Silicon Valley North #10 Aug'99

The Way I See Itů by Michael Volker

BC May Miss Boat on High Tech Strategy

More than a year ago, the BC government promised to deliver a high tech strategy. It hasn't happened. But before we criticize the government too loudly, we should take a more introspective look at why we still don't have one. The answer is simple: we don't have a community-wide consensus.

Hopes were raised last year when Andrew Petter, Minister of Advanced Education, Training and Technology organized a High Technology Task Force to formulate a high tech strategy. It's tough enough just to get industry, government and academia to meet this challenge, but when the industry component is fragmented, it's even tougher.

For example, we have the BC Biotech Alliance, NewMedia BC, and the BC Technology Industries Association all of which represent members of the high tech community. And then there's CATA, the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance, which looks at national issues. I wonder who is speaking for the several thousand (according to the BC/TIA's recent report there are 6,843) small, emerging firms.

There are non-lobby organizations like the Science Council of BC and the BC Advanced Systems Institute which are focused primarily on technology development but are also drawn into policy matters because they are provincially funded.

The Vancouver Board of Trade is to be commended for forming its own Advanced Technology Task Force in an attempt to bring the players together to create a common vision. Although there's not a single voice speaking for the industry, the expectation was that we could all sing together as a chorus.

This got off to a good start with broad participation but it started to lose momentum when some of the key industry associations failed to show up regularly at meetings. I suspect that they opted for the go-it-alone and speak louder approach.

Yet there is virtually unanimous agreement that the main challenges facing the industry boil down to two key issues: people and capital - both of which are needed to build a healthy technology sector. We get bogged down in sorting out the priorities. This is understandable. Companies in different stages of development are faced with different problems. Startups are more concerned about investment capital than stock options and marginal tax rates. On the other hand the larger, more mature companies have difficulty in attracting (or keeping) talented people because of high taxes.

The March'99 provincial budget allocated $20 million to support high technology. The Petter Task Force, in seeking some direction on how to appropriate this allocation, is getting mixed signals from the high technology community. In fact, this modest $20 million caused more polarization within the industry. To exacerbate matters further, recent assaults on the government's inaction have only served to widen the rift. An adversarial approach won't cut it.

Forget the $20 million pie. We need to bake a much bigger pie. Doing so requires us to develop a comprehensive approach which addresses all of the industry's needs and a plan of action on how to be most effective. For example, it may not be necessary to compromise between lowering personal tax rates and providing investment incentives (e.g. tax credits or capital gains exemptions). Both are absolutely essential. BC groups could team up with national ones like CATA to deal with Ottawa on the income tax front (where this battle should be fought) while working together with Victoria to ensure that BC is competitive with other provinces on the innovation front. Indeed, BC often loses out in the national scene.

In our corporate worlds, we preach the importance of teamwork in achieving results. The way I see it, that's what's missing in this picture - a team with a vision. Just imagine what could happen if we really had a high tech strategy in BC!



Michael Volker is a high technology entrepreneur and director of Simon Fraser U's University/Industry Liaison Office. He is a former executive director of the BC Advanced Systems Institute and is chair of the Vancouver Enterprise Forum. He may be reached at mike@risktaker.com.

Copyright, 1999.