Mr. Tremblay brings more than 30 years of executive leadership experience with multinational corporations to Invest Ottawa and its stakeholders, most recently from Microsoft Canada where he served as Vice President, Public Services for over a decade. As part of this Fortune 100 company, he led and drove the growth of public sector business; collaborated extensively with employees, partners and customers; and contributed to Microsoft’s Canadian leadership team.
Prior to joining Microsoft, he served as a Senior Vice President with SAP Canada and Fujitsu Consulting, and as a Vice President with JDS Uniphase, EDS Systemhouse and Digital Equipment Corporation. An Ottawa native, Mr. Tremblay is also deeply engaged in the community, contributing to the Algonquin College Board of Governors and Foundation Board for more than 13 years, and audit and advocacy committees with the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario for the last six years.
Insights from Michael Tremblay: President and CEO of Invest Ottawa
You joined Invest Ottawa in March 2017 as President and CEO. What are some of the things that you are hoping to accomplish?
Quite a few things. We have been active both in Invest Ottawa & Bayview Yards. We are very active in our new accelerator facility, which is a former City of Ottawa Truck Repair facility. The first thing that I decided I wanted to get behind and got great community support for, was to recast our community strategic plan – which we did this past year, and we began execution of it in January 2018. I think at the outset we had a really good plan, and we are executing the plan. But my main reason and my main goal for joining the organization was to help the local region to achieve its full potential. I was born & raised in Ottawa and I wanted to make sure I couldcontribute& give back after so many years of being blessed with an incredible career, which started right here in Ottawa.
You have over thirty years of experience in sales and marketing. How do you believe your past experience can help you in your current position?
I think pretty directly. Part of taking on any new role is to learn & develop & grow and I think I am doing that for sure. I think I will also contribute because of the direction that most economies are taking, which is very much influenced by this phenomenon of the 4th industrial revolution; itself tied to a lot of the work I have done over my career. I was very directly engaged in the 3rd industrial revolution, also known as the digital revolution. This later round of it, I would say the stakes are much higher in that we truly do have a global market, and my main goal was to take everything I have learned in a big enterprise and big tech companies and apply some of that learning into the economic development area. I think my past experiences, given what’s happened in the 4th industrial revolution, are very directly applied. And if I can apply a definition around that, it’s a fusion of digital, physical, and biological worlds. Which means it is no longer about 3 or 4 disruptive tech areas; it’s with the underpinnings of disruptive tech capabilities. I feel like I am able to contribute. I am also definitely benefitting from learning in a lot of areas that I haven’t been exposed to before, so it’s a great balance.
How is Invest Ottawa helping business owners grow their business?
In a lot of different ways. I should mention that our Mission isn’t limited to domestic entrepreneurship; we also do have foreign direct investment and trade components. I feel that it’s really important to have a connection between companies you are attracting to your region and the companies you are building to the vehicle of the market. There is a direct connection, but we do all of the things that you expect a company like ours to do. We help companies by fostering entrepreneurship, we attract new entrepreneurs to take the plunge, and we help tech accelerator startups with a whole series of programming that we provide. We help small companies to grow and develop because we connect them with big companies and big markets.
Invest Ottawa has one main goal: making Ottawa the most innovative city in Canada. How are you hoping to make that happen?
That’s probably an old statement. I think I understand the genesis of it. I think one of the reasons that statement was made many years ago is that Ottawa, as the nation’s capital, is very, very fortunate to have 65 research development labs – which, over generations, created a lot of tech companies. When you look at the statistics in Ottawa, we actually have over 11% of our workforce in the tech sector, which is actually quite high. We don’t really think of ourselves these days as making Ottawa the most innovative city in Canada. We think differently about it. We have a vision that is to enable Canada’s capital to reach its full potential as a globally recognized innovative and future-ready region. And the real passion I’d like to learn in on here in Ottawa as the best place to learn, live, and play. I just think of that because, from an environmental perspective, we do have an enormous abundance of government workers. One in 5 employees in Ottawa works for the government. But a lot of the work population are in tech jobs. We do provide channel programming, but the direction of our focus is in 3 market led areas. One is with respect to Government – Technology. The second is Life Sciences and Health Care, with a focus on health care. And then finally Smart Cities, which includes things like the autonomous vehicle innovation program that we have with the Ontario government, which is kind of interesting because almost 90 companies in Ottawa sell some kind of development of technologies or support of technologies that go into the autonomous vehicle area. As part of this discussion, Ottawa is very active in terms of global markets.
