When we talk about Waterloo Region tech, many names come to mind. We’re home to OpenText, one of Canada’s largest software companies, smartphone pioneer BlackBerry and video marketing powerhouse Vidyard to name a few.
It’s not only Canadian tech companies that call Waterloo home. Our office is two blocks down the street from Google’s Canadian engineering headquarters.
There’s one other name that stands out — Communitech. Founded in 1997 by a forward-thinking group of entrepreneurs, Communitech has helped tech companies start, grow and succeed for over 20 years.
Communitech was led by Iain Klugman from 2004 until earlier this year. In late 2019, Klugman announced his plans to hand the reins to a new CEO. But like all things, the pandemic shifted those plans, with Klugman remaining at the helm throughout 2020.
After a delayed start to their search for a replacement, Communitech announced Chris Albinson as their new CEO. Albinson is a storied entrepreneur and investor who has spent time in Canada and the U.S. and brings extensive experience to help Canadian tech companies “own the podium.”
From Kingston to Kitchener (with a stop in the Valley)
Originally from Kingston, Ontario, Albinson is a serial entrepreneur who led startups to success in Canada, Russia, and the U.S. One of his first successful exits was with Newbridge Networks.
“We grew from zero to about $1 billion in revenue. Once you’ve done that once, you kind of get hooked on it. That’s been an animating force for me,” said Albinson.
After a successful exit for his last startup, Albinson spent the past 20 years investing in companies including Juniper Networks, DocuSign, and Pinterest.
Albinson is also one of the founders of the C100, a global network of Canadians in tech working to support each other and help founders in Canada take their business to the next level. The C100 is based on similar networks in other countries that connect expats with founders in their home countries. Through the C100, Albinson mentored founders including Tobi Lütke of Shopify, Andrew D’Souza of Clearco, and Martin Basiri of Kitchener-based ApplyBoard.
“The really amazing thing through that journey was we were basically at a dead stop in the innovation economy. Then flash forward 10 years and there was a little over $7.5 billion that has been invested in those companies,” said Albinson.
Albinson said that trust is one of the competitive advantages fuelling this increase in investment.
“Canadians are really asserting themselves in a really positive way in an environment where people are afraid of big tech coming out of the United States and coming out of China. People trust Canada, and therefore, the tech that we do is trusted,” added Albinson.
Owning the podium
Growing and supporting the tech community has been the core of Communitech’s mission since day one. When Albinson was announced as the new CEO in May, he laid out his success metrics with a goal of 24,000 tech workers in the region and $1 billion in investments by 2025.
This summer, the region’s 1,600 tech companies eclipsed those milestones with 26,000 tech workers calling Waterloo Region home and $1.6 billion invested in the last three months alone.
“That had nothing to do with me and everything to do with the amazing founders here and the amazing Communitech team,” said Albinson.
But being four years early on those goals doesn’t mean it’s time to rest. Albinson is calling for a tech version of the Canadian Olympic team’s Own The Podium movement that led up to 14 gold medals at the 2010 Vancouver games — the most gold medals won by one country at a winter games.
“We’re going to make sure that we’re the dominant innovation ecosystem. If you look at the Waterloo-Toronto Corridor today, we are the second largest innovation ecosystem on the planet, and the fastest growing,” said Albinson.
Albinson said that Waterloo today reminds him of the back and forth between Boston and San Francisco in the early 1990s. Both cities were home to early tech successes, but San Francisco became synonymous with tech.
“The Valley is not a permanent construct. There are things that made Boston very rigid and ultimately not competitive in the early 90s. Those things are also true today in Silicon Valley. There’s been a lot written about the people leaving the Valley and the reasons why they’re leaving it. The thing that we as Canadians have got to do is just raise our flag all the way to the top of the pole and say we’re going to be the next place.”
Tackling talent issues
2021 has been a year of growth and success for Waterloo Region tech companies, but that doesn’t mean Albinson and Communitech are taking a rest. Albinson has spoken with local founders and founders across Canada through the Communitech-led Canada’s Tech Network to identify near and long-term roadblocks to success.
Issues around talent acquisition, development, and retention continue to be the greatest challenges for local companies. This is even more critical now with the rapid acceptance of remote work.
“Part of talent attraction are quality of life, quality of healthcare delivery, access to housing. Those things really matter. You have this constraint, things like housing and healthcare delivery, that are really going to inhibit our ability to grow — and not in the distant future — but in the near future. It’s a big, big challenge to be working on,” said Albinson.
While attracting talent to the region is essential, Communitech is also helping local companies hire in other countries through their Communitech Outposts program. The program allows Canadian companies to hire employees in over 160 countries by setting up operating entities on their behalf to handle taxes, payroll, and other HR components.
Getting back to the Hub
Beyond its programming and support, Communitech is known for its two physical spaces — the Communitech Hub in downtown Kitchener and the Communitech Data Hub in uptown Waterloo. This month, Communitech has begun to welcome members back to their space with strict COVID-19 protocols, including rapid screening before entering the spaces.
The shift to remote work and changing work models means many local companies are reducing or eliminating their physical spaces. Albinson said this is an opportunity for Communitech to do what it does best — adapt to serve the needs of its members.
“Some want to go completely remote, some companies really need to be in person. They’re all figuring out how to do that and execute. The big takeaway for me is being very intentional about that experience. If your team is working remotely, they can come into the Hub and have some time together once a week, twice a week. Some people have home environments that aren’t conducive to working, so they need space where they can go. We’re providing all that flexibility,” said Albinson.
Scaling Canadian tech
The wall of regional success stories, including Sandvine, OpenText, BlackBerry, and others, is filling up with new names. Startups like ApplyBoard, Magnet Forensics, and Faire are raising rounds or going public and drawing attention to the Waterloo Region tech scene again.
“There was a really big change about five years ago, about the same time as the Shopify IPO where the horizon shifted. Founders asked why the hell aren’t we building a billion-dollar revenue company? With that aspiration change, they started to attract better talent. Now we’re seeing that validated. It’s not one or two or three or four companies. There’s 86 across the country today that you can look at and say these are objectively some of the best companies on the planet today — and I don’t think we’ve been able to talk about that for almost 15 years. It’s super exciting.”