Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency
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Local ideas, global impact

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Some recent rising stars in the business world have two things in common: they’re all high-tech firms and they’re all from Atlantic Canada.  

With over 58% of its companies now working in information and communication technology (ICT), Atlantic Canada is basking in the glow of this thriving economic sector.  

Today, over 1300 local ICT companies, many of them with just one to four employees, help employ nearly 28,000 workers across the Atlantic region.  

While we may be smaller, Atlantic Canada’s world-class contributions to technology these days are definitely turning heads.  

Consider the accomplishments of companies like Fredericton-based social media monitoring firm Radian6, recently sold to Salesforce.com for an impressive $326 million, or Saint John-based Q1 Labs, developer and provider of IT security intelligence products that have officially piqued the interest of technology giant IBM.  

Then there are global pioneers like Newfoundland-based Bluedrop (with its four-time mention in Profit Magazine’s top 100 companies, and two-time honour as Progress Magazine’s best places to work in Atlantic Canada) whose 100+ employees have been toiling away in the evolving industry of e-learning since 1992.  

Not to mention the likes of Nova Scotia-based SheepDog Inc., an industry leader in the development of Google Apps and developer of a popular widget to help athletes, coaches, and journalists get real-time medal updates via mobile devices at the Beijing Olympics (and since downloaded millions of times!).  

While attracting investors to a small region like Atlantic Canada sometimes has its challenges, many Atlantic Canadians with technology-driven vision, and dreams of business glory, have successfully drawn tens of millions of dollars from outside the region to help develop their ideas on a bigger scale.   

After all, small does have its advantages – especially when it comes to an area like networking.  

“In some ways, we have to work a little harder in a smaller region like this compared to larger centers,” explains Mike Gillis of the 70-member Innovation and Technology Association of Prince Edward Island.  

“But in terms of networking, we’re able to just pick up the phone to talk to people across the region. And within our provinces, where the networks are even smaller, it’s not unheard of at all for a new company to come in and get face time with the Premier – it’s the kind of quick access that can be really helpful.”  

ACOA support — including over $209 million in funding since 1997 for over 800 ICT-related projects — has also been critical for the Atlantic ICT sector, according to Bluedrop CEO Emad Rizkalla.  

“How else could a bunch of eager students with no money or contacts get started in a region that, in 1992, was chronically short of venture capital? ACOA’s funding has helped us become Canada’s largest advanced learning company.”   

Beyond the traditional government funding programs, ACOA has also done some instrumental work in helping budding technology companies hook up with business people from across Canada, the US and the UK who have both the know-how and the cash they need to get up and running.  

According to Mike Gillis, despite the health of the region’s ICT sector, some challenges remain for small high-tech shops, whether it’s building the management know-how they need to drive their innovation to the next level, addressing shortages in experienced and specialized labour, or increasing local collaboration to better compete in a hungry global market.  

Still, the road ahead promises opportunity.  

“The ICT sector is one of the areas where Atlantic Canada can shine. The educated and committed people in the region are the most important reason for this,” says Marcel LeBrun, Senior Vice-President and General Manager for Salesforce Radian6. “There’s a lot of potential for growth and I think success, like the kind we’ve had so far, could just be the tip of the iceberg.”  

One thing’s for sure: the secret about the quality of information and communications technology now flowing from the Atlantic region is fast becoming one no longer. 

Published January 27, 2012