When I graduated with a bachelor of engineering from McGill in 1987, the best engineering students went to big Canadian companies like Pratt and Whitney, IBM, Nortel, CAE Industries, Dofasco and Alcan. In 1987, our naive impression was that it was those engineering students no one wanted to hire that started their own companies.
In those days, there was little discussion or support for engineering students to take the bold step to become entrepreneurs or founders, to forge their own path.
Fast forward to 2022 and the landscape has completely shifted.
Today, an engineering student who decides to become a founder is heralded as courageous and brave and admired by their classmates. Today, there are many supports in place for entrepreneurship — from mentorship to seed funding to free start-up space, and more.
We have Communitech and the Accelerator Centre in Waterloo, Creative Destruction Labs in Toronto and Vancouver and Volta in Halifax. Across the country we have invested in helping people start companies in an effort to pave the way for innovation and Canada’s economic future.
A recent report, Startup Genome, listed the Waterloo-Toronto Region Corridor as Canada’s leading tech ecosystem, with the highest concentration of AI startups in the world. Nearly half of the venture capital deployed in Canada in 2021 — a record CAD$7.7 billion — went to companies based in the Waterloo-Toronto corridor — now one of the most concentrated tech workforces in North America with 15,000 tech companies and 5,200 tech startups employing over 200,000 workers.
Canada’s investments in the tech entrepreneurship space are paying off and our prominence on the world stage in this sector is growing. We need to keep up the momentum.
It’s as important to mark what we are doing right as it is to critique what’s missing from our strategy, so we can continue to build on it.
One of the reasons for our tech success is attracting and forging a depth and quality of talent in the Waterloo-Toronto corridor that ranks alongside the globe’s elite tech regions. More broadly, Canada continues to attract a steady influx of diverse, ambitious immigrants from across the globe that add significant value to our talent pool.
The University of Waterloo in particular has had outsized success as a University that spawns entrepreneurs. Why?
It has a unique entrepreneurial culture that includes a policy permitting creators to own their ideas. The University was designed to be industry-relevant right from the start, and the diversity of experiences students acquire from multiple co-op opportunities in different sectors brings new ideas back to the University.
This fall, University of Waterloo will also offer a Canadian first: unique Entreprenuerial PhD fellowships to support outstanding business-minded doctoral students who are interested in commercializing their research. This will allow students to enrol in a Master of Business, Entrepreneurship and Technology (MBET) part-time program while completing their PhD in their area of study.
Other Univerisites across the country have similarly had success with directly fostering and embracing tech entrepreneurship in creative ways. We need to continue to encourage and broaden this support to sustain Canada’s startup success.
Mary Wells is the Dean of the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Waterloo.