Ottawa Tech — Will History Point to Possible Futures? — Research Notes


July 5 2022— Tech Tuesday: 75 Years of Ottawa Tech (Yes!), and What Might Lie Ahead

Newbridge Networks “Newbridge 55” circa 1986. Source: Ottawa Citizen — The story of Ottawa’s Newbridge Networks and its picture-perfect timing by James Bagnall

Part 1 (below) will describe three distinct eras characterizing the evolution of the Ottawa tech industry and related spillover effects.

R&D: The bedrock of Ottawa’s tech ascendancy and emergence as “Silicon Valley North” (1948–1994)

Screenshot from YouTube video “BNR — Salute to Originals” — credit: Gordon Rainey
Reference: Brian Baxter. Source: Ottawa Citizen May 21, 1965
Michael Cowpland (left) and Terry Matthews, founders of Mitel, are shown in a 1984 picture. Credit: Ottawa Citizen — The Capital Builders: A who’s who of tech giants who not only survived — but thrived by James Bagnall
Job Ad (1951) Computing Devices of Canada
Earliest reference to Ottawa as “Silicon Valley North” found in Ottawa Citizen (Nov 21, 1980)
Commercial and Industrial Development Corporation of Ottawa-Carleton ad in the Ottawa Citizen (circa 1985)
Source: Ottawa Citizen article “And the Oscar goes to… Ottawa scientists were pioneers in animation technology” (Aug 31, 2018)

Boomtown (1995–2001)

2nd era characterized by a short-lived boom of VC-backed technology startups highlighted by Cisco’s $89.1M (US) acquisition of 40-person Skystone Systems in 1997.

Boomtown Special Report in Ottawa Citizen’s TechWeekly, Sept 24, 2000
Source: Canadian Venture Capital Activity: An Analysis of Trends and Gaps (1996–2002) (PDF)
Source: Ottawa Citizen, “High-tech spawning a very big city”, May 27, 2000
The February 2001 OCRI Technology Executive Breakfast (where Jozef Straus had 400+ attendees don his trademark berets) was a symbolic “high water mark” before the tech implosion.
Besides the OCRI Tech Executive Breakfasts another popular event featuring local tech entrepreneurs was the Hi-Tech Entrepreneurs Association monthly meeting at the National Research Council on Sussex Drive.
Source: Ottawa Citizen, March 19, 2002
Price of JDS Uniphase stock over a period extending from January 1996 to January 2004. A sharp rise in price during the year 1999 is followed by a sharp decline after July 2001
Source: Ottawa Citizen Techweekly, March 3, 2005

Lost Decade and Fresh Founders (2001–2021?)

3rd era characterized by a) the long-term fallout of Nortel’s collapse; b) a slew of acquisitions of once promising local startups (see image below); c) the failure of other regional technology clusters (biotech, photonics, wireless, digital media, cleantech, cybersecurity, etc) to attain global industry prominence and d) a new wave of entrepreneurial venturing decoupled from Ottawa’s historical R&D and telecom industry roots (Shopify generation/Fresh Founders). Another interesting perspective is the significant lack of entrepreneurial venturing following the acquisition of Ottawa-based tech companies by large multinationals (i.e., IBM acquiring Cognos in 2007) and especially following the purchase of Nortel’s remnants by Ericsson, Avaya, Ciena and Genband (2009–2011). Jim Bagnall’s three-part series “Tech’s Vanishing Act” published in the Ottawa Citizen in 2011 offers an excellent analysis of this period.

Source: Ottawa Citizen Techweekly, Aug 28, 2003)
Source: The Ottawa Citizen — The big tech wreck-oning (Dec 29, 2009) by James Bagnall
Ottawa Citizen, TechWeekly, Feb 16, 2006 — Article by Peter Hum
2015 — Shopify CEO Tobi Lütke on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange on his company’s first trading day. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)
Source: Presentation on 75 Years of Ottawa’s Tech Industry — July 5, 2022 at Tech Tuesday

Are we on the cusp of a transitional shift to a 4th era in Ottawa tech?

