Op-ed: The next generation of Ottawa’s tech sector is now mainstream

Techopia editor Craig Lord reflects on the past five years of covering Ottawa's tech sector
ottawa tech

When we launched the Techopia project five years ago, it was in recognition that there was something special rising out of the National Capital Region’s struggling tech sector.

The turn of the millennium saw the dot-com bubble burst and the 2008 financial crisis only deepened the woes of the local business community. Ottawa’s homegrown tech giants the likes of Nortel Networks and Cognos were either defunct, acquired or left as shadows of their former selves.

But by 2015, members of Ottawa’s tech sector were starting to whisper in hushed tones about a resurgence in the city – as though open optimism might somehow jinx our chances of success.

The Ottawa Business Journal rejected notions of quiet hopefulness. Instead, we sought to shine a bright light on efforts to reclaim the moniker of Silicon Valley North and report on a new wave of startups fighting to put Ottawa tech back on the map.

With the ongoing support of numerous champions who thought the same way we did, Techopia was born as a spin-off publication to document the next generation of Ottawa tech. OBJ would continue to cover Ottawa’s traditional tech bastions such as telecom, but Techopia would pay special attention to SaaS startups, scrappy makers and entrepreneurs with wild ambition.

This journey has taken us through new waves of technology, from autonomous vehicles to artificial intelligence, and introduced us to the now-familiar faces that loudly proclaim Ottawa as the place to build the next great tech company. Our Techopia Live video series now features more than 150 interviews with local tech executives and startup founders, the most robust library of its kind in Ottawa.

While the capital’s startup scene found new footing and the traditional sectors motored along, the separate coverage strategy made sense. But five years on, it’s clear that the next generation of Ottawa tech has now become the mainstream.

Technology and Techopia together

Over the next few days, you’ll see OBJ’s Technology section phased out and replaced permanently with Techopia coverage. It’s a minor change, and more of an organizational one than anything else, but it reflects a significant evolution in Ottawa’s tech industry.

If you want an example, you need look no further than Shopify. We weren’t the first publication to call the local e-commerce company Ottawa’s tech darling, but we’ve been there to see it rise to both a Canadian and international star.

One of the very first stories we covered from the Techopia lens was Shopify’s $131-million IPO in 2015. The SHOP stock’s $28 debut seems modest when compared to the company’s $725 share price from just this past week – a price that gives Shopify a valuation among the top tech firms in Canada and worldwide.

Shopify has surpassed more than 1,000 employees here in Ottawa with plans for even more as it looks to equip its merchants to go toe-to-toe with Amazon. It’s amazing how much can change in just five years’ time.

But to tie the vitality of Ottawa’s tech sector to one software giant would be foolhardy and inaccurate. To do so would sell short the efforts of Ottawa’s business community in supporting the next generation of startups, and the success of these companies in working and reworking new solutions on the path to scale.

Companies such as MindBridge Ai, BlackBerry QNX and Assent Compliance, which raised Canada’s largest venture capital round of the year in 2018, have earned reputations as leaders in their sectors in just half a decade’s time. Burgeoning tech giants like these are growing and employing new workers every day in Ottawa.

The maturation of the Ottawa startup scene might be reflected most clearly in the founders themselves – not all of them young graduates itching to build the next Shopify. Former Nortel engineers are stepping back into the game with innovative solutions, such as Devashish Paul, CEO of cleantech startup BluWave-ai. The founder behind Equispheres’ breakthrough 3D printing material got his start on the much more traditional side of printing through his family business Dollco.

The strength of Ottawa’s tech scene today is in the merging of both generations. The wisdom of Ottawa tech’s bygone era returns to lead new ventures and to counsel a diverse swath of new entrepreneurs just starting out on their journeys through accelerators such as L-Spark and Invest Ottawa.

In recent months, our editorial team has been faced with a common question: Is this a Techopia story, or a traditional OBJ Technology story? The answers to these questions have become increasingly muddled and, we’re realizing, arbitrary.

The qualities that made a story suitable for Techopia – an exciting new startup, a breakthrough in technology, an entrepreneur’s personal story – are found today throughout Ottawa’s tech sector with little exception.

Techopia began as an endeavour to track the next generation of Ottawa tech through the trials and tribulations of the markets and will continue to do so for years to come. The difference now is an acknowledgement that the next generation isn’t coming – it has arrived.