Can you talk about some of the challenges that entrepreneurs face when they want to grow their business?
We have 46 companies that are directly connected to our Accelerator at Bayview Yards, which is an incredible facility; we are very blessed to have it. There is always a range of start-ups that you end up working with. Some are trying it out for the first time and they end up going down the track. There are always financial issues, there are always challenges in getting the right advice; a lot of what we try to do is to make those connections as early in the cycle as we can. We definitely focus on programming and support coaching. Which, for most, is helping to get things underway, which really is our goal. There is nothing worse than getting bad advice and I think perhaps the only worse thing would be trying to go it alone and not getting any advice at all. There is a lot of very active support working with people that have knowledge and skills in terms of helping these companies. We have in our coaching/mentoring network, over 18 that are active each day with our companies. And they are involved in a wide range of skills, including former CEO’s. I think the challenges that we face, we try to address them in an accelerator by aligning them with the right subject matter expertise. They’re needed to move things along. Often companies go down the wrong track; it’s just not working out. It may have nothing to do with the idea. It may have to do with execution. Or it may be the actual idea, which requires more effort on the front end. There are lots of different challenges they face. But we definitely have the support network and programming to help companies to move along that continuum in a positive way.
Invest Ottawa offers several services to help business owners develop and grow their business. Can you talk about some of those services and how they can be beneficial for entrepreneurs?
Invest Ottawa has early stage training, which we do during the course of the year. We train upwards of 4000 or more people with different programming. If you are a new company or someone considering opening a company, we have a wide range of training that is delivered 100% by volunteers. These are subject matter experts; they might be lawyers, accountants. We even had Shopify present a few weeks ago to some of our mainstream businesses, on how to apply E-Commerce and technology to your business; to broaden market coverage. We have training on the front end, so that’s the early stage part of the business. We also offer things like PAW company where we actually help you try out a company. This summer we actually graduated 34 youth companies that went through the program and did a wide range of stuff. We have something called “Start a Company,” which is not limited by age. Another program that is funded by the Ontario government helps companies to get things moving. And we have our Accelerator, which has very strong methodologies that help companies with early idea/innovation all the way through to global scale up. That is a very successful, well-classed program and one we are very proud to deliver. Beyond that, it is coaches, mentors, and all kinds of programming that we have at our facility at Bayview Yards, which includes major events that happen all year long. We have a capacity to run events for up to 300 people with a very wide range of training & programming. Just a few weeks ago Amazon presented to the Machine Learning User Group in Ottawa and shared their perspective on how they acquired learning techniques through AWS through Amazon. It was a very exciting and well-delivered presentation. Those sorts of things are happening every week at Bayview Yards. In a nutshell, we have had very wide programming over a long period of time that has been quite successful.
What makes Ottawa so great, compared to other Canadian cities, that makes you believe it has the potential of becoming the most innovative city in the country?
