A generation ago, in the fading months of 2000, Canada’s benchmark TSE 300 Composite Index could be divided into two parts – the stock listing of Nortel Networks and the collective stock listings of everyone else.
The zenith of the dot-com boom had been reached. What Alan Greenspan, then chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve, had famously deemed “irrational exuberance” was about to unravel, fast.
Ottawa served as Ground Zero for the Canadian part of that bust. Big names in telecom like Nortel, JDS Uniphase and Alcatel (having only months before acquired Kanata North company Newbridge Networks), would shed tens of thousands of local jobs over the next couple of years. A legion of promising up-and-comers in the telecom space would shut completely. “Lights out at another photonics company” became a cliched headline for local media.
And yet, through all that, one thing never changed – the National Capital Region retained its decades old pedigree in telecommunications technology and expertise. Many of those displaced workers went on to found new companies and parlay their experience into other emerging technology areas.
Today, more than 540 technology companies of all sizes employ almost 30,000 people in Kanata North, active in verticals as diverse as autonomous vehicles, Software-as-a-Service (SaaS), data applications and services, cloud and edge computing technologies, video technologies, medtech and various IoT technologies. Canadian anchor companies like Mitel and BlackBerry rub shoulders with the local operations of international conglomerates such as Nokia, Cisco and Ericsson.
Despite its diversification, Kanata North remains the hub of telecommunications R&D in Canada. In fact, Kanata North’s telecom pedigree is to some degree responsible for the local tech sector’s diversification, given the enabler role that 5G plays for many of these emerging technology areas.
“It’s the sexy innovative stuff that sits on top of 5G that is what matters – a much broader sphere of innovation than 20 years ago,” said Steve Langford, vice-president of marketing at Wesley Clover. “That makes for a much stronger ecosystem where the entire industry isn’t at the whim of one company.”
Alacrity in Ottawa
It’s against this backdrop that the University of Ottawa and Wesley Clover decided to bring the latter’s Alacrity model to the nation’s capital.
Wesley Clover founded Alacrity in 2009 with its first incubator/accelerator in Victoria BC. Since then, this initiative has expanded and refined its model with chapters around the world. Alacrity Global educates entrepreneurs, founds new technology startups and secures funding to scale these new businesses.
How each chapter functions is somewhat unique. But ultimately, it’s a three-legged stool, with some level of cooperation between local industry, post-secondary institutions and government.
Alacrity Ottawa will be supported by Wesley Clover’s L-SPARK technology accelerator in Kanata North, as well as the uOttawa Faculty of Engineering’s new Master’s degree in Entrepreneurial Engineering Design (MEED) and the university’s Kanata North Campus.
Why did an initiative created by Ottawa’s own Wesley Clover take almost 12 years to find its way here? Veronica Farmer, director of partnerships and commercialization, for uOttawa Kanata North, said it was all about timing and that “the right components were ready.”
Those components? uOttawa Kanata North is now established and building connections between companies, students and academic research teams. L-SPARK has had years to refine and mature its model. Big opportunities are opening up in that laundry list of emerging technology areas listed above.
One of the hottest areas is healthcare technology, thanks to the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Literally overnight, a market vertical that is notoriously averse to change was turned on its ear.
“Medical has been slow on adopting digitization and new technology,” said Leo Lax, CEO and co-founder of Skypoint Capital and executive managing director of L-SPARK. “COVID has changed that – it has turned everything from a nice to have to ‘if I don’t get it immediately, I am in trouble.’ And yet in Canada, medtech is very young, it is still emerging.”
It’s for this reason that Alacrity Ottawa’s initial focus is on medtech innovation. uOttawa and Wesley Clover will educate, train and support engineering graduates with mentorship and investment opportunities meant to foster a pipeline of new Canadian medtech companies.
This September, the uOttawa Faculty of Engineering will launch the first cohort of its new MEED program. As part of Alacrity, MEED students will benefit from academic instruction combined with practical business training and experience in how to develop a business idea and turn it into a company. They will also spend time at the uOttawa Kanata North campus and intern with local tech companies.
Through Alacrity, MEED students can form teams and pitch business ideas related to the medtech space. They will be presented to appropriate investors and if a match is made, a new company will form and begin its journey as a startup.
Given Kanata’s collective expertise in digital connectivity, Lax sees big opportunity in harnessing cloud-computing horsepower and AI for improved patient outcomes, by connecting bio-sensors that monitor a patient’s vitals in a low-latency and secure way.
The Alacrity partners also see other advantages for Ottawa to become a leader in the medtech space – its innovative, research-driven hospitals, and the local presence of federal agencies like Health Canada and the Communications Security Establishment.
While Alacrity Ottawa is launching with this focus on medtech, “as the world continues to shift, we will shift,” Lax said. The focus in a few years could be on drones, or space tech.
“This is about building an innovation village,” he added. “This is about people who want to grow in Kanata, to build a lifestyle that is tech-infused, and that is exciting.”
By Leo Valiquette