36 Radical Ideas to Kick-Start Canada’s Economy

36 Radical Ideas to Kick-Start Canada’s Economy


Move everything to the cloud

Move everything to the cloud

A few years ago, Ben Lieber, a lawyer from Washington, D.C., began noticing a new trend in town. “There were all these highly educated, experienced women lawyers who had had kids,” he says. But when they tried to come back to work, things weren’t working out. It’s the kind of thing you hear about a lot in professions like law, which used to be dominated by men but aren’t as much anymore. To Lieber, it seemed like an opportunity. “I thought, there’s all this high-end capacity that’s idle. And these are women who don’t want to be idle,” he says.

So Lieber founded a firm composed almost entirely of such women. Opened two years ago, Potomac Law Group leans heavily on cloud technology and is itself a kind of cloud—a constellation of 40 lawyers who went to the best schools, trained at the best firms, and are now working, mostly from home, to their own schedules, for about half the price bigger firms charge.

That, in a nutshell, is the promise of the next wave of the cloud. If the first generation of cloud technology was about IT—about offsite e-mail and office software—the next will be about offsite everything else. Smart companies will tap cloud computing and use it to create their own clouds—of professionals and experts and services—that they can offer to clients for lower prices and with better results than what’s out there now.

It’s working well for Potomac. The firm has a small office in Washington, just down the street from the White House. But almost none of its lawyers work there, which keeps infrastructure costs down. And instead of the expensive billing software that big firms use—which Lieber says can run to US$1,000 per lawyer—he uses a cloud system that costs $30 a head. By farming out legal work to Potomac’s cloud of lawyers, big corporations are getting expert work done at a fraction of the price.

Potomac is only one of the many companies worldwide that is expanding our idea of what the cloud can do. Toronto law firm Skylaw is also tapping a cloud of outside experts to offer a much wider array of services than a boutique firm could normally boast. “Let’s say we need employment lawyers or tax lawyers—instead of trying to keep them in house, what we do is [bring them in] on a project basis,” says founding partner Kevin West.

This isn’t just happening in law, either. Brightsquid, a Calgary startup, is now offering cloud services to dentists, allowing specialists to share patient X-rays and data with general dentists through secure servers. Tunezy, a Toronto startup, gives musicians a platform to sell everything from meet-ups to personalized birthday songs for fans. This new generation of cloud company could potentially offer something to any kind of business. The question now, then, isn’t so much ‘What can you export to the cloud?’ as it is ‘What can’t you?’ And, maybe more important: ‘Who will leave you behind if you don’t?’” – Richard Warnica


Focus on success

Amar Varma

“People aren’t taking enough risks, and then they wonder why we’re falling behind. There is too much of a focus on ‘What if I fail?’ rather than on ‘What if I succeed?’ Focusing on success is a much better outlook—if you’re thinking about failing, odds are you won’t succeed.”

Amar Varma

Co-founder Xtreme Labs/Extreme Venture Partner



Focus on success

Amar Varma

“People aren’t taking enough risks, and then they wonder why we’re falling behind. There is too much of a focus on ‘What if I fail?’ rather than on ‘What if I succeed?’ Focusing on success is a much better outlook—if you’re thinking about failing, odds are you won’t succeed.”

Amar Varma

Co-founder Xtreme Labs/Extreme Venture Partner

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Lock down your cloud

Security consultant Stuart McClure was recently contracted by an unnamed client to try to hack into a newly constructed office building. All of the systems in the complex—electricity, lighting, heating, security cameras—were wirelessly controlled. After only a single day of work, McClure and his team at his California-based security firm, Cylance, gained access to the entire building. “We could do anything and everything,” he says, including shutting off the power and disabling the security system. “It is so easy to attack this system you have to laugh.”

Such a hack was possible in the first place thanks to the proliferation of wireless devices. More and more products are getting some form of wireless connectivity, from your thermostat to your car to your television. Connecting everything to the Internet has its benefits (see No. 22) But as McClure’s story shows, it’s also opening the door to a whole new set of security threats.

At the extreme end, researchers from the University of California and the University of Washington have demonstrated ways to infect automobiles with viruses. One piece of malicious software actually allowed the researchers to disable or slam on a car’s brakes remotely. Other researchers hacked insulin pumps and discovered they could deliver a fatal dose to the owner.

While frightening, such scenarios are far-fetched. The vast majority of hacking takes place for commercial gain, such as when PCs are hacked to send out revenue-producing spam e-mail. Today, that could theoretically happen with your gaming console or smart TV. Security firm McAfee is working to tackle the problem, and has developed a few prototype devices that, once plugged into a router, can monitor every Internet-connected item in the home for such attacks.