Again, I would say we don’t promote the tagline of being the most innovative city in Canada. I think it’s better to share how we partner really strongly with other organizations coast to coast and globally. Our vision is really to enable our region to achieve its full potential. We spend most of our time partnering and focusing on being connected to global supply chains and global markets, though we do have a very strong capability in a wide range of disruptive tech areas, especially considering how large our IT sector is, with over 70,000 employees. We focus on the market; instead of tech being the primary ticket, we focus on market innovation. That is where we spend most of our time. I mentioned the 3 markets that we have. I believe that if I look further out, those are the areas in which we will really make our mark as a region. We were the first city in Canada to provide a public test track that connected vehicles with large city infrastructure. We had the first two in Canada. One is we tested autonomous vehicles on Canadian streets for the first time. This was last fall, so almost a year ago. And we did that testing connected to live infrastructure. So, it’s not people but its cameras looking at streets and lights. It’s actual cars connected directly using network technology with the city infrastructure. And we have extended this past year by enabling newer technology for the next generation, so we are preparing for how to drive capability in Ottawa to support this auto programming both on public and private test tracks. We have a gated area where we will be testing cars. Some of that is actually occurring at a greenbelt site, so we are testing autonomous vehicles and delivering programming very soon to include 5G Capability. It’s very exciting for our city. These are the sorts of things that help to stand out as a region in global markets, which is our goal.
Invest Ottawa deals with several partners to put in place programs and services that can be beneficial to entrepreneurs. How do you go about choosing your partners?
We are the central agency in Ottawa that works on a wide range of delivery. From a partnership perspective, we actually partner very closely with all the post-secondary institutions; we do partner very closely with pretty much every body. We are very complementary; we do not compete with any of our partners. Our main goal is to drive high-value job creation and long-term economic growth and community prosperity. We are actually very friendly in that respect. We work very closely with a wide range of partners. How do we select them? Often times there are different bids that they may actually co-propose with local regional players to make sure that we can deliver a wide set of programming connected to government funding and government programming. Our role is very much about delivering economic prosperity and the capability that goes with it. We are wide open to working with a wide set of partners. I would say most of what comes together is just by being open and being friendly to those different types of partnerships.
What would you say is the biggest accomplishment of Invest Ottawa?
The main thing is that as an organization we started off as being called OCRI(Ottawa Centre for Research and Innovation). It’s an organization that goes back a long time. As I look at it, the single biggest accomplishment of Invest Ottawa has been constantly working on this whole area of domestic entrepreneurship and foreign investment and trade as a combined function, which I think really positions us very well to operate strategically. Over the past year and a half, we have done a really smart job of getting together our strategic plan. If I was to call out our biggest accomplishment, it would be around building a very strong foundation in the region and then executing against a new plan that takes advantage of full accessibility to position us for the future. There is a full video on our Strategic Plan on our website, which includes a composite understanding of the “Why Ottawa” story and “Why Ottawa is unique.” What you will see in there is a unified approach towards building on our very strong history and legacy of being a tech-centric city that is always looking forward.
Can you talk about some of the challenges you face on a daily basis and how you overcome them?
The challenges that we have are challenges that any accelerator or incubator or foreign investment trade group would have. We have far more demand than supply of services. We are constantly trying to make sure that we are upping our game every day and every week and every month toward being able to focus on the right areas and deliver the highest quality of service. The challenges are the disconnect between voracious demand and the supply that we have to support that demand. And I think that will only increase for all of us because of the characteristics of the 4th Industrial Revolution, where anyone can create a business in a very specialized way. It’s supplying services where you can have a general purpose. That is how we deal with the challenges; through focus and making very clear decisions about which markets we are in the best position to take advantage of over a long period of time. That is probably how I would characterize it.
What makes Invest Ottawa better than other organizations who are doing the same thing for entrepreneurs?
Invest Ottawa, from a strategic perspective, is making very clear decisions that are market led. Some regions focus on specific disruptive tech areas, which I think is okay, and you have to have that capacity and capability. But I think in a much longer-term sense where you are really thinking of big global markets and developing relationships worldwide. Take, for example, health care. Creating networks of healthcare relationships with big hospitals and with big industry players in healthcare over 10 years that will have a very significant impact. Disruption comes and goes but markets tend to have a much longer runway, and if you are connected to the strategic positions of markets, you will have a far better position. I wouldn’t characterize us as better than any other organization. I can say that our focus, I believe, makes us more relevant in markets where we strategically go after them.
