Skip to main content
RBC
Ottawa may not be synonymous with innovation. Waterloo has that one locked down.

It’s hardly Canada’s millennial magnet, either. Hello, Vancouver, for that.

Big name tech offices? Over to you, Toronto and Montreal.

And yet, Canada’s capital is tearing it up on the tech track.

Shopify, the hometown hero of ecommerce, is worth more than $20 billion, making it one of Canada’s most valuable companies. And it wants to add thousands more jobs in Ottawa, where it’s competing with the likes of Amazon and Apple – and 1,750 local tech companies – for talent and space.

Tech in the National Capital Region has expanded so quickly that it now accounts for about eight per cent of the local workforce – a higher concentration than in any other Canadian city.

The only thing Ottawa’s missing may be a bit more attitude.

“I would say Toronto and Montreal have much more swagger than Ottawa,” says Shopify’s head of international recruitment, Janeffer Gangji. “What we really need to be doing is to start building our story and talking about ourselves.”

I moderated a session with the Ottawa Chamber of Commerce to better understand what the city needs to thrive in the age of innovation, and was joined on stage by Gangji, Invest Ottawa’s Sonya Shorey and Jacques Beauvais, the University of Ottawa’s dean of engineering.

Their top answer? Swagger.

Here are five reasons Ottawa should have more of it:

1. Millennials

Shorey said the city’s early-stage companies are dominated by millennials drawn to its cheaper rent and high standard of living. And as the tech industry across North America matures, there’s more and more reason for young people to strike out on their own, especially in cities where they can afford to be an entrepreneur. As Shorey said, “Why go to California and be employee 10,001 at Google when you can be a vice president at KlipFolio, or at Mindbridge?”

2. Co-ops

Ottawa has two universities and two colleges, each with celebrated work-integrated learning programs. Beauvais said his school is aiming to take co-ops to a new frontier, by mixing arts and engineering students and working more closely with companies that want creative and technical teams speaking the same language. At Carleton University, the school has developed a new kind of work-integrated learning program with Shopify to allow students to complete a four-year Bachelor of Computer Science while working half-time at the company, which covers their tuition on top of a salary.

3. Startups

While not as famous as Communitech in Waterloo or MaRS in Toronto, Invest Ottawa has converted a 70-year-old industrial building along the Ottawa River into a destination for entrepreneurs. Bayview Yards is home to 35 startups, and according to Shorey is catching the eye of multinationals looking to scout the next generation of talent and ideas. “They’re looking for not only disruptive technology expertise but the ability to combine and integrate different types of technology approaches, create different business models, and bring truly new concepts to their products,” she said.

4. Coffee

Okay, it’s not Seattle. Yet. But Ottawa is dotted with third spaces serving up java and free wifi for budding entrepreneurs, including a local brand, Bridgehead Coffee, which has built itself up as a successful alternative to Starbucks. Bridgehead has even become part of Shopify’s origin story, as it’s where Harley Finkelstein, the company’s chief operating officer, first met its founder Tobias Lutke. Finkelstein points to the community feel – rare among G7 capitals – as central to an innovation culture that thrives on “collegiality and connectedness.”

5. Weather

Yes, weather. An Ottawa winter is perfect for two things: skating on the Rideau Canal and testing autonomous vehicles. Thanks to extreme conditions, the city is home to a new testing ground for self-driving cars – a joint project between the universities, Algonquin College, the local and provincial governments, and corporate partners including Nokia and Blackberry subsidiary QNX. It’s meant to be the most advanced AV project in the world, integrating into live infrastructure on public streets in all four seasons. You can’t get that in Silicon Valley. “California doesn’t have our ice, snow, sleet,” Shorey said. “That’s an advantage here.”

For more on the talent culture behind Ottawa’s thriving tech scene, I sat down with Harley Finkelstein at Shopify’s headquarters. Among his messages: “Ottawa and the entrepreneurs here certainly punch above their weight class. I hear a lot less discussion around looking to get acquired, and a lot more discussion about building the greatest company on the planet in that particular space.”

For more of our conversation, check out the latest RBCDisruptors podcast.