#BCTECH: funding and strategy

Yesterday, Jan. 18, 2016, British Columbia’s premier, Christy Clark ,announced the second and third pillars of the #BCTECH strategy:  talent and markets [ETA Jan. 21, 2016: the announcement was made at the #BCTECH Summit, Jan. 18 – 19, 2016]. It was one of a series of announcements about the province’s interest and investment in technology under the #BCTECH banner. The first announcement (first pillar) was the $100M BC Tech Fund in December 2015. Before moving on to pillars two and three, here’s a BC Technology Industry Association (BCTIA) Dec. 8, 2015 news release about the fund,

The Province of British Columbia is creating a $100-million venture capital fund as it builds the foundation for a comprehensive technology strategy aimed at stimulating growth in the fast-moving sector, creating jobs and strengthening a diverse economy.

Premier Christy Clark today announced the new BC Tech Fund as part of the first of three economy-building pillars in the B.C. government’s multi-year #BCTECH Strategy that will drive growth and job creation in the multi-billion dollar tech sector.

“B.C.’s technology sector is consistently growing faster than the overall economy making this the perfect time to catch the wave and help smaller companies join in the ranks of economy builders,” said Premier Clark. “With this fund we’re creating a stronger foundation for B.C.’s technology sector, which is a major employer in communities across the province, to shine on the global stage while creating well-paying jobs back at home for British Columbians.”

The BC Tech Fund will help promising tech companies in B.C.’s tech sector by creating an avenue for capital funding, enabling them to take the next step towards joining the ranks of other job-creating tech companies.

The new fund will also help develop a sustainable venture capital system in the province, building on the success of the B.C. Renaissance Capital Fund (BCRCF), the province’s well developed Angel investment community, and responding to current funding needs.

Capital is one of three pillars in the forthcoming #BCTECH Strategy. This first pillar, announced today, also includes continuing to support B.C.’s competitive tax system and research environment.

The remaining two pillars, talent and markets, include actions to deepen the B.C. technology talent pool by developing and attracting the highest quality talent, and actions to make it easier to access new markets. The complete #BCTECH Strategy will be announced in January.

The BC Tech Fund will be in operation in 2016 following an open procurement process to secure a private sector fund manager to administer it. [emphasis mine] The process for identifying a fund manager begins today with a posting for a Negotiated Request for Proposal (NRFP).

B.C.’s technology sector, a key pillar of the BC Jobs Plan, is consistently growing faster than the economy overall. Its continued growth is integral to diversifying the Province’s economy, strengthening B.C.’s business landscape, and creating jobs in B.C. communities. The BC Jobs Plan builds on the strengths of B.C.’s key sectors and its educated and skilled workforce, keeping the province diverse, strong and growing.

In partnership with the BC Innovation Council, the province is hosting B.C.’s first #BCTECH Summit, Jan. 18-19, 2016, where the #BCTECH Strategy will be released in full. The summit will showcase our tech industry and offer opportunities to connect to this growing sector. To register or learn more, go to: http://bctechsummit.ca/

Quotes:

Amrik Virk, Minister of Technology, Innovation and Citizens’ Services –

“We’ve seen phenomenal growth in the technology sector in recent years. The B.C. Tech Strategy will further increase that growth by giving early-stage companies greater access to the venture capital they need to start off their business on the right footing. The access to capital is the boost entrepreneurs need to build their companies, commercialize and create high-paying, skilled jobs.”

Teresa Wat, Minister of International Trade and Minister Responsible for Asia Pacific Strategy and Multiculturalism –

“Venture capital is a critical building block to stimulating innovative ideas in the marketplace and this new fund reflects our commitment to creating an investment environment that stimulates new economic growth.”

Shirley Bond, Minister of Jobs, Tourism and Skills Training and Responsible for Labour –

“The technology sector is one of eight key sectors identified in the BC Jobs Plan and it is a crucial job creator, supporting innovation and productivity across all industries. All British Columbians stand to benefit from the sector fulfilling its potential.”

Greg Peet, chair, Premier’s Technology Council –

“Government gained a better understanding of what was needed to support growth of the technology sector by speaking with its leaders and influencers. Putting those needs into action has resulted in a strategy that provides promising tech companies with access to the capital they need, and reaffirms government’s commitment to help researchers and innovators succeed in building world class new businesses that create high paying jobs in B.C.”

Bill Tam, president and CEO of the BC Technology Industry Association –

“B.C. is already home to an amazing technology sector, and today’s announcement provides needed support for business development and growth. Government’s venture capital investment is a great start in terms of helping companies expand, and will solidify what many already know: B.C. is the best place to grow a tech company.”

