6 Questions: One-on-One with Barry Gander, executive director, CATAAlliance

A look at Canada's champion for profitable tech innovation.

Before you ever hear a government stand up and announce an exciting business or economic policy decision, there’s a good chance some of the dry research work (and yes, some of the lobbying) informing it was done by an industry group. The Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance (CATA) is one such group and has been working to advance the commercial opportunities of the country’s tech companies since 1971. That’s when founders including Terry Matthews and Bill Hutchison hatched the idea on a napkin over a restaurant meal. Three decades later, executive director Barry Gander has picked up the torch, part of a dedicated team representing about 7,000 companies, from large enterprises like Bell to smaller outfits such as DragonWave. Author of a couple of best-sellers on government and business, Fast Lane and The Parliamentary Handbook, Gander joined CATA in 2003, bringing with him 25-years of experience in public policy and communications. He says CATA’s focus going forward will be on its i-Canada program which seeks to improve the country’s public high-tech communications infrastructure.

What is the greatest challenge currently facing CATA, and what are you doing about it?
CATA’s challenge is to drive [Canada’s] innovation rate up into the top few nations of the world. And [Canadians] don’t seem to be doing a good job of it across Canada at the moment, just as a general comment.  We need to take a grassroots approach that we have found is most significant when you’re talking about an increase in the levels of innovation across the country …We did a program about four years ago called Tech Action Town Hall where we went to 12 communities across the country and talked to their top 200 business leaders in a structured way to find out what drove that community. And we found in a general sense that the tighter knit a community is — not just the physical networking, but also the social networking and the business clubs and so on — the faster the rate of innovation. We think that is terribly significant. One of the reasons we started the i-Canada program was to pull all of those together.

Who else — person or company — do you feel is doing innovative work, and in what way?
It would be tough for me to name particular companies because we try to represent all companies. But a group called the Intelligent Community Association out of Waterloo is doing very innovative work in pulling Canadian and global companies together.

How would you describe your leadership approach or style?
I tend to look for blue-ocean opportunities, that is opportunities that haven’t been circled by the sharks yet, that haven’t been found. … When you’re looking for innovation you have to look for people who haven’t yet formed a labeled group and you have to coalesce those people and make a statement about a vision they feel they can move behind and suddenly there’s the ah-ha moment where you say, “Yes, that’s what we’re all about.”

CATA launched its Growth Platform for Canada under the title of “Innovation Nation” in January 2010. One year later, what progress has been made on its “core planks” such as the creation of an industrial strategy, and on scientific research and experimental development tax incentives?
We have got most of the active programs in place to drive most of those issues that we had talked about as being essential for the Canadian economy. In the innovation area, i-Canada, our grassroots program at the community level is the key platform for that. And that also helps us define industry strategy which we comment on in different ways as things are announced by the government. …

One of the interesting successes we’ve had is actually retaining the types of funding that has been set aside by government for various research programs [e.g. IRAP, the Industrial Research Assistance Program] across the board. Our heartburn in the last little while as the world economy has faltered is that there is a great temptation on the part of the public sector to cut programs and cut funding. But our view of the world is these programs have to be in place so that we can create in Canada tech-ready jobs — not shovel-ready jobs — and government support is huge in making that happen. And to be able to say we haven’t seen a decline in that support in this era where everything else is dropping is a huge accomplishment.

What is CATA’s position on usage-based billing?
We recognize the weaknesses and strengths of both sides and say this indicates we need to rethink how we’re funding telecommunications in Canada. [UBB] sort of came about without a proper amount of public discussion and there has to be a wider discussion around ‘how do we fund telecommunications in this country?’ do we have it going forward that, automatically, it will be the carriers who fund the telecommunications infrastructure? In a sense you might look at it and say, well, we have highways in this country. Do we have a highway for general motors and a highway for ford cars and a highway for Toyota cars? Or do we have a public highway? Never mind how the highway is delivered, you have to make a fundamental decision first on how you’re going to do that.

You’re an American Civil War buff. Politics aside, who was the war’s greatest general and why?
Probably General Thomas from the Union side because he never actually lost. He was pushed back a few times but he held steady and he was one of the unsung heroes of the Civil War. I would also like to contrast the cultural differences between the American Civil War and the Canadian civil war. The Canadian civil war had a timespan of about an hour, took place in a bar in north Toronto, nobody was hurt and the only person who was arrested was an American who arrived late because he got up late.