Beyond Blackberry: How Canada is getting its tech groove back

By Oliver Smith 22 February 2016
Toronto Ontario Canada
Toronto, Canada.

The demise of Canada's best-known tech business might not be a bad thing for the country's blossoming technology hub.

It’s the second largest tech ecosystem in North America after California, and the second largest financial services sector after New York, but the region of Ontario in Canada probably isn’t the first place that jumps to mind when you think of leading technology hubs.

But maybe it should be.

The region boasts over 19,000 tech companies, within a population of just 13 million. And, in the same way that London has seen a financial technology (FinTech) scene blossom from it’s expertise in finance and digital business, similar things are starting to happen in Canada.

“When you have the power of that all in one place, some really magical things start happening,” Aaron Rosland tells me.

Rosland is the official representative for the Government of Ontario in the UK, a province of Canada responsible for 40% of the country’s GDP and, as he tells me, a key technology hub in North America.

“My vision is for Ontario as a region to be seen as an incubator for the US market,” he says.

It’s a vision that seems to be taking hold.

Flying to Canada

London-based financial news and information business CityFALCON recently traveled to Toronto, the capital of Ontario, as winners of the Next Big Idea Contest.

Its founder and CEO Ruzbeh Bacha told The Memo: “The Canadian tech scene is in a similar state as the UK – that is, enthusiastic entrepreneurs with risk averse investors.”

CityFALCON is now planning to open its first international office in Canada.

And Rosland says a host of other small UK digital businesses – Axxsys Consulting, Foresight Group, Operis – have gone to Canada to open their first international offices, attracted by the country’s low costs, wealth of talent and crucially, ease of access to the US market.

But, while Canada’s tech scene is starting to blossom, there are two key events which have put a stunted its growth until now and, surprisingly, they both have roots in the same year.

Elephant in the room

2007 was not a great year for the Canadian tech scene.

Firstly it was the moment Blackberry (now known as RIM), a pioneer of the smartphone revolution before the world ‘smartphone’ even existed, lost its way.

Read more: RIP Blackberry, we won’t miss you

The former tech giant from Waterloo, Ontario, came head-to-head with Apple’s iPhone, an existential threat, and one that the company would barely survive.

Blackberry was once a flag-bearer for Canadian technology, but today it’s gone from leader to laggard.

At its peak Blackberry employed some 20,000 staff globally, today that figure has been slashed to just 6,225 with many of those job-losses coming from its headquarters in Canada.

Read more: Blackberry’s turnaround remains a pipe dream

So what impact has Blackberry’s demise had in Ontario?

“I actually get asked this question all the time” Rosland tells me. “But frankly from our perspective it’s been nothing but positive.”

“When Blackberry did encounter some difficulties and released people, it reinvigorated the tech sector. Those people were available to work in some of the newer tech companies, or they used the experience and knowledge they gained at Blackberry to start their own companies.”

There’s also Blackberry’s huge philanthropic efforts, helping to set up institutes and fund departments at the local University of Waterloo.

The university now ranks among the top few universities that Google and Microsoft recruit from around the world.

And today most of Ontario’s 19,000 tech businesses still have some sort of a Blackberry connection, whether through their staff or founders who previously worked there.

So even as Blackberry fades from memory, Rosland is upbeat on the business’s lasting impact, not just on Canada, but on Canadians.

“It really gave us a brand. It put us on the map and made Canadians say: ‘if that can happen, if a company can grow like that, maybe that can happen to my business as well…’

“Blackberry gave us that confidence.”