5 questions with B.C.’s first innovation commissioner, Alan Winter

The former tech executive weighs in on how the province can attract investment, build anchor companies and create opportunity for everyone.

Credit: Government of B.C.

The tech executive weighs in on how the province can attract investment, build anchor companies and create opportunity for everyone

1. What is your role?

To be a champion for innovation in B.C. That means how do we get more investment, and it’s really through three different ways. It’s developing partnerships with the federal government, encouraging international investment here and making sure that from a provincial point of view, we’re investing in the right things.

More specifically, the government established an innovation structure for the province: B.C.’s innovation commissioner, Innovate BC and the Emerging Economy Task Force, a short-term task force to report on what the emerging economy is all about. I’m also a board member of Innovate BC and the EETF.

2. During your first year as commissioner, you said that B.C. is at a crossroads when it comes to innovation. How are we doing, and where should we go from here?

B.C. has enjoyed the advantages of circumstance—abundant natural resources, an attractive geographic setting and favourable access to North American and Pacific Rim markets. But this can lead to competitive complacency, and lower investment in public and private innovation.

With the global conditions of trade changing, we have a choice. We can wait and hope that commodity prices, construction and tourism have sufficient strength to maintain our prosperity, or we can invest in business innovation and cluster development across all sectors in B.C. that will enable sustainable and clean growth for the province’s traditional and emerging sectors. 

3. When you led MPR Teltech from 1992-96, it spawned six spinoffs, including PMC-Sierra (later purchased by Microsemi) and Sierra Wireless. What steps can we take to build and attract more anchor companies with international clout?

At MPR we had excellent talent, access to capital, and access to domestic and international markets through our ownership structure of Telus, GTE and others. Between us, we put in significant research and development, and we incubated outstanding companies. Today, more than 50 significant companies trace themselves back to MPR.

Looking forward, we need to value small, medium and large companies in the B.C. tech ecosystem. And to some extent, we need to open up industry and government procurement to companies in B.C. and bring in people who have international experience.

To be an anchor company, you’ve got to have your own IP. You’re in the digital world, in the intangible world to some extent, and so you’ve got to develop higher-value products where you protect your IP.

4. Given that global capital moves so quickly and freely, how can B.C. stand out as an investment destination?

If you look at the S&P 500, more than 90 percent of its value is in intangible assets, or knowledge. So investment follows talent in addition to traditional assets. In B.C. we can combine both, as we’ve seen with the Cascadia Innovation Corridor.

In this globally competitive environment, B.C. is well positioned for investment because we have excellent talent, which is very attractive to global companies. But we need to encourage such investment to be put into areas that help develop the whole tech ecosystem, such as investment in R&D and in business units here in B.C.

5. If this province gets things right on the innovation front, what could it be like in 10 years?

If we get it right, in 10 years there are opportunities for everyone, and across all regions of B.C. We would have a sustainable, resilient economy, with the ability to invest in the social fabric of society. We would have a lifelong learning culture, enabling us to stay ahead of and benefit from technological advances.

B.C. would be globally recognized for the successful development and deployment of products and services in the digital economy so that all sectors are tech-enabled, a strengthened economy through development of high-value products from our natural resource sectors, and as a leader in cleantech and clean energy exporting our services and products around the globe

? APPOINTED February 2018
? PREVIOUS ROLES President and CEO, Genome BC; founding president and CEO, New Media Innovation Centre; president, ComDev Space Group; president and CEO, MPR Teltech
LAST BOOK I READ Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson
? FAVOURITE CONCERT Christmas carols at the Royal Albert Hall, London
? HOBBY Sailing. Desolation Sound is a marvellous place