Unapologetically Canadian: Letting Go of Our Humility and Winning Globally
Development and Innovation Yung Wu, the newly appointed CEO of world-renowned MaRS Discovery District, shares his thoughts on innovation and economic development in Canada.
Mediaplanet: In what ways is Canada’s entrepreneurship and innovation landscape attracting international attention?
Yung Wu: Canada has always been home to inventions and innovators that have changed the world. Witness insulin, the electric light bulb, Java programming language, and alkaline batteries. In the past, Canada may have been the innovation economy’s best-kept secret because of that classic Canadian trait of remaining humble. Today’s heroes are global thought leaders such as Dr. Geoffrey Hinton from the Vector Institute at MaRS, also known as the “godfather” of machine learning. Maybe the biggest difference is the change in narrative globally, where Canadian personality traits of tolerance, embracing diversity and welcoming newcomers, seeking win-win relationships, and staying humble are in sharp contrast to other areas of the world, where those values are under significant attack. The best have always wanted to work with the best, and in today’s geopolitical context, this goes a long way to making Canada stand out as a destination for great innovators — not just a source of great talent.
MP: What is unique about founding and operating a company in Canada?
YW: Aside from our expertise and innovations in science and technology, Canada has an edge globally because of our reputation and culture. As an immigrant and a serial entrepreneur who has always built made-in-Canada companies, I can attest that Canada’s culture is a huge differentiator and an advantage when it comes to turning great ideas into commercial businesses that win on a global stage. Business is conducted between people, not organizations. Having instant access to connections of warmth, trust, and a win-win stance from the outset because of our Canadian values and reputation is an immensely valuable asset to Canadian companies.
MP: What's the link between innovation and economic development? Does one drive the other or are they mutually exclusive?
YW: The cycle time for innovation is shrinking. In past decades, one could build long-term competitive advantage around a single piece of intellectual property. Today, we're seeing innovations disrupting prior innovations within years, not decades. Sustainable economic development can only come from an ability to continuously innovate or the agility to constantly adopt new innovations. I fear that without one or both of these traits, organizations and entire sectors are facing existential threats in a future where the only certainty is change.
MP: You’ve mentioned that right now we have a unique window of opportunity to make Canada an international destination for great founders. Why now?
YW: In my entire career, I've never experienced a situation where talent has flowed from south to north. At MaRS, some of our ventures are now reporting that over 30 percent of new applicants are coming from the U.S. If there is one certainty, it’s that talent fuels innovation, and we have a window of opportunity to capitalize on this reverse brain drain. This window is finite, and we may need to be a little less Canadian by unapologetically setting our sights to win globally. It’s Canada’s time and we need to be bold, to become a destination for the best and most promising entrepreneurs.