Igor Faletski, chief executive officer, co-founder, Mobify –

“Increasing access to venture capital in British Columbia will be a major boost to many growing technology companies here. At Mobify we know from personal experience how useful early stage programs like the BC Venture Acceleration Program are to startups. The $100 million investment by the B.C. government into the BC Tech Fund will help our companies grow and achieve global leadership even faster.”

Mike Woollatt, chief executive officer, Canadian Venture Capital and Private Equity Association –

“Like B.C., governments around the world recognize that being a strong partner of the venture community reaps rewards for the economy and productivity. This new venture capital fund will be a source of innovations and jobs.”

Paris Gaudet, executive director, Innovation Island –

“Working closely with tech startups delivering the Venture Acceleration Program, I know how venture capital significantly increases a company’s chance of success. That is why I’m thrilled about this announcement as it will propel growth, increase jobs in the tech sector, and expand the number of opportunities available to entrepreneurs.”

Yesterday’s (Jan. 18, 2016) announcement focused largely on the other two pillars of the #BCTECH Strategy, although remarkably few details about any of these pillars have been shared.

Technical briefing or stonewalling?

Four BC government officials were answering questions at the technical briefing but not of them wanted (or was allowed?) to be identified as a specific source for information (i.e., quoted). Since they didn’t have much information to give, it wasn’t much of a problem. Here are the names of the four BC government officials: Bobbi Plecas, Associate Deputy Minister, Corporate Inititiatives; John Jacobson, Deputy Minister, Technology, Innovation, and Citizens’ Services; Shannon Baskerville, Deputy Minister, Deputy Minister’s Office; and Bindi Sawchuk, Executive Director, Investment Capital (job titles are from the BC Government online directory as of Jan. 18, 2016).

Let’s start with the money.  Apparently, the $100M fund will be ‘evergreen’ (somehow the money that goes out will be replenished) but no real details were offered as to how that might be achieved. Perhaps they’re hoping for a ‘return on investment’? They weren’t clear. Also, this fund will be in existence for 15 years. No reason was given for the fund’s end date. The government did consult with industry and the $100M amount was considered the optimal size for the fund, not big enough to scare away private investment but enough to ensure adequate government capitalization. Apparently, the plan is to start disbursing funds in 2016 (?) but they have yet to “secure a private sector fund manager to administer it.”

The second pillar is talent. The BC government is trying to make it easier for companies to bring talent from elsewhere (immigrants) while training more people here. No mention was made of the Syrian refugees currently settling here (other jurisdictions such as the UK and Germany, in their distinctive ways, are extending a special welcome to Syrian scientists as I noted in a Dec. 22, 2015 posting). [ETA Jan. 21, 2016: Arizona State University (US) has established an education fund for Syrian refugee students who want to complete their undergraduate or graduate programmes as per a Dec. 31, 2015 posting on the 2020 Science blog.]

Back to talent and training here, the government wants to embed  computer coding into the education system for K-12 (kindergarten to grade 12). One determined reporter (Canadian Press if memory serves) attempted to find out how much this would cost. No answer was forthcoming although there were many words expended. Whether this failure was due to ignorance (disturbing!) or a reluctance to share (also disturbing!) was impossible to tell. Another reporter (Georgia Straight) asked about equipment (coding can be taught with pen and paper but hardware is better). It seems the BC school system is beginning to resemble school systems in the US where districts with parents who can afford to fundraise have an advantage over other districts. Getting back to the reporter’s question, no answer was forthcoming although the speaker was loquacious.

Another reporter asked if the government had found any jurisdictions doing anything similar regarding computer coding. It seems they did consider other jurisdictions although it was claimed that BC is the first to strike out in this direction. Oddly, no one mentioned Estonia, known in some circles as E-stonia, where the entire school system was online by the late 1990s in an initiative known as the ‘Tiger Leap Foundation’ which also supported computer coding classes in secondary school (there’s more in Tim Mansel’s May 16, 2013 article about Estonia’s then latest initiative to embed computer coding into grade school.) There was a review of various countries’ efforts in a March 31, 2012 article for the Guardian; notice what they had to say about South Korea and there’s a more recent and brief mention of the international situation in an Aug. 31, 2015 article on CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) news online.

Returning yet again to the #BCTECH Strategy, there was a question about BC teachers being able to teach coding (I think it was Canadian Press again). It doesn’t seem the government has thought that aspect through. The speaker who answered most of these questions talked about the coding camps (another initiative with trainers who have specific skill sets [?]) and also noted there would be professional days to help BC teachers figure how to teach coding in the regular classes. No details were given as to how much training and support the teachers would receive. By contrast, the Estonians trained 60 teachers before implementing the initiative.