At BlackBerry’s January launch event for the BlackBerry 10 operating system, CEO Thorsten Heins proclaimed, “We will be the leader in connecting you to your Internet of Things.” And the BlackBerry 10 operating system could indeed power devices beyond smartphones and tablets. The data sent to and from these products—an implanted medical device relaying vital signs to a doctor, for example—could theoretically be routed through BlackBerry’s network, which is renowned for securing sensitive data. “Our competitors actually can’t secure the data and personal information the way we can,” says Sebastien Marineau, senior vice-president of engineering. “So we’re really leveraging our security DNA in BlackBerry 10.”

Gus Papageorgiou, a technology analyst with Scotiabank, wrote last fall that BlackBerry is better equipped than many to take advantage of machine-to-machine communication, in part because of its security expertise. “No organization is going to want to take on the legal liability associated with an M2M solution that cannot be secured,” he wrote.

But the technology is proliferating faster than worries about security for now, and as McClure’s building hack shows, not every manufacturer is taking the potential threats seriously. “They’re just starting to look at what it takes,” he says. – Joe Castaldo


Create our own ‘Paypal mafia’

Ryan Holmes, CEO HootSuite

“Successful entrepreneurs need to continue to help and support budding startups as they develop, by acting as mentors, partners, advisers and investors. The PayPal mafia was a group of American business people and investors who were founders or early employees of the e-commerce company PayPal. These people used their profits to invest in a number of other startups, including Facebook and LinkedIn—companies they also advised and often worked for themselves. This created a cycle of success for startups in that region, a cycle we need here in Canada.”

Ryan Holmes

CEO, HootSuite


Fight to protect Canada’s data privacy laws

There was a time not so long ago when the future of online privacy in this country was looking pretty grim. Just last year, the federal government was championing a law that would have granted police sweeping new powers to monitor Canadians’ e-mail and demand customer information from Internet service providers. Anyone who opposed the bill, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews famously said at the time, was standing “with the child pornographers.” What a difference a year makes. Today, Toews’s bill is long dead, the government is unlikely to resurrect it, and Canada’s online privacy regime is looking not just robust but, to at least one online legend, like a serious business opportunity.

Phil Zimmermann is an Internet Hall of Famer (yes, there really is an Internet Hall of Fame). In 1991, he created Pretty Good Privacy, one of the most widely used e-mail encryption tools. Now, Zimmermann has a new privacy venture, and Canada’s privacy laws will be crucial to pulling it off. Silent Circle, which Zimmermann co-founded with a former Navy SEAL, aims to provide encrypted smartphone services to customers all over the world. The company is registered offshore, and its systems are designed to ensure that no one—not even the company itself—can access the codes you use to encrypt, send or delete data on your phone.

Key to the company’s security model is the fact that all its servers are located in Canada. Zimmermann and his team believe the privacy laws here are stronger than they are in the U.S. And in an era of cloud computing, that could provide Canadians with an advantage in the ever-growing business of secure data storage. Of course, it’s only true as long as Canada’s privacy laws stay strong—which might be as good a reason as any for the federal government to stay hands-off. – Richard Warnica


Transform Canada into the world’s data centre

As businesses flock to the cloud, demand for digital infrastructure like data centres is growing exponentially—all that information has to go somewhere. That, in turn, has spawned a whole new industry in itself: managing the huge secure warehouses that contain millions of servers.

A global battle has broken out to attract such data centres, which already number in the tens of thousands. Canada should be ideally positioned to win that battle—but so far, we’re largely missing out.

Data centers have extraordinary power requirements, both to keep the equipment running and to keep servers cool. For companies like Google and Apple, cheap electricity is of the utmost concern, says Osama Arafat, CEO of Q9, one of Canada’s biggest providers of outsourced data-centre services. “They’re trying to optimize for cost. So they’ll plunk down a data centre next to a hydro dam in the middle of nowhere.” In recent years, tech companies have begun to build centres in colder climates to offset a huge portion of the energy bill. In northern countries, you can cool the servers just by opening the windows, so to speak—a technique the industry aptly calls “free cooling.” Canada, equipped with abundant hydroelectricity and more cold air than anyone could want, should be an easy sell. But so far, the Internet giants have taken a pass on Canada.

Years ago, Google made overtures in Quebec, but the provincial government and Hydro-Québec were unwilling to provide the kind of electricity discounts afforded other industries. Google instead found a welcome host in Finland, where the company built a €350-million data centre on the site of a former paper mill. Facebook is currently building a 900,000-square-foot facility 100 kilometres south of the Arctic Circle in Lulea, Sweden. Unlike Canada, Scandinavian countries have aggressively courted the green data-centre industry, global spending on which is expected to grow to $45 billion in the next three years.

“Canada has been a laggard, and it has surprised people because of our proximity to the largest data market in the world,” says Bill St. Arnaud, an Ottawa-based IT consultant. It’s also surprising given Canada’s abundance of cheap electricity.

