Windsor faces further isolation with innovation snub, critics say
Article and Photo from the Windsor Star
The president of Brave Control Solutions boasts his company is all about innovation, with some of the technology it’s introducing into the marketplace possibly revolutionary.
That’s why Brent McPhail was surprised to hear the province’s new SuperCorridor of Innovation will completely bypass Windsor. After hiring 13 new employees last year — for a total workforce of 45 — he’s worried the signal that sends will make it even tougher for him to find the same number again to expand even further this year.
Critics are saying Ontario’s new SuperCorridor of Innovation that stops just short of Windsor will only bring further economic harm to the nation’s unemployment capital.
“Getting new talent — that’s the struggle I have every day, convincing someone to come to Windsor,” said McPhail, president of a company that is a local innovation success story. “This is just one more strike against us.”
Brave Control, recently ranked one of Canada’s fastest-growing small businesses by Profit 500, employs engineers and uses technology to transform manufacturing problems into automated solutions. McPhail said he’s seeing the same industrial innovation across Windsor, which added over 8,100 new manufacturing jobs last year.
“Tech innovation is the future,” WEtech Alliance CEO Yvonne Pilon said of the $100-million initiative announced Thursday in the provincial Liberal government’s 2016 budget. “Windsor has always been stuck with Ontario ending in London — this should be a provincial corridor.”
The province has designed a region focused on research and development and innovation that stretches from London and Waterloo through Toronto to Ottawa. New funding will be injected into efforts underway there, including an advanced manufacturing consortium with McMaster, Waterloo and Western universities focused on industrial innovation.
None of the funding comes to Windsor, but Brad Duguid, provincial minister of economic development, told the Star that Windsor won’t be “ignored.” He said the focus, however, will be on what he describes as Ontario’s innovation hub, particularly the Toronto-Waterloo corridor.
“We’re stunned, just stunned — how can we not be included?” said Anne Forest, head of the University of Windsor’s faculty association. An economist at London’s Ivey Business School also called it “a glaring omission.”
With the University of Windsor hosting top-notch engineering and entrepreneurial research and education, Forest said colleagues have expressed their disappointment over public comments by university president Alan Wildeman that he’s not concerned about Windsor being left out.
“It sends the wrong message. It’s a very big deal, it’s about positioning the future of Ontario’s economy, and, absolutely, we want to be part of this,” said Forest.
Mayor Drew Dilkens pointed to Windsor’s lack of representation in either the provincial or federal governments as one possible reason for the snub, but others feel the municipality should shoulder some of the blame.
“It’s disappointing, but it’s not surprising,” said Ward 7 Coun. Irek Kusmierczyk. “Kitchener-Waterloo and Ottawa and other Ontario cities have been investing in technology infrastructure and innovation infrastructure … in order for us to be at that table, we also need to be making these investments.”
Elsewhere, said Kusmierczyk, who is the director of partnerships at the WEtech business incubator, cities are busy developing “entrepreneurial ecosystems” designed to foster the growth of these new businesses and draw the types of people who are creating the jobs of the new economy.
For the second year in a row, the Downtown Windsor Business Accelerator was turned down by city council on budget night for a $90,000 grant. WEtech Alliance asked for up to $75,000 in 2015 and was similarly given nothing by the city.
Those decisions probably send the wrong message to others looking to invest. “What happens is, money doesn’t come here, it goes to London, it goes to Ottawa,” said Pilon.
“This is critical, and the fundamental question in the City of Windsor is: What are we investing in? What is our long-term strategy for economic development?” said Kusmierczyk.
He estimates that the city has poured up to $14 million into sports tourism events in recent years, all with the hope and promise of attracting long-term visitors and spending and investment. As London, Waterloo, Ottawa and others have shown, municipal funds invested on innovation hubs or business accelerators can be leveraged for similar amounts or more from the two senior governments.
But the big thing missing in Windsor, according to Kusmierczyk and others, is a lack of local partnerships and co-ordination between city hall, the university, college and other institutions, industry and business.
“It’s no one person’s fault, but there could be better co-ordination,” said Pilon.
A local “angel” investor, involved in helping those with ideas turn them into business opportunities, points to a lack of local leadership.
“There’s a lot of good people here, all working to get us somewhere, but the effort is really fractured,” he said. Still “focused on innovative startups” in the Windsor area, the investor asked that his name not be divulged.
“We got left out for a reason,” he said of Windsor failing to be included on the SuperCorridor. He said a place like the Waterloo Accelerator Centre has venture capitalists “crawling all over the place.”
Kusmierczyk said Windsor is ideally located, “with a huge market right across the border and a significant amount of venture capital” ready to swoop in to help turn Windsor discoveries into homegrown jobs-creating companies.
“It’s about building partnerships to help get these companies out of the lab and into the marketplace, and for that you need physical assets like a tech accelerator,” said Kusmierczyk.