If you could give any advice to entrepreneurs who are just starting off, what would it be?
The simple thing is being clear in the markets you are serving and very clear about what it is that you are offering. Make it about value; if you have a value proposition that resonates with a user and you are not only providing a service that people want to use but they are prepared to buy, that is all the difference. When I was in MBA school, one of the lessons that our marketing professor provided that sticks with me today is, “It’s the fish’s taste in flies that matters.”I really do believe that oftentimes entrepreneurs can get caught up in doing their own thinking; you really have to do market validation; you do have to make sure that what you are offering resonates with your target, not just with yourself. You really have to understand your target market. Some of the most successful companies that I’ve dealt with are the ones that really do understand in extreme detail what that market needs; they find what that niche is and they go after it hard.
What would you say are the three common mistakes that entrepreneurs make when they launch their business, and how can Invest Ottawa help them?
Companies will take shortcuts at the front end. We have a pre-accelerator program, for if they are not quite ready to go through full coaching, full mentoring process. We offer to help them get to that stage. You want to take care of basics, like filing your company, make sure that you have the right advice on setting up governance, selecting appropriate board members. The biggest area that entrepreneurs will blow past is that first section, and they will be in trouble later on because they haven’t established the company properly. I think the biggest thing that I would highly recommend is to “Make Sure You Get the Basics Right.” And the way that Invest Ottawa supports that is through early stage programming and some of the early coaching and mentoring. To help those companies get the fundamentals in place; have a good foundation right from the start.
Don’t get hung up on the invention, itself; you have to think about what the market wants. It’s not enough to have something that is a really cool invention. Consumers need to want it or businesses need to want it and they need to be willing to pay for it. It isn’t just enough to create an app; lots of people use apps that are free. You want to be able to build a business around it where cash is flying and you are able to scale your business because you are able to fuel it.
Where do you see Invest Ottawa 10 years from today?
That’s a good question. 10 years is a very long time. I do believe we will make Ottawa stand out dramatically, and position the capital region overall as being a global tech accelerator. If I was to fast-forward 10 years, Ottawa can be Canada’s accelerator for government technologies so much so that we can be recognized on a world stage for being a government technology hub; the place to go if you are government, to find out how to advance your government programming, because Canada has it together. They are organized around coordinating that activity coast to coast. We are very hopeful that over 10 years we will be the clear recognized leaders in Canada in gov-tech.
What inspired you to go into this line of business?
My main reason for getting into this was that I read a book called “The 4th Industrial Revolution.” It provides a very clear economic prediction of the future. “There has never been a time of greater promise or greater peril.” At my core, I believe that. I believe that left to their own devices, cities will succeed or fail based on how much attention they pay to how their region listens to the world economy. The driver for me is that I was very inspired by the book. I was already thinking of what I could do to give back. I’m very happy I did. I’ve learned a ton. We have accomplished a great deal in the 20 months that I have been involved. I’ve got a great team around me and I really do feel that we are making some ground. We recognize that there are tremendous opportunities but there are also tremendous challenges for those that don’t seize the moment and go after it.
We really are trying within our vision to focus on 3 specific objectives that we have set out for ourselves. Any strategic plan is good for 3-5 years.
- Really driving hard to deliver world-class operational excellence. We want to have the very best programming for domestic entrepreneurs and to attract companies to our region in a strategic way.
- Passionately drive market-led innovation, which is that idea I was discussing earlier of positioning yourself in long-range strategic markets. If we develop capability in our region in and around those markets, the companies that are part of it are going to be extremely well positioned. And if we are doing it correctly, we are doing it very closely with our post-secondary institutions. We will be creating and driving innovation.
- Drive hard in optimizing market-led talent attraction. I believe our city is in a good position on that.
Ottawa is uniquely positioned to create STEM talents. One in 5 STEM students in Canada is enrolled physically in Ottawa post-secondary institutions. Because we have such deep capability in terms of government R & D, we are very well positioned to capitalize on that talent capability that is being produced in Ottawa.