Why Canada has more to offer beyond the Blackberry legacy

UK Canadian High Commission Counsellor Aaron Rosland explains Ontario's appeal as a North American growth hub.

When people think about technology companies in Ontario, Canada, they often think of Blackberry. Blackberry was a pioneer of the “smartphone” before the concept was fully understood. Many people will undoubtedly have read about the recent challenges Blackberry’s business has faced. However, its current struggles of must not detract from a company that has contributed a legacy and spirit that is alive and well in Ontario.

The province of Ontario, Canada, where Blackberry started and is still headquartered, now boasts over 20,000 technology companies. In North America, it is 2nd only to California in the number of technology companies, a huge achievement for a region with less than half the population.  

So much of this success is due to intentional or coincidental effects of Blackberry. Many Ontario companies have benefitted from funds started or inspired by the company’s founders. The University of Waterloo, which is ranked among the best globally for training tech talent and whose graduates are being scooped up by the likes of Microsoft and Google, has received extensive support from Blackberry. Much of the Ontario tech talent driving the explosive growth of the next generation of tech companies are alumni of Blackberry.

Therefore the Ontario tech ecosystem is both indebted to and moving beyond Blackberry. However, like in all great tech ecosystems, the next generation of Ontario companies struggle with the problem of “scaling up”. “Ontario is great at starting companies, but scaling up is the challenge”, according to Bilal Khan, Executive Director of the OneEleven Accelerator in Toronto. OneEleven is an initiative of OMERS, one of Canada’s pension plans, and is a key part of Ontario’s next generation tech growth. It is specifically focused on scaling companies valued at $1-5 million to become companies valued at $5-15 million.  OneEleven helps Ontario companies bridge the globally experienced gap between small and significant scale. While Ontario has stealthily become a serious global player in the start-up tech scene, initiatives like this will amplify its continued growth.

“Like the UK,” Bilal notes, “Ontario is approaching a really exciting time; we’re on the threshold of repeat entrepreneurship. This has the effect of ‘de-risking’ a large ecosystem with entrepreneurs now creating companies less for financial rewards, but more to show the world that they’re building something significant.” Such confidence has been buoyed by Ontario success stories like Shopify, Kik, D2L, and Thalmic Labs, which are either valued at a billion dollars or well on their way.  In fact, Shopify, an e-commerce company became the first Internet start-up since the dot com crash to achieve unicorn status (billion dollar valuation).

While Ontario is breeding domestic success stories, many sharp-eyed global companies are also using Ontario as a hub for their North American expansion. I was recently on a panel with Irene Graham, head of the UK Scale Up Institute, who noted that, “It’s about making scale up companies understand that knowledge and support is ultimately more important than capital.” This is what over 200 UK companies of various sizes and sectors such as First Derivatives, Axxsys Consulting, Operis, Alexander Dennis have recognised. They have view Ontario is a location that will help them incubate their business for North America. They have understood that Ontario’s vibrant economy can benefit them. It’s liberal, progressive and equal culture is similar to the UK’s, its relationship-based business culture helps them overcome challenges, and the $2 million/minute Canada-USA trade relationship gives them unfettered access to new markets. Many are also unlocking taking advantage of the extensive business growth programs and pathways that have driven the expansion of Ontario’s burgeoning tech sector.

As the Diplomatic Representative of the Government of Ontario to the UK, I offer that personal support and knowledge referred to by Irene Graham. I work with UK companies looking to expand internationally, enabling them to do business in Ontario. Equipped with my own international expansion experience, connections and understanding of Ontario’s ecosystem, I am their trusted guide, mentor and facilitator.  

If you’ve only heard about Ontario in relation to business struggles of Blackberry, you’ve definitely missed out. Ontario’s economy is thriving and its companies are building on and benefiting from Blackberry’s vibrant legacy and spirit.

Aaron Rosland is a Counsellor (Commercial) at the Canadian High Commission, UK.

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda was Editor for GrowthBusiness.co.uk from 2016 to 2018.