-in from governments, from the private sector, from incubators, accelerators and all the folks in the ecosystem. They see this as a great moment for entrepreneurs. But I think we’re coming from a position of a lot of uncertainty and a lot of exhaustion. 

Q: What are some of the things the industry might be able to leverage going forward to help growth?

There’s so much that we can learn from Waterloo, because they have a very similar structure and story to Ottawa. They had this brand that was an incredible startup turned behemoth and, when it fell apart, the consequence of that was this huge entrepreneurial movement. Folks started new businesses, taking all of that incredible talent and recycling it back into new ideas with brilliant focus behind these businesses. We saw the ecosystem really show up with new incubators and accelerators, really being that soft landing. Waterloo became this huge pool for talent and still to this day is one of the highest-ranked Canadian cities when it comes to tech. 

In Ottawa, we see a similar pattern with, for example, Shopify moving the headquarters and laying off workers. All of the talent that was pulled to Ottawa, to shape that moment, could be recycled back into incredible entrepreneurs. We’re already seeing people laid off from these massive corporations that were doing so much hiring in the last couple of years. Ottawa could have this moment of really providing support to those entrepreneurs with great early stage incubators and formal programs that get started on the right foot. That could really create ripple effects of more entrepreneurial thinking, bringing more talent and bringing more investments. 

Then, on the back of that, probably the biggest challenge for Ottawa is that nobody’s thinking about Ottawa. If you look at the amount of talent and the number of companies we have, we should be punching so much more above our weight. But we’re not perceived as a competitive player in Canada when it comes to housing tech startups. So how do we really shift that brand perception to demonstrate the great success stories, to showcase more than just the Shopifys and put Ottawa on the map? 

Q: What are the challenges and potential directions that we can take to maintain the presence of mature companies in Ottawa?

Ottawa has so many perceived and real barriers for entrepreneurship, but there’s also a hierarchy of needs: housing, transit, vibrancy in a city and feeling connected with people around you, all those essential ingredients. If we don’t have those elements, people will not come. So I think investing in all of those scaffolding elements around Ottawa. We can look to so many other incredible cities that have been able to demonstrate the impact of that in creating entrepreneurial thinking and creativity. Ottawa still has a long way to go in that space.

That’s where you attract larger companies, as well. But we also need to think about the entire ecosystem as a continuum and not spending too much on larger players. If you have a really competitive early stage startup ecosystem and you invest early into it, those will become the Shopifys of tomorrow. I think it’s a balance of investing in spaces where people can connect and share their entrepreneurial ideas. We need more of that in Ottawa and less of the bureaucracy and perceived risk aversion. 

Q: How do you make sure there’s that competitiveness within the industry in a local area?

What you see in places like Whitehorse, Halifax and Calgary is radical collaboration. Every stakeholder in entrepreneurship — that’s the investors, incubators, accelerators, government players at the municipal, provincial and federal level — all of these folks are sitting in the same room and advocating for the same sentiment and growth and looking to a positive future. 

What I see in Ottawa right now is too many conversations running in circles and a lack of leadership saying, “Hey, here’s the concrete direction that we’re all rallying towards. Here are our specific roles and responsibilities in that ecosystem.” There’s really a missing accountability. In other cities, we see these champions who are relentlessly pushing that agenda forward and it’s paid off. In Ottawa, we often get stuck needing the answer to every single detail and planning meticulously. Yes, we need that basic collaboration, but we need a commitment to action and that’s what is holding us back at this moment. People want to see this leadership, but nobody’s really seizing it. 

Q: How have other cities gone about formalizing that process to make that happen?

It’s formal and informal, with a lot of government support, bringing in all of the players that want to see a healthy city. A healthy city benefits the large corporates, the early stage startups, local governments and citizens that have nothing to do with the tech ecosystem. We need to think of it as a true ecosystem and what makes the health of that is a collective responsibility, not just making it one person’s problem. 

A perfect example is Calgary. They had a sort of blank slate space, a parking garage, and decided they could create a really cool coworking space for incubators, for new entrepreneurs, different office spaces, and that has symbolically become this area of collaboration in the tech ecosystem. 

What is the equivalent in Ottawa? Who is creatively trying to create spaces where ideas and people are naturally bumping into each other? We have a fragmented city. Ultimately, it’s almost spiritual, practical in some ways, rallying around an idea and an energy; Ottawa doesn’t have that energy right now.

Q: How optimistic are you about what the industry in Ottawa can do moving forward?

Ottawa has all the ingredients: so many great companies and great leaders. We have the appetite and interest in making it very competitive across Canada and across the world. The disconnect between that and where we can go shouldn’t be too far. We just need the commitment to action and really moving that dial. That’s really a shift that needs to happen, which is arguably one of the easiest things to do. And that’s also what it is to be an entrepreneur. People don’t want to sit around and wait five years for something to happen. Startups, their natural, competitive advantage is speed. If we want to be competitive, we also need to move quickly. 

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