Why talent is Canada’s most valuable resource — and why we need to work to keep it here

Why talent is Canada’s most valuable resource — and why we need to work to keep it here
The importance of intellectual property in Canada’s economy has been front and centre since the collapse of Nortel Networks and the sale of its 6,000 patents in 2011. The loss of this valuable resource rightfully led many to question our ability to commercialize and scale companies if the innovation sector didn’t place a premium on anchoring IP rights here.

So it was with intense interest this week that I read the Expert Panel on Intellectual Property’s , calling for better commercialization of IP.

It’s critical to develop the best principles, policies and education possible to keep Canadian intellectual property in Canada, as the panel suggests, and we welcome new initiatives on this front. But in order to keep it here, we need to create value from it here, and we can’t do that without locking up the talent.

“Canada has been a resource economy for its entire existence,” says Frank Rudzicz, a faculty member at the Vector Institute. “Now, our most valuable resource is our intellectual capacity. We need talented people to make the initial discoveries, of course, but we also need talented people to refine and productionize those discoveries here.”

After decades of losing Canadians and talented immigrants, we’re finally closing the talent gap. We’re winning back tech workers and attracting academics from around the world through programs run by organizations such as CIFAR and the Vector Institute.

IP strategy is mandatory, but not an entirely sufficient condition by itself in building global tech companies based in Ontario. Investing into a connected ecosystem that builds and retains talent is at least as important in the commercialization equation.

Even if we want to win with IP, we can’t do it without top talent. If most of our potential hires graduate and head down to Silicon Valley or Boston before getting a chance to work here, we’ve already lost. Scaling companies need people to grow.

It’s become almost an article of faith to say that high-quality jobs and tax revenue vanish with lost IP. That has been true in the past, but while we would certainly rather see Canadian companies retain control of all the IP they can, our inability to outbid the world is hardly constrained to one asset class.

Meanwhile, despite IP leakage, Canadian tech workers are awash in opportunity. In recent days, domestic and multinational tech companies have announced a binge of spending on talent – Amazon, Shopify and others want thousands of workers in Vancouver. Google intends to make 5,000 hires and build new offices in three cities. Ceridian needs 2,000 people across the country. This trend is non-stop in Toronto, where talent acquisition has over the past five years.

Is Canada just building a branch-plant tech economy? Our dollar is certainly a factor. But pay is rising fast and the hiring continues unabated. The jobs haven’t vanished. Because talent doesn’t just follow the IP, or the money. It goes where it can associate with other top talent and it goes where it’s easiest to go – especially in tech, where digital tools so easily untether staff from headquarters. Whatever other factors have created this red-hot tech scene – federal money, university research, a growing VC community, new business models, wage competitiveness – talent now finds Canada desirable and attainable, especially when compared to the United States.

Take the political climate. The U.S. has kneecapped itself with restrictive visa policies and statements that tell workers with rare tech skills they’re not wanted. But diversity is welcomed in Canada, and the Global Talent Stream program is expediting these same people’s ability to work here. Companies are moving or opening offices to take advantage. Every time Donald Trump tweets about countries he doesn’t want immigration from, we get another infusion of talent. This won’t be quickly be forgotten after the next change in government there.

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Or take the social climate. Canada offers North America’s three most livable cities (Calgary, Vancouver and Toronto), according The Economist. We have advantages over the U.S. in health care, social infrastructure, transit. Little wonder so many people choose Canada.

Yes, we want to do better at retaining IP, and we look forward to working with the province to support new initiatives. We also wish we had more large, successful Canadian companies buying up patents and contracts and reversing our historic deficit.

But to create a tech ecosystem with critical mass, we also need to retain and attract more talent to anchor our IP, commercialize it quickly and build those large, successful companies. In Canada today, talent is the new IP. If we keep attracting and retaining talent at our current pace, good things will follow.
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