Exploring Technology Innovation in Canada

Commentators have long criticized Canada’s inability to scale high-tech companies to world-class size. Although Canada has created an ecosystem that produces many startups, few of these companies grow to become Unicorns. Certainly, we have had world-leading companies such as Blackberry and Open Text, and more recently Unicorns such as HootSuite and Kik Interactive. But most of our successful startups are sold before they reach world-class size. Overcoming this growth hurdle is crucial to positioning Canadian companies favourably in global markets.

The Impact Centre is conducting research in order to discover the underlying factors that are inhibiting our ability to create world-class technology companies. Our objective is to understand how we can improve and how governments, companies, and academia can identify and adopt best practices in technology commercialization.

The Myth of the Better Mousetrap

If we are to stem the slow erosion of our innovation capabilities, then we must look to new opportunities to provide support to the innovation economy.

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Canadian Venture Capital Sufficiency

In Canada, access to venture capital (VC) is cited as a persistent barrier to the creation of world-class firms, prompting the development of programs and funds to overcome it. Policy is operating under the assumption that availability of VC funding is as much a problem today as it was years ago. But what is the current state of VC funds in Canada? Is there a gap? If so, why?

To help us answer these questions, we took a closer look at: the availability of VC funding in Canada in international comparison; the sources and availability of funds by VC stage within Canada; the structure of the Canadian VC system; and the sources of VC flowing into Canada’s leading tech companies.
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The Narwhal Project

Three years ago, we at the Impact Centre initiated the Narwhal Project to conduct research to discover the root causes of Canada’s challenges in creating a world-leading innovation economy. We thought it would be useful at this juncture to summarize our findings. This report highlights some of the issues we have identified.

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Entrepreneurship and Innovation Education at Canadian Universities

In this report, we have looked at Canadian undergraduate education in innovation and entrepreneurship in order to determine whether it is targeted at those students who have the greatest potential for starting tech companies.

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The Path to IPO

Over the last four years, there have been substantial changes in IPOs in the software world. Firms tend to wait longer to go public, while raising larger late-stage private rounds and eventually experiencing high public market valuations. We wanted to take a closer look at this trend with the objective to gain some insights into current practices. To that end, we looked at the results of 58 software companies that have gone public in the US since 2013.

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Tech Founder Education

Startups succeed because of their founders, but what makes a successful founder? We wanted to find out what backgrounds founders were bringing to their companies, so we undertook research to determine the educational backgrounds of founders of over 300 technology companies. 

Specifically we were looking to understand:  What undergraduate degrees are entrepreneurs graduating from? Who goes to graduate school? Who gets an MBA? Where are the founders educated? Which professors are startup founders? Who starts companies together? What are the gender and the age of tech founders?

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The Narwhal List 2019

We’ve updated the Narwhal List and released a new report for 2019. Canada’s tech community continues to make progress but we haven’t created a new Unicorn since 2015. The technology sector has doubled the number of companies that are on track to become Unicorns but the healthcare sector continues its slow decline.

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Physical Technologies – Part 2

This report is the result of a forum held in February 2018 on the challenges that companies in the physical technologies face in commercialization. Forum participants had a robust discussion around the challenges outlined in our previous report on Physical Technologies and identified a number of other commercialization hurdles, including weak institutional support, knowledge and information gaps, lack of prototyping facilities and short run manufacturing, among other issues.

Participants offered a range of creative solutions to these and other challenges. What emerged from these discussions is summarized in the remainder of the report. One potential path to overcome some of the barriers holding back entrepreneurs and innovators is the creation of small local clusters focused on individual physical technologies. 

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A Delicate Balance

Effective intergovernmental coordination in research and innovation funding has been a persistent challenge in Canada. The dizzying mix of initiatives for research and innovation at both levels has also contributed to the coordination challenge, which has resulted in a patchwork of programs and co-matching requirements. Researchers and innovators are left to navigate a complex system of supports, seeking opportunities to help cover R&D costs.

The purpose of this paper is to serve as a starting point in the conversation on federal-provincial/territorial coordination and to raise questions that should be considered as part of the path forward.

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The Land of Stranded Pilots

This report examines the shape of the health technology industry in Canada with a focus on three specific questions: Does Canada actually have a problem with health tech commercialization? If so, how extensive is that problem? And what is causing it?

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The Class of 2008

Our objective for this report was to analyze the ten-year trajectory of tech companies launched in 2008 in select jurisdictions around the world. We looked in detail at 983 companies created in 2008 in Canada, the US, France, Germany, and the UK.

The analysis shows some progress we are making and points out some areas of concern. The average funding received by Canadian companies in the last ten years ($15.5M) is in second place behind the US ($25.2M). Canada is strongest in funding technology companies including software, hardware and mobile, but is lagging the US in the number of health tech companies created and our average funding per company is weak.

