Cap City: Land o’ Successful Geeks


So check this out, while wandering through the library here at INSEAD in Singapore I stumbled upon a book immortalizing my hometown’s success as a technology cluster.  The book is called Silicon Valley North: A High-Tech Cluster of Innovation and Entrepreneurship.  It’s a series of academic essays edited by Larisa V. Shavinina, a professor at Universite de Quebec en Outaouais and Carleton.

The book chronicles how Ottawa’s Silicon Valley North came to be and where it might be headed.  If you’re interested in a highly technical read of the history of the region, buy the book.  If you’re interested in a short summary of where it came from, read on.

What follows is mostly taken from an article by Jocelyn Ghent Mallet entitled “Silicon Valley North: The Formation of the Ottawa Innovation Cluster”.  Click here to download a .PDF of the paper.

Ottawa’s Silicon Valley North got its start from World War II luring highly talented people to the capital to perform R&D in the war effort.  The National Research Council and the Defense Research Board were early research pioneers and they were soon joined by the AECL.  These institutions were also able to attract a lot of European researchers who found themselves unemployed after the end of the war (either through the near bankruptcy of Britain or in the newly Stalinist East).

Researchers from these institutions were responsible for some of the early high-tech companies in the Ottawa region, notably Leigh Instruments and Computing Devices of Canada.

As the decades wore on, two major events occurred.  First, club fed decided to invest its money for mainframe computing in the Ottawa area and this encouraged companies like Digital Equipment to locate in the area.

More importantly though, Northern Electric (now Nortel) decided to open its two R&D subsidiaries in the Ottawa area: BNR (Bell Northern Research) and Microsystems International.  Microsystems Int’l was shut down in the 1970’s, but its impact lives on.  Folks from Microsystems went on to found Calian (Larry O’Brien), Mitel (Terry Matthews and Michael Cowpland), Mosaid.  Nortel would later train the future founders of JDS.  Likewise, Mitel begot Corel and Newbridge Networks.

In the late 1970’s there was finally some venture capital available in the region, mainly provided by Maclaren (a subsidiary of the Montreal family-owned Maclaren Power and Paper Company) which was later bought by Noranda.  That’s right-Noranda the mining operation that is now part of Xstrata-was responsible for the early development of Canada’s high tech sector.  This led to the formation of Lumonics, DY 4, Gandalf, SHL Systemhouse and Quasar (now Cognos).  Incidentally, this is one of the big differences between Silicon Valley North and it’s Bay Area counterpart: Ottawa companies did not have early access to venture capital.

1983 saw the founding of the Ottawa Carleton Research Institute (now the Ottawa Centre for Research and Innovation) by Andy Haydon, then Chair of the Regional Municipality of Ottawa-Carleton.  The OCRI would have a seminal effect in connecting and linking entrepreneurs in the Ottawa Valley.  They organized networking events like High-Tech Breakfasts, Tech Rocks concerts and numerous outreach programs while also developing physical R&D infrastructure like the OCRINet that connected numerous research labs.

The increasing sophistication of the capital’s technology market meant that in the 1990’s Alcatel, Cadence, Cisco, Nokia and Siemens opened up research facilities.  It was during this period where the region seemed to “explode”: high-tech employment jumped from 35K in 1995 to 75K in 2000, but the foundations had been laid well before that.

Incidentally, if you ever want to see a graphical version of this, you can buy a map created by Denzil Doyle (he who founded Digital Equipment Canada) that shows the pictorial history of Silicon Valley North.

Thursday, September 7, 2006