Hopefully, BC will take notice and adopt the policy although it is  currently embroiled in a dispute with teachers which has reached Canada’s Supreme Court, from a Jan. 14, 2016 article by Ian Bailey for the Globe and Mail,

Canada’s highest court has agreed to hear an appeal in a dispute that has fuelled the volatile relationship between British Columbia teachers and the provincial government in a case that could affect labour relations across the country.

B.C. Premier Christy Clark was education minister [14 years ago] when the province first stripped the teachers’ contract.

This week’s developments come after a bitter, months-long teachers’ strike in 2014 that ended with a six-year contract that included a 7.25-per-cent raise and a $400-million fund to hire bargaining unit members to address class size and composition issues.

Despite past battles, both Mr. Iker [Jim Iker, president of the BC Teachers’ Federation] and Mr. Bernier [current B.C. Education Minister Mike Bernier] insisted there was a good relationship between teachers and the government.

Mr. Iker said teachers are working well with the Liberals on revisions to curriculum, but it was up to teachers to advocate for more funding to address student needs.

Now, the third pillar of the #BCTECH strategy, new markets. The BC government has decided it is one of the best markets for new technology. I am intrigued but not convinced that the average government bureaucrat is going to make any decisions about adopting new technologies as that requires confidence and risk-taking abilities. Looking at those four bureaucrats none of whom was to be quoted in any story about the #BCTECH Strategy that they are charged with implementing, it seems unlikely that any one of those four (or others of their ilk) would make that kind of decision. To be fair, there are reasons why you don’t want bureaucrats to jump on every new idea as these people are the guardians of public welfare and public monies. The question then becomes, how do you get bureaucrats to take some risks without going overboard? As well, bureaucratic systems are not designed for risk-taking. So the next question is, how do you redesign your bureaucratic system to encourage some risk-taking? It’s not fair to ask people to do this sort of thing if you’re not going to support them. On the plus side, they are eliminating some of the red tape. For projects under $250K, requests for proposals are just two pages.

Disappointingly, the emphasis was largely on data and computer coding. There was some talk about life sciences but no larger vision of science and culture was offered. Creativity was mentioned, which seems odd since the presentations were markedly lacking in that quality. (The presentations at the opening were well done and, at times, even I was stirred [mildly] but no creative ground was broken or even hinted at.) The #BCTECH strategy 2016 document does mention creativity (sort of) on page 25 of the print document,

Promote creative thinking as a core competency across the entire curriculum including technical and business education

As part of this move to embed computer coding classes and creativity into the curriculum, they are introducing (from page 25),

New Applied Design, Skills and Technologies education: an experiential, hands-on learning through design and creation that includes skills and concepts from Information Technology Education

The applied design is being offered from K-9 (from page 25),

Students will have the opportunity to specialize in Information Technology, Technology Education or emerging disciplines.

Interestingly, Emily Carr University of Art + Design was not present at the Tech Summit (no presentation, no keynote address, no booth, no mention in the documents). It should be noted that the Council of Canadian Academies included visual and performing arts in its State of Science and Technology in Canada, 2012 (link to full PDF report).

Hole in the strategy and final comments

Don Mattrick is well known locally as a BC technology success story and he was the Industry Chair for this summit. He is one of the province’s pioneers in the field of video games and, according to Premier Clark, he’d achieved enough financial success that by grade 11 (he was probably 16), he went out to buy a Ferrari for which he had the funds.  He was unsuccessful in his quest to purchase a Ferrari or his next quest to get a loan from the bank. Despite these setbacks, he did found one of the first video games companies in BC, which he later sold to Electronic Arts, a US games and entertainment giant.

In the early 1980s when Mattrick started out, he had very little support there wasn’t a video game industry n Canada. (Hard to believe now but games were leading/bleeding edge.) That lack of support for new, emerging fields can be seen even with this new #BCTECH strategy where Premier Clark announced very clearly that education in the new technology sectors had to be tied to jobs. Sensible but problematic. A ‘Don Mattrick’ type wouldn’t have had a job since the industry wasn’t yet established.

The truly groundbreaking, new technologies are highly disruptive and risky which Clark acknowledged and dismissed (she exhorted people not to give up) in her speech.

With an international race to ‘innovate’, all governments face the issues of disruption and risk taking. Bureaucracies are not designed to engage in those activities. To a large extent, they’ve been designed to control and minimize disruption and risk taking.

I’m sympathetic to the problem, I just wish the BC government had been more forthcoming about the issues and about the details of how they are going to implement this new strategy.

I’m also curious as to whether the government is interested in changing the ‘found a start-up company and sell to a corporate giant’ culture which reigns here in BC. That’s what Don Mattrick and a century or more’s worth of innovative BC entrepreneurs have done.

Finally, I gather Clark wants to commercialize our data further. She talked about opportunities to do that although no details were forthcoming nor was there any mention of privacy issues.

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