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Canadian Tech Companies Get an ‘A’ for Effort in Social Media

In this study, we sought to examine sales and marketing activities of Canadian tech firms by looking at social media practices relative to companies in other regions around the world. Our sample population consisted of 113 randomly selected internet software businesses in five jurisdictions: Canada, California, New York, Massachusetts, and the United Kingdom.

In order to gauge Canada’s efforts and success in social media, we ranked Canadian tech companies relative to other regions using activities on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and blogging. Overall, we rank first in effort (as gauged by activity) but unfortunately, only fourth in results, or ability to generate engagement with followers and other observers

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Measuring Canada’s Scaleup Potential

There seems to be a shift away from focusing on startups to focus on those companies in Canada that are scaling. This appears to have been predicated on the premise that Canada has become good at starting companies but is challenged at scaling them to world-class size. This Impact Brief has been designed to develop a framework to measure Canada’s startup and scaleup rate in the technology sector.

What we found is that we still lag many of the US states including Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Georgia and particularly Massachusetts, New York, and California at both starting and scaling companies. We hold our own, however, when compared to Europe.

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Creating World-Class Companies

One reason that Canadian companies fail to become world-class is that we aren’t starting the right types of companies. The world’s leading research-intensive companies operate in four major markets: life sciences, automotive, hardware and electronics, and software. And almost all of the leading companies in these fields serve either consumers or a combination of consumers and businesses.

But Canada is not known for its ability to create and grow companies that serve consumers. If we want to create world-class companies we need to create them in world-class markets and these are predominantly consumer markets.

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The Narwhal List 2018

We’re pleased to release our second annual tabulation of the Narwhal List, a celebration of Canada’s leading private technology companies.

2017 was a remarkable year for Canadian Narwhals. We are continuing to build on our success at creating startups and now are beginning to show results at scaling our startups to world class.

  • Three of the companies from last year’s list went public.
  • One was sold, but the good news is that we did not lose it to a foreign buyer.
  • Compared to last year, we have almost doubled the number of firms that are on track to become Unicorns in the near future.

29 firms of the 50 firms on the list raised a total of $1.2 billion for an average round of $41 million per company, with 20 of these firms newly added to the list. This new group raised enough funds to replace a large swath of incumbent Narwhals from last year.

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Physical Technologies

In a prior report on patenting we identified that Canada has a significant problem in that it frequently doesn’t commercialize its own inventions. In this report, we wanted to look at whether part of that problem might be due to a lack of government support particularly in the area of Physical Technologies.

Physical Technologies are distinct from other types of technology because of their long and complex commercialization path. And yet there are no government programs that support the early-stage physical technology commercialization without requiring some external matching of funding.

However without market validation, which you can’t get in Physical Technologies without a significant investment to prove out the value proposition, venture capitalists and other investors will not provide that external funding. Without their support, no matching funds are available so it is often easier just to license the technology to a third party who can afford the investment.

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Great Expectations

In several prior reports we looked at the impact that smaller VC deal sizes has on the slower growth of Canadian companies and on the availability of late stage capital. For this report, we wanted to look at whether smaller deal sizes may be as a result of any action that entrepreneurs themselves are taking.

To do this we looked in detail at 35 companies seeking financing. What we found that their forecasts expected, on average, a 160% compound annual growth rate in revenue. While aggressive, this in itself is not an issue. Their other expectations though are problematic in that they expect to achieve these results with very little capital while recording profits of 34% of revenue.

Clearly these expectations are phantasmagorical and problematic as their requests for capital would, under any scenario, be insufficient to propel growth at these rates. What we concluded was that as a result of seeking too little capital, entrepreneurs may be inhibiting their own growth and thus contributing to our challenge at scaling companies.

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The Rich Get Richer

Canadian VC deal sizes continue to lag those in other countries and at the same time, the returns of Canadian VCs also lag American VC returns. Canadian VCs made a strategic decision to invest the way they did as they could just as easily have chosen to invest twice as much in half as many companies. This begs the question; does the smaller deal size result in smaller returns?

To figure that out we looked at the results of 587 US companies and 131 Canadian ones. What we found was that the more funding a company has, the faster it grows and the faster a company grows, the more funding it can get.  This seems to be one reason why Silicon Valley based companies, who have the greatest levels of funding out-perform the rest of the US and why the US outperforms Canada.

We believe that Canadian VCs are inadvertently limiting their own returns. They are making strategic decisions to finance companies later, less frequently, and with less money than companies in the US, thus potentially generating low returns.

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Government Venture Capital

If Canada’s problem now is our ability to create large, public and industry leading world-class companies, then we thought it would be worthwhile to examine the ability of BDC’s venture capital division and MaRS Investment Accelerator Fund to pick and nurture world-class companies.  What we found was that while they are effective at picking successful companies, they both lack the requisite funding at early, mid and late stages to turn these investees into world-class companies.

