Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Innovation and Entrepreneurship in 21st Century New Brunswick

Radian6's Fredericton Headquarters: An example to be emulated.
A recent news story about New Brunswick from the Globe and Mail caught my attention (you know it's a big deal when Canada's "national" newspaper actually notices us). The story was about a successful Fredericton entrepreneur, Chris Newton, who was behind the founding of two successful New Brunswick IT companies, Radian6 and Q1 Labs.

The article refers to these success stories as: <em>"Transforming the image of New Brunswick from a have-not province dominated by pulp, petroleum and potato barons to an innovation hotbed populated by smart young techies and risk-embracing entrepreneurs."</em>

The older industrial and agriculture sectors - pulp and paper, petroleum refining, and agriculture - are important parts of New Brunswick's economic heritage. Yet even these are changing; and a new emphasis on skilled labour will demand that we reward companies that invest in R&D and worker training. We need to look ahead, seize on new opportunities in bio-technology, green sectors, and information technology. On economic development, we have to move beyond the old smokestacks approach - something that was brought home with the failure of the second oil refinery in Saint John to materialize. We also cannot just recklessly throw money around in fits of crony capitalism.

Such a forward-looking approach also means we cannot pine over past industries, such as the building of wooden ships in the 19th century, and we cannot seek to get by on nice-sounding platitudes and generalities.

The internet and new communications technologies have opened up new opportunities away from major urban centres such as Toronto, Montreal, New York City, and Boston. Through "telecommuting", employees at Radian6 in Fredericton can have meetings with colleagues in New York, Toronto, or Tokyo. These are opportunities which Chris Newton has been able to seize upon, and which our province as a whole must now act to seize upon too.

Compared to larger cities, New Brunswick offers many quality of life advantages: shorter commutes (Toronto has among the worse commutes in the world), closeness to nature, outdoor recreational activities, beautiful scenery, historic cities and towns, and of course the friendliness of New Brunswick's people.

Smaller jurisdictions such as Vermont and Fargo, North Dakota (yes, THAT Fargo), have seized upon such advantages and built strong creative and high-tech economic sectors. We need to do the same in New Brunswick.

So what needs to be done? In an earlier post I offered some thoughts on economic development. Building on these themes, it is important to invest in education and post-secondary education (which includes promoting accessibility rather than limiting it as the Alward government has done through reintroducing the parental contribution requirement for student loans).

Also, we need to explore how our post-secondary institutions can work with young entrepreneurs and local businesses to foster new economic opportunities - as, for example, Waterloo University in Waterloo, Ontario has done in fostering the growth of a strong IT-sector in that city. These same universities will be instrumental in finding ways to modernize New Brunswick's traditional industries while our Community Colleges can help upgrade our current labour force while training young New Brunswickers with the necessary skills to work and build careers in forestry and manufacturing like so many before them.

We cannot take a laissez-faire approach of relying only on tax cuts - as the New Brunswick NDP would do with its plan to abolish Business New Brunswick. BNB desperately needs reform and refocus, and the next blog post will touch on that. But the idea that we don't need to build contacts in a global economy is naive in the extreme. We must promote programs that actively encourage, mentor, and provide support to new entrepreneurs. Radian6, in its early days, recieved crucial backing from the New Brunswick Innovation Foundation. We need to build on success stories like this.

The opportunties are there - Q1 and Radian6 prove that - but we need a provincial government that recognizes and seize upon these opportunities. New Brunswick a lot of potential, we cannot afford to waste it.

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