Yesterday in the Legislature we debated Bill 4: British Columbia Innovation Council Amendment Act. This bill renames the BC Innovation Council as Innovate BC and expands its mandate.
As noted in the government’s press release issued in conjunction with the tabling of the bill,
Innovate BC will absorb all the programs and services currently delivered by the BC Innovation Council, in addition to expanding its mandate. These changes will ensure that B.C. is more competitive nationally and globally, and can attract additional investment to scale up the provincial tech ecosystem.
Below I reproduce the text and video of my speech in support of this bill.
A. Weaver: It gives me pleasure to rise and speak in support of Bill 4, British Columbia Innovation Council Amendment Act. As speakers before me have articulated, this act has two major changes. One, of course, is changing the name of the British Columbia Innovation Council Act to Innovate BC Act. This is important, and I’ll come to that in a second.
The second major change, which I think is very important to emphasize, is that the mandate of Innovate BC, the new organization, will be expanded. In particular, the details as outlined in the previous act, the specific objectives of the council per se in the previous act — that section 3 of the act that’s being modified — is going to have an addition now which says that Innovate B.C. will also “offer tools, resources and expert guidance to entrepreneurs and companies in British Columbia, including in respect of building capacity to access new markets and attract investment.”
Now this is important because, while not specifically stated there, what this is recognizing is the recent appointment of Alan Winter as British Columbia’s innovation commissioner. What the innovation commissioner, of course, is going to be the advocate for the B.C.’s new Innovate B.C. agency.
Why it’s important to change the name? There’s a couple of reasons. When a new organization comes in, it’s often the time to switch the directors of a new organization, to give it a sense of new purpose and new vision and new direction. And we’re quite inspired by Mr. Winter and all that he has done for British Columbia, both in his capacity as CEO of Genome B.C. as a small business, of a large business — just a wealth of experience in innovation across a diversity of areas.
The creation of an innovation commission and the position of innovation commissioner is something that was embedded in our confidence and supply agreement with the B.C. NDP, and we’re grateful to be able to work with them to move this forward. In fact, the so-called CASA agreement states that one of our goals, collectively, is to:
“Establish an innovation commission to support innovation and business development in the technology sector and appoint an innovation commissioner with a mandate to be an advocate ambassador on behalf of the B.C. technology sector in Ottawa and abroad. The mandate and funding of the innovation commission will be jointly established by representatives of both the B.C. Green caucus and the B.C. New Democratic government. And the innovation commission will be created in the first provincial budget tabled by the New Democratic government.”
That, indeed, has been met.
What’s important here is that when one looks at the establishment of the innovation commission, one recognizes that it’s actually at an opportune time, because the focus here in British Columbia is moving to mirror exactly what is happening in Ottawa, recognizing that we can compete in innovation like no one else. So the emergence of innovate B.C. and the commissioner comes at a time when Ottawa is putting money into these very same programs.
It is critical that we have one single point of contact in terms of melding these programs together, because historically, in British Columbia, innovation has been spread across six different and separate ministries — much like fish farms are, as we’ve discussed in question period.
Technology is exciting here, in British Columbia. In 2015, when we have the best data, there were over 100,000 jobs in more than 9,900 companies in B.C., with wages that, on average, were 75 percent higher than the B.C. industrial average; with average weekly earnings of almost $1,600 a week. It had the fifth consecutive year of growth in 2015, and about 5 percent of British Columbia’s workforce was in the tech sector. That’s more than mining, oil and gas, and forestry combined.
I’ll say that again for those riveted at home. There was 5 percent of British Columbia’s workforce in the tech sector in 2015. That is more than mining, oil, gas and forestry combined.
Now, it’s very odd that somehow, in British Columbia, we continue to perpetuate the notion that we are but hewers of wood and drawers of water and that our economy is based on oil and gas or our economy is based on the extraction of raw materials and shipping of those raw materials elsewhere.
In fact, a full 7 percent of our GDP comes from the tech sector. We know that the overwhelming component of our GDP comes from the real estate sector, a very high fraction of it, but 7 percent is from the tech sector. Again, I’ll come back to that in a second.
We know that in 2016, more than 106,000 people were working in the tech sector. By 2020, it’s projected to be more than 120,000. I would suggest that that will be an underestimate. We know that investment in B.C. tech will be increased by up to $100 million by 2020 and that recently — and I give both sides of the House credit here — there’s been an increase in talent pool and an increase in funding of actual post-secondary institution places to actually promote continued growth of training of highly-qualified personnel in this area. That was an initiative started by B.C. Liberals, continued by B.C. NDP, and one that we support all the way through.
