FedDev Ontario awards Invest Ottawa $16.9M in province-wide scaleup program

Invest Ottawa
Invest Ottawa executives, Ottawa-area Members of Parliament, Mayor Jim Watson and entrepreneur Bree Jamieson-Holloway at the announcement of FedDev Ontario's scaleup program funding. Photo by Craig Lord

Invest Ottawa is teaming up with Ontario’s other economic development agencies to help scale a new generation of companies past $100 million in revenues.

Ottawa’s economic development agency will receive $16.85 million over five years as part of a total of $52.4 million from FedDev Ontario, which will be split with Invest Ottawa’s southern Ontario counterparts, the MaRS Discovery District in Toronto and Communitech in Waterloo.

Aiming to help companies with proven traction take their solutions to global markets, the federal funding comes with a goal of creating 30 new $100-million companies in the province by 2024. Invest Ottawa expects to create 4,000 new jobs in the National Capital Region over that timeframe.

Although there were few specifics about the scaleup program, it is expected to unite the province’s high-potential firms under a common banner and share best practices from Ontario’s economic development agencies. At a launch event hosted at Bayview Yards on Tuesday, Invest Ottawa CEO Michael Tremblay told the crowd of assembled entrepreneurs and dignitaries that the time for intraprovincial competition has come to an end.

“We need to put that to bed. That's an old issue. We need to move forward and keep in mind that we’re competing in global markets,” Tremblay said.

Cooperation over competition

Speaking to Techopia after the presentation, Tremblay reiterated the importance of a global perspective. During a recent trade mission to China, he said the delegation had to pitch Ontario’s regional ecosystem as a whole to get the attention of companies looking to do business in Canada.

“The Maple Leaf is the brand when you're over there,” Tremblay said.

There are numerous areas in which Waterloo and Toronto can share their expertise with Ottawa and vice-versa, Tremblay added. Communitech’s Fierce Founders program, for example, could be a model for Invest Ottawa’s own efforts to support more women-led businesses. From Ottawa’s side, the region’s work in autonomous vehicles and its new test track infrastructure can help southern Ontario firms develop their own technologies.

If it proves successful, Tremblay said he believes the community approach could be an applicable model in other provinces as well.

The program will also give growing companies a sounding board of peers and mentors who have been through the scaleup process. Nick Quain, Invest Ottawa’s vice-president of venture development, said during the funding presentation that he wishes his former firm, CellWand, had access to something like the scaleup program when the communications company was expanding into the United States.

If he had been able to pick the brain of a few CEOs who had successfully made the transition to the U.S. and could share the nuances of business south of the border, Quain said CellWand would’ve have had an easier time. His hope is that Ontario’s scaleups take advantage of the lessons their contemporaries have already learned.

“All of a sudden, you get eight chief marketing officers in a room to talk about how they penetrated their markets,” he said after the presentation.

One Ottawa firm supporting the scaleup initiative is MindBridge AI, an audit software developer that later this year will pass the 100-employee mark. CEO Eli Fathi told Techopia the model Invest Ottawa and its counterparts are championing is reminiscent of the U.S. venture capital fund Andreessen Horowitz, which a decade ago built its reputation on providing companies in its portfolio with the soft skills needed to take their innovative products to market.

“They’ve created Andreessen Horowitz in Ottawa,” he said.

Attracting and developing talent

The principal concern of Fathi and other scaleup companies in Ottawa often comes down to finding the necessary talent to sustain growth. As multinationals such as Google, Amazon and Microsoft descend on Canada’s tech hubs, local firms will need to both look abroad to attract international talent and invest in homegrown skilled workers, Fathi said.

Though Tremblay admitted that “poaching” does happen between companies across Ontario and within Ottawa, he said the focus on building up the ecosystem itself will make the province a more attractive destination for international talent.

Keira Torkko, vice-president of employee experience at rapidly growing Assent Compliance, said that as the software firm races past 350 employees at its Ottawa headquarters, its talent demands are increasingly specialized. Assent requires experts on the European market, for example, and hopes to tap into the scaleup program’s network to find the custom expertise it needs to maintain its momentum.

Some of the new program funding will go directly towards cultivating talent through programs with post-secondary institutions that can help build out the funnel of talent for Ontario firms. In Ottawa, for example, Collège La Cité and Algonquin College will work with Invest Ottawa to develop programs targeting francophone and indigenous entrepreneurs, respectively.

Invest Ottawa vice-president of marketing and communications Sonya Shorey said that while most of the program funding is earmarked to support scaleups themselves, some of the money will go towards new early-stage programming to build out the pipeline of companies that could one day down the road hit that $100-million revenue mark.