Canada’s technology triangle goes global

While John Ten-nant is no longer pursuing his boyhood dream of traveling the world as a foreign diplomat, his expertise in global trade continues to serve him well — much to the benefit of a strong Canadian IT hub.

During his 35-year career with the Trade Commissioner Service, Tennant held high-level

posts in Australia, Spain, Guatemala and Lagos. The Alberta native served as acting ambassador in Tokyo, Japan, and most recently held the job of consul general at the Canadian Consulate in Detroit.

But last year, the 61-year-old’s travel itinerary began to evolve after he made a big career move. That’s when he retired from the foreign service to become the chief executive officer of Canada’s Technology Triangle (CTT), a public-private partnership that markets the Ontario cities of Waterloo, Kitchener and Cambridge to the world.

Now his travels include all-important trips to California’s Silicon Valley. His mission: To forge lasting business links with IT companies.

While his current job may seem different than the high-level diplomatic missions of his recent past, Tennant still sees many parallels. At his previous posts, he was representing Canada to many groups, including the business community. One of the key mandates, he says, was the retention, attraction and growth of foreign direct investment in Canada.

Armed with a relatively similar goal, Tennant is now in California to attend a Canada Day picnic organized by the Digital Moose Lounge, a network of Canadians who live in the Silicon Valley and Bay Area.

“”It’s a very important group in terms of networking,”” he said, adding many ex-pats who attend the annual event have some sort of connection with the University of Waterloo.

Indeed, the school boasts the largest engineering faculty in the country, the creation of successful spin-off companies, and is reportedly one of Microsoft’s favourite sources of computer-science grads.

“”There are influential companies here (in California). And our interest is to make sure we’re attracting the best talent,”” he says. “”While I’m here, I’ll be making a lot of targeted calls to individuals as well.””

Such events are only one facet of the CTT’s outreach activities. Last November, the organization attended Comdex Fall 2002, the main information technology trade event in North America. Then-CEO Randy Ellis said the CTT was able to build awareness of the Waterloo region as a “”hot technology centre,”” generate “”several leads for incoming investment,”” and receive inquiries from individuals thinking about relocating.

More recently, the CTT has begun joint talks with the Ontario government, the Ottawa Centre for Research and Innovation (OCRI) and the Greater Toronto Marketing Alliance (GTMA) to discuss the delivery of a province-wide marketing strategy, says Tennant. Discussions about format and funding will continue over the coming months, he adds.

This multi-faceted marketing effort seems to be paying off. Earlier this month, California-based Arvato Services, a leading global provider of integrated and customized outsourcing services, announced it will open a new customer support services centre in Kitchener, creating an initial 250 jobs. The company’s president, Peter Schmitz, said the city “”exceeded all key location criteria.””

Meanwhile, professors and graduates of the University of Waterloo continue to create such international companies as Research in Motion, Northern Digital, Virtek, Descartes, Meikle Automation and Open Text, most of which are housed in the school’s new $214-million Research and Technology Park.

There are more than 400 technology-based firms in the Waterloo Region and Guelph. Other studies show the region has continued to grow despite the high-tech’s global downturn. According to the CTT’s own estimates, local revenues exceed $600 billion annually.

All of this lends credence to Michael Porter’s decades-old “”cluster strategy”” that has recently been included in the federal government’s Innovation Agenda. Elements of the Harvard professor’s strategy — which seeks to turn research into commercial products by attracting like-minded business people to a given region — have been employed by the CTT, as well as economic development organizations in Edmonton, Ottawa and Regina to name a few.

In the wake of apparent success, the CTT now has its sights set on the converging life sciences and high-tech sectors. Accordingly, CTT members represented the Waterloo region at the BIO 2003 conference in Washington last month.

Tennant says the CTT’s promotion of marrying these two fields only makes sense since the University of Guelph is fast becoming a strong hub for biotech. He says cooperation between researchers from Guelph and Waterloo is a boon for such fields as genomics.

In the future, Tennant plans to continue drawing on his overseas network. For example, maintaining contact with senior-level officials in Japan is a must for the region’s automotive industry, he says.

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