We recognize as a caucus, as a small caucus here, that playing a key role in the tech sector is absolutely central to our economy. We will never, ever, ever compete with a jurisdiction like Angola or Namibia or Indonesia in terms of extracting raw resources straight from the ground, because we internalize social and environmental costs into the cost of doing business in B.C. that may not be internalized in other jurisdictions that don’t have the same social programs that we have and demand that we have here in B.C. or the same standard of environmental protection that we have and demand that we have in B.C.
For us to compete, we can compete by racing to the bottom. The journey into LNG tells us what that leads to — goose egg. Or, we can compete by being smarter and by building on our strategic advantages.
Today in the Legislature, we had a number of interns visiting from Washington state. Talking with these interns from Washington state, the idea of building on strategic strengths came up.
What was interesting is that I was reminded of a story when I was at the University of Washington. There was a fella there. His name was Ed Sarachik. He was my post-doctoral adviser. We were working in some climate modelling area, and Ed said to me: “You know, Andrew, we’re at the University of Washington. We’ve got an IBM 3090 here.” That dates me. It was a vector-based machine. It’s pretty old now. That was in the late 1980s. “We’re never going to compete with NCAR, Princeton or MIT in terms of the powerful computing that they have access to. But we can be smarter and more efficient and more clever, and we can win through efficiency and being smarter.”
He was right that by focusing strategically on things that we could do well, rather than the brute force, race to the bottom approach, we were able do some neat stuff. That’s exactly the same with the tech sector. We can’t compete through digging dirt out of the ground when we’re internalizing these costs. But we can be more efficient. We can be cleaner, and we can export in a more efficient and cleaner way the resources that have historically been a key component of British Columbia’s economy.
Now, one of my favourite companies is a company called MineSense in British Columbia. It turns out — and I didn’t realize that until with the mining delegation, when a bunch of my former students ended up lobbying me about mining — that one of the key founders of MineSense was another former student from UVic. This kind of blew me way. I’m sure as a former teacher, hon. Speaker, you know that you see these former students popping up everywhere, and you wonder how they got from where they were to where they are now.
I’m blown away by that company. It’s a company that’s developed technology to actually assess up front the quality of minerals to determine whether or not it is cost-effective to truck it a long distance to the crusher and process all of that grade, or just push it to the side to be used as fill later.
That’s innovation. That’s efficiency. That allows us to actually compete by actually mining our high-grade minerals without wasting the time of digging up all of the stuff that’s not economical. We can export the minerals and compete through efficiency. But we can also export the technology and compete through technology.
This is why it’s so critical to have Innovate B.C. and the innovation commissioner. Because in B.C., we have a disparate bunch of programs out there, many of which don’t match with programs that exist federally. In talking to CEOs of a diversity of small start-up companies, they’re frustrated. They’re frustrated by the fact that they’ll go through a process to apply for grants federally, and then they’ll have to go through the same process in a slightly different way to apply for grants provincially.
I was excited in speaking recently with the innovation commissioner, Alan Winter, who recognizes that there’s some duplication there that’s not necessary. By streamlining programs, not only do we let innovators be innovative, as opposed to writing the same thing twice, but we actually are able more efficiently to tap into federal money, which actually is good for our economy here in British Columbia.
Now I have some experience in this regard with something British Columbia has known as the B.C. Knowledge Development Fund, an exceptional fund that’s used to lever money from Ottawa through the Canada Foundation for Innovation, which provides funding for large pieces of equipment for universities. I don’t know what the process is like now. But I do know that when I applied and got a supercomputer a number of years back, again, it was a duplication of a process.
The CFI process was rigorous and onerous and took an enormous amount of work to bring together stakeholders from a diversity of groups and organizations. Then we had to just rematch that process with the B.C. Knowledge Development Fund. It seemed to me that if we follow the Quebec model that there’s some duplication there, and we recognized that one process could satisfy everything.
I’m hoping that the innovation commissioner will see, as we move forward, opportunities here. It’s clear to me that we are so very lucky to have Alan Winter as the innovation commissioner. He recognizes, as members opposite have raised, the importance of actually thinking beyond roads as just being things to take people from A to B, but in terms of broadband, it’s critical to getting information from A to B.
It’s clear to me that he recognizes that our rural communities will be empowered upon receiving access to broadband, not only singular broadband but redundancy, as some bigger communities will get.
This is how we’ll compete. When we bring our tech sector…. Tech doesn’t just mean coding apps for the smartphone. Tech means biomedical sciences. Tech means revised forestry handling tools. Tech means thinking of new engineered wood products. Tech means bringing together the forestry sector with innovators in technology who see that you can make new things like insulation from wood products or roofing beams from wood products.
Tech is about innovation, and innovation goes far beyond what often people think that it only is, which is the smartphone app.
Our biomedical industry, as I mentioned, is one. In the automotive industry, we should be having innovation in that here in British Columbia. We should be leaders in the adoption of EVs.
Quantum computing. In British Columbia, we have, in D-Wave, one of the world’s leading companies in quantum computing. This is tech. This is a way for the future. We’ve got fuel cell technology. That’s another form of tech.