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The CMO Search

The goal of our current study was to examine and compare the quality of marketing leadership in Canadian and American tech companies. On the whole, we found that Canadian-based marketing leaders are less qualified and less experienced than their American counterparts but what worried us most about our findings was domestic brain drain. With foreign firms taking our best talent, and Canadian firms conducting marketing out of U.S. offices and being sold before they flourish, we have a severe problem. We are not developing a local talent base that will enable us to solve the marketing challenges our firms face. This has implications for public policy and the development of support programs aimed at accelerating the growth of Canadian companies.

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Canada’s Patent Puzzle

The prevalent Canadian narrative is that as a country, we struggle to compete in the global innovation economy. One metric that is often cited as proof of this is the number of patents we are granted in comparison with other advanced countries. In this Brief, we have looked more closely at Canada’s performance in the numbers of patents granted.

What we found isn’t that we have a problem securing patents, it’s that we have a problem with the commercialization of them. Canada’s success in obtaining patent grants in the US has improved by 143% over the last ten years. The number of patents with one or more Canadian inventors climbed to 8,903 patents in 2015, placing us eighth on a per GDP basis against competitor countries in 2015.

However, of the patents granted to Canadian inventors by the US Patent Office in 2016, 58% were assigned to companies domiciled in other countries. This is up from 45% in 2005. This means that Canada earns a return through commercialization for less than half of the patents granted in the US to Canadian inventors.

Patenting is an international, not a local activity; and the nuances of the process must be considered before the numbers are aggregated into a single indicator for the purpose of policy making.

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Canadian Tech Tortoises

Anecdotal evidence suggests that many Canadian technology companies wait until their products are completed before raising and spending funds on crucial functions, including marketing and sales (M&S) and that this practice is delaying success in raising funding.

The goal of this study was to determine whether Canadian technology startups do in fact delay funding M&S activities. To this end, we looked at job classifications of employees at over 900 private Canadian technology companies that had received external investments. What we found was that in the startup phase Canadian firms have significantly fewer employees in marketing and sales than US firms do. Even among the best-funded firms, Canadians have 25% fewer M&S employees than US based Unicorns do.

Read the full report here!

The Narwhal List

In order to provide a tool to enable entrepreneurs and investors to gauge how attractive firms are from a financial standpoint, we are pleased to introduce a way to measure Financial Velocity. Financial Velocity is defined here as the amount of funding a firm has raised divided by the number of years it has been in existence. It is expressed in millions of dollars per year. This measure reports the rate at which companies raise and consume capital.

We have assembled a list of the top Canadian businesses based on Financial Velocity and are pleased to introduce the Narwhal List. This list shows Canadian venture capital backed companies with the highest Financial Velocity.

A Failure to Scale

This study reveals three critical issues:

1. Canadian companies wait longer before they start raising funds.
2. They raise funds less often.
3. They raise less money over time.

And as a result of this pattern, even our best companies are not particularly attractive to investors as their growth rates fall well below that of the most successful US companies.

A Nation of Soft Sellers

Our success as an “Innovation Nation” depends not only on our ability to come up with novel ideas or inventions but also on our ability to market and sell those ideas. Unfortunately there is a striking difference in the spending behaviour of Canadian and American on marketing and sales (M&S). While mid-sized US software companies spend, on average, 34% of their revenue on M&S, comparable Canadian firms only allocate 20% of their budgets to those expenditures.

Canada’s Venture Capital Puzzle

The lack of venture capital in Canada has been denounced consistently in studies and think tank reports, and by the media, entrepreneurs, and even venture capitalists themselves. But while the general consensus is that Canada does not have enough venture capital, we somehow manage to rank #4 in the sale of technology companies.
How can we have too little venture capital funding but be so successful at selling companies? The answer lies in how we are funding companies and what stages we are able to fund.

Similarities in Canadian and American corporate innovation cultures

While many commentators claim that Canada lags behind the United States in its ability to innovate, we found no evidence of this in our recent study on corporate culture. While these results may appear inconsequential, they allow us to eliminate a potential cause of Canadian innovation problems by highlighting the similarities in the Canadian and American beliefs about a culture of innovation.

Canadian Business Spending on R&D Isn’t as Low as We Think

Business expenditures on research and development have been under-reported by Statistics Canada for almost 20 years. While many reports bemoan Canada’s lack of spending on Innovation compared with the OECD, we haven’t been using the same definition of R&D and this has caused it to be under-reported.

Is Canada too quick to replace Founder CEOs with Professional CEOs?

The Impact Centre’s latest study has determined that Founder CEOs outperform Professional CEOs in both Unicorns and venture-backed Canadian companies. But in Canada we are 2.6 times more likely to replace a Founder CEO with a Professional CEO.

Canadians lag Americans in their attitudes to innovation

Our recent study on attitudes towards innovation found that there are 29% more Americans than Canadians who have a strongly positive attitude towards innovation. Americans outscore us in almost every dimension of attitudes towards innovation, among managers and employees, men and women, and among all age groups.

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