What will be the principal spillover effects of the historic 2020 Pandemic? Does it represent a “discontinuous transformation” that will fundamentally alter the dynamics of the global innovation ecosystem? What will be the downstream effects of Work-From-Home/Work-From-Anywhere? Will a hybrid work environment and/or distributed workforce change the geography of “place-based” innovation and its effects on local knowledge spillovers? (i.e., “superstar” and “winner-take-most” cities; role of anchor companies/clusters/incubators/science & technology research parks and innovation districts). Will R&D-led innovation (especially business led R&D) which previously played such an instrumental role in establishing Ottawa as a global technology hub again feature prominently in the evolution of Ottawa’s tech industry? Will the “new wealth” play an influential role in diversifying and nurturing the next wave of visionary entrepreneurs and founders?

Computing Devices (circa 1948–49) Source: Ottawa Citizen, Story by Marlene Orton (October 5, 1999)
Backbone Angels is a collective of angel investors co-founded in 2021 by 10 female Shopify leaders. The group will focus on investments in Black, Indigenous, and Women of Colour-led companies.

Part 2 — Critical discussion regarding the history, current status and future outlook of the city’s tech industry (30min)

How does Ottawa stack up?

There seems to be two divergent perspectives on where Ottawa presently stacks up with regards to the tech industry’s competitiveness and relative standing as a global technology hub. On the one side, there is a view that Ottawa had its “moment” and is no longer regarded as the country’s high tech epicenter (aka, Silicon Valley North) falling behind relative to urban centers such as Toronto-Waterloo, Montreal and Vancouver. On the other, there is a perspective that Ottawa/Kanata is experiencing a renaissance fueled by the ingenuity of a new generation of tech entrepreneurs and investment attraction in key technology sectors (i.e., autonomous vehicles, next generation networking equipment, 5G wireless infrastructure equipment, medical devices, precision agriculture, etc).

What do the data reveal? More significantly, which tech sector health indicators should we be devoting more attention to? Which ones are the most significant and insightful in terms of understanding how the Ottawa tech sector really stacks up?

Source: TechCrunch — Canada’s startup market booms alongside hot global VC investment (July 22, 2021)
Source: 2016, 2006 Canadian Census as reported by the Brookfield Institute “Who Are Canada’s Tech Workers?” (Jan 2019)
Source: Ottawa Citizen — Jim Bagnall (Feb 06, 2021)
Published by the Ottawa Business Journal Feb 14, 2011
2019 Venture Capital in Canada. Source:
2021 Snapshot of VC in Top 10 Canadian Cities. Source: CVCA 2021 VC & Private Equity Year in Review
Source: Bloomberg — IPOs at 15-year high in Canada with tech industry coming of age (Apr 1, 2021)

Tech-based Economic development initiatives led by local government and partners:

Photo excerpt. Innovation Ottawa: A Strategy for Sustaining Economic Generators (2002)
Source: Ottawa Citizen, May 31, 2000

Engagement by Local Post-Secondary Institutions

Higher Education Institutions efforts to stimulate regional innovation such as the National Capital Institute of Telecommunications (NCIT — dubbed “MIT of the North”) in 1999–2000;

Source: The Ottawa Citizen High Tech Report, November 15, 1999

Carleton University

Campus-based entrepreneurship, innovation and research commercialization initiatives including: Celtic House Student Technology Venture Challenge, Foundry Program, Lead to Win, Hatch, Innovation Hub; Notable research groups with significant commercialization successes: Object Oriented Research Group (School of Computer Science), Department of Electronics, and Department of Systems and Computer Engineering.

University of Ottawa

Entrepreneurship Hub, Startup Garage, Simon Nehme Summer Entrepreneurship School, Entrepreneurial Ideas/Concepts competitions, Maker Launch, Entrepreneurship Co-op, Centre for Entrepreneurship and Engineering Design, Enactus. University of Ottawa Kanata North campus (launched 2019); Alacrity Ottawa chapter (Univ of Ottawa and Wesley Clover (2021). Notable spin-offs: World Heart Corporation, Liponex, Turnstone Biologics, Privacy Analytics, Spectalis, Sensor Cortek, DNA Genotek, Spyderwort and PanThera.



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