Let’s not think that tech is just about smart people with lab coats who have engineering degrees. Tech also requires people to construct and build and highly trained people in a diversity of trades, whether it be electrical, whether it be mechanical, whether it be the construction using carpentry. You need all skills working together to actually take the idea from the lab bench to fruition.
You know, we look at the issue of clean energy, something that I’m desperately hoping this government will pick up. There is so much potential for innovation in British Columbia, whether it be Rocky Mountain Solar, a project that I hope to get the member for Kootenay East excited about shortly. Rocky Mountain Solar is a solar company that has private land. The transmission lines go right through the private land. They’ve passed the standing offer program. They gone through the standing offer program, but they can’t actually get going. They’ve got a partnership with UBC to actually have a research facility there. They could scale up to 45, 50, 75 megatonnes of capacity.
But again, if we’re stuck thinking the old way, the 20th-century way, companies like Rocky Mountain Solar, who want to invest their capital…. They want to construct and build, which requires carpenters and tradespeople, to build capacity for a solar field there — British Columbia’s first and only grid-scale solar facility. It needs innovation, and it needs a champion and a commission that actually can do that within government by bringing together the various diverse groups there.
You know, I’m excited by the Minister of Jobs, Trade and Technology. In particular….
A. Weaver: It’s a mouthful for a poor humble soul like me — Minister of Jobs, Trade and Technology.
A. Weaver: I thought I’d wake a few up there over that. Not allowed to speak if you’re not in your seat there, member from….
I’m excited because in meeting with the civil service who are working in this area, you can see the passion and the desire to make this work. I’m thrilled with the calibre of the civil service who are getting behind this Innovate B.C. initiative. I’m thrilled about what’s coming up in terms of the tech summit that’s going to be happening in the coming months.
We have a very exciting time, but we’ve got to get a handle on a couple things. The innovation commission, or Innovate B.C., the innovation commissioner, can’t do everything. Government is required to set a culture. Government is required to set an environment that allows them to innovate.
What does that mean? That means we’ve got to get a grip on the affordability crisis facing British Columbians. You can be the best innovative person in the world and have the most wonderful idea in the world, but if you can’t get anyone to work with you because they can’t afford to live here, it ain’t going to take off . It’s going to move to New Brunswick or somewhere else.
We also have to ensure that we have a competitive environment in terms of the tax and the education framework. I have some sympathy with members of the opposition who are raising concerns about the employers health tax. It’s not clear to me that the details have been expanded upon fully yet, but this needs to be explored a little more, for a number of reasons.
We have a very odd taxation system in British Columbia. We have this magical barrier of $500,000, above which you start paying, now, an employers health tax, and you also start paying corporate tax.
Now, the problem with that is there’s a natural ceiling which stops innovation and growth. Why would I, if I’m a company making $450,000 a year, want to move up to be a company that’s now making $550,000 a year? I cross that $500,000 threshold. It’s an artificial threshold, but now I’m paying corporate tax and paying the employers health tax.
We need to take a hard look at how we have our taxation system. Step functions are not as conducive to growth as perhaps small linear changes. Again, that will be the role of the government — to explore that more fully.
This is a short bill. It may seem like a minor change, but the implications are profound, because the implications are sending a signal to the market in British Columbia that we’re here for the 21st century. Innovation is going to be the engine and power of our economy, and we want to send a signal to British Columbia that there is an agency. There is a champion to actually ensure that innovation is able to emerge at the lab bench and move through to production down the road.
Let’s ensure that that happens in British Columbia. Let’s ensure that the stories that we hear time and time again of a company building it to $1 million a year and then selling out to a Silicon Valley company…. Let’s create an environment here in British Columbia, not only in Vancouver but across B.C.
The member for Kamloops–South Thompson talks about the tech sector in Kamloops. He’s right. Really exciting things are going on in Kamloops. We’ve got the tech sector in Kelowna — happening there as well. Some concerns about Kelowna in light of some changes to the distance and digital tax credits that were done, dismissed and retroactively applied. Nevertheless, there’s some excitement happening there. But it doesn’t have to stop in Kelowna and Kamloops.
Prince George. If we put broadband redundancy in there, it should be a capital of tech innovation, particularly with the forest and mining sectors. We could go to Terrace. We go to Prince Rupert. All across British Columbia, if we’re able to bring broadband and broadband redundancy in, we’re able to give the innovators in that community a way to actually access high-speed information. I tell you, it’s a lot easier to buy a house in Fort Nelson than it is to buy a house in Richmond.
The beauty and quality of what we offer here in British Columbia is second to none, whether it be in the north, in the east or the south as well.
I’m thrilled to see this emerge — Bill 4. It’s a small change but a mighty change, and I stand in strong support and thank you for your attention on this bill.
Comments are closed.