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But governments in Canada have been skeptical of the benefits of data centres in the past. While it’s true that the massive server farms like the ones being built in the northern Nordic reaches are not creators of mass jobs, they do present an opportunity to diversify an economy. And according to research firm Canalys, data-centre transformation is one of the three key trends driving IT growth. The evolution of the Internet to more sophisticated networking, like cloud computing, will require more “resilient infrastructure,” Canalys said.

But even as Canadian governments, particularly in Quebec, warm to data centres, Canada is handicapped in the international market by its telecom industry. With a lack of foreign competition, telecom costs are much higher here than in Europe. “Telecom is essential to the operation of a data centre,” St. Arnaud says. “It’s those costs that really undermine the business case for many data centres in Canada.” – Tim Shufelt


Lobby for stronger copyright to prepare Canada for a connected future

The Business Software Alliance recently ranked countries for “cloud preparedness,” based on factors such as broadband penetration, free trade, copyright and cybercrime law. Canada came in 12th—so we still have plenty to do to harness the cloud

Gaps in Canadian law dragged down our ranking: the BSA said a lack of strong cybercrime laws and outdated copyright regulations put us in 12th place, despite high levels of broadband Internet access


Close the Cloud-computing jobs gap

Read the breathless reports coming from the tech industry and you’d think cloud computing will create jobs for all. Few innovations have been as hyped for their job-creating potential as the cloud, which is seeing businesses store their software and data remotely. Market research firm IDC has forecast the shift will produce as many as seven million global positions by the end of 2015. A Sand Hill Group report said in 2012 the cloud created more jobs than the Internet itself.

Don’t pop that champagne cork yet, though. A study by IDC released in December found that while there was growing demand for cloud workers, the supply is falling short. One in four IT jobs worldwide is currently unfilled, and 28% of those jobs are cloud-related. All in all, companies failed to fill 1.7 million cloud-related jobs last year.

“There’s not enough supply right now,” says Google Canada head of enterprise, Jim Lambe. “That’s the bottom line.”

So what exactly has changed? Businesses used to keep data and software in a single location and hired IT workers to look after it. Delivering software that way is inefficient, however, because it requires a company maintain the capacity to handle peak usage of e-mail and other programs by its entire staff all the time, whether they need it or not. Now firms can pay third parties to manage software and data on demand. That’s good news for firms but a potential headache for programmers. They must write software not for a single user but for hundreds of users logging on from different devices with unpredictable connection speeds.

With remote storage and no server in the basement to fix, there has been a sea change in the way IT works. Some IT jobs are starting to become obsolete, while many new ones require retraining. North American firms are looking abroad to fill the skills gap, using higher compensation to lure workers from developing countries. The hope is that in the years to come, the jobs will return as local workers get up to speed. – Sarah Barmak


Learn how to manage the creativity process

“There is still a big gap between world-leading companies and Canadian businesses with respect to the role of creative people, or…representing creativity within an organization. I don’t think it’s a priority for enough businesses. Managing creativity is a process: you have to manage the production process, the sales process, and you need to manage the creative process. We should think more around that, and more organizations should equip themselves with the ability to do so.”

Bertrand Cesvet

Chairman, Sid Lee


Put your brain on a workout regimen

How can you tell when a moment of forgetfulness is a sign of something more sinister?

A Toronto-based company hopes to capture a slice of the $1-billion brain fitness market by helping baby boomers answer that question.

Cogniciti, a joint venture between Baycrest Health Sciences and the MaRS Discovery District, will be launching what it claims to be the world’s first clinically tested online brain checkup this summer. For a yet to be determined price, adults will be able to create a personalized report on their brain health by completing a set of exercises online.

“It’s a lot like a blood-pressure cuff for the brain,” says company president Mike Meagher. “Normal aging and serious issues like Alzheimer’s kind of look the same in the early stages.…This test will help answer the question,‘Is my memory normal, or do I need to see a doctor?’”

With the number of seniors with Alzheimer’s set to triple over the next 40 years, scientists are searching for ways to keep our brains sharp well into old age.

Enter brain fitness, a new healthy-living trend driven not only by the aging population but also by developments in technology and neuroscience. Alvaro Fernandez, CEO of a market-research company called SharpBrains, forecasts that the industry will be worth $4 billion to $8 billion globally by 2020.

“Physical fitness didn’t exist as an industry 30 or 40 years ago, and now everyone is aware of it,” says Fernandez.

“You can find health clubs and personal trainers everywhere. We believe that in a few years, there will be personal brain trainers that help people understand their needs and navigate the options.”

But amid the deluge of online brain games like Lumosity that promise to flex the cognitive muscles, the realm of assessment has remained virtually untapped. This leaves Cogniciti with a global opportunity, says Fernandez. The challenge will be making sure that health-care professionals are onboard. – Alexandra Posadzki

Illustrations by Remie Geoffroi, iStock, Q9 Networks Inc