We’re Not Silicon Valley North. We’re York Region.
On May 24, the federal government announced the launch of the Innovation Supercluster Initiative (ISI), a five-year $950 million investment to fund up to five superclusters across Canada. Managed by the Ministry of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, each supercluster is expected to receive between $125-250 million dollars of ISI funding over the course of five years.
As part of the Ministry’s Innovation and Skills Plan, the supercluster initiative is intended to build off of existing cluster strengths – of which there are many across Canada – and create stronger public-private-academic collaborations to fuel innovation in Canada, create jobs, and position Canada as a global leader in innovation.
Let’s be straight, here: there’s a lot of competition in Canada.
There are tech clusters in so many regions: Toronto, Waterloo, Vancouver, Montreal, Ottawa, and of course, here in York Region. The federal government wants these superclusters to be centered around “highly innovative industries”, aligning to their innovation priorities such as advanced manufacturing, transportation, infrastructure, clean resources, agri-food, and health/biosciences.
What makes a successful supercluster?
But if you look at successful superclusters around the world – let’s use Silicon Valley for argument’s sake – they are not inclusive of one industry. In fact, Silicon Valley was literally named after the silicon chip innovators and manufacturers in the region, dating back to the 1970s. Today, it is a global example of an innovation and R&D hub. In the region, the hardware guys, software guys, the “disruptors”, the big conglomerates, and startup companies co-exist to push out new companies, new innovations, and attract global talent. The types of industries that call Silicon Valley home to this day include leading microelectronics manufacturers, like Intel, AMD and Nvidia; automotive manufacturers like Tesla, and high-tech firms like Apple, Google, Netflix; and research centres like NASA’s Ames Research Center. All of these companies started somewhere, and now they are Fortune 1000 companies. Look at Airbnb. The company was literally founded on a necessity – the founders needed to pay their rent. Today, it’s valued at $31 billion.
The point here is that it took Silicon Valley a long time to earn its status.
Semiconductor companies once monopolized the region, and that’s proven to enable the thousands of companies – large and small alike – that now call it home. So this five year supercluster initiative just won’t cut it. Is it a start? Absolutely. But there’s a lot that we – Canada – need to work on. For one, how can the federal government prioritize innovation in transportation when Ontario is the only province that’s permitted to test autonomous vehicles on the road?
But this isn’t about will it/won’t it work. This is about York Region, the Greater Toronto Area, our strengths, and how we’re already making it work. We’re not unlike Silicon Valley in the 1970s. York Region and the GTA is the Canadian headquarters to many leading global microelectronics manufacturers, including Intel in Toronto, and AMD and Nvidia, both in Markham, all of whom coincidentally are globally headquartered in Silicon Valley. York Region has automotive manufacturers and suppliers like GM’s new Canadian Technical Centre, Magna, and Autoliv. We have health technology companies like Philips Healthcare, Johnson & Johnson, and infrastructure leaders like IBM, Huawei, and Siemens. Our region also has thousands of startups and a strong and supportive innovation ecosystem. Our startups co-exist and collaborate with the multinational enterprises in our cluster.
And of course, there’s us – ventureLAB, the area’s Regional Innovation Centre.
We work with the startups, scale-ups and multinational enterprises in our cluster to collaborate, push boundaries and innovate. More than just a convenor, we’re an innovation hub that equips entrepreneurs with the tools and resources to prepare them for a global marketplace.
There’s an age-old argument here: why reinvent the wheel? But we’re in the business of innovation, so that’s not applicable here. Yes, we have the strengths of Silicon Valley. Yes, we even have some of the same players.
But we’re not Silicon Valley, and we’re not trying to be, nor should we.
We are not just Toronto. We are York Region, part of the Greater Toronto Area, an area that includes Toronto, York Region, and three other municipalities: Durham, Halton and Peel. In York Region alone, we have over 4,300 tech companies – including some of the world’s industry leaders – and 60,000 jobs.
We are an incredibly vibrant and diverse innovation ecosystem that harnesses our region’s talent, capital and technology to fuel advancements that power those highly innovative industries like autonomous vehicles, infrastructure, healthcare technologies and advanced manufacturing. Our workforce is diverse – in race, gender and age – with over 100 languages and dialects spoken, 45% foreign-born population, and a strong representation of women leaders in our tech cluster, as well as women in tech mentorship programs and networking groups.
But we’re no island. And we don’t have our path paved for us. What we do have is an extremely collaborative, supportive innovation ecosystem full of global industry leaders, growing scale-ups and emerging start-ups that are working together towards a collective goal: to be the tech cluster that will secure Canada’s place as a global leader in innovation.
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