When sales associates at high-end Italian menswear brand Boggio Milano connect with their clients, they do so using Canadian technology. The company uses software created by Tulip, a Kitchener tech venture, to track its customers’ style preferences and help sales staff reach out with individual recommendations. Tulip’s product allows retailers in 28 countries to create personalized interactions at scale — the sweet spot for luxury brands.
Tulip is one of hundreds of relatively young ventures — it was founded in 2013 — that are taking Canadian innovations to the world. Walk into an electronics store in the Netherlands and you may see the geometric shapes of Nanoleaf’s colourful lighting systems on display. Take a course at a U.S. university and the professor might be using Toronto-based Top Hat’s interactive learning tools. Or pass by a hospital in one of 20 countries and the doctors inside could be using surgical devices made in Canada by Synaptive Medical.
Canadian ventures turn up in far-flung places because our entrepreneurs think globally from an early stage. There are only so many customers to fish for in a mid-sized market like Canada, so any founder with ambitions to build a $100-million business knows they will have to cast a wider net.
But there’s more at work than just a global mindset. For years, Canada has been diligently building a support system that helps our startups get a foothold abroad. As an entrepreneur, I know how important that can be. When I led TransGaming’s first overseas expansion 11 years ago — through an acquisition of a company with offices in Israel and Ukraine — there were few places to turn for advice. Having a workforce spread over multiple countries demanded far wider change in our business than I first realized. We needed new ways to communicate, new processes, a new approach to our corporate culture.
Today’s entrepreneurs meet these challenges with the combined wisdom of those who have gone before. Programs like MaRS Momentum pair seasoned executives with growing companies. Combined with MaRS’ extensive data analysis capabilities, this can be a powerful tool to help founders choose which markets to expand into, determine how they will enter them and then develop their international expansion playbook. If that’s through acquiring a local firm, we can help them devise a set of acquisition criteria and list of target businesses that fit with their strategic goals — and avoid the common pitfall of pouncing on the first opportunity they see.
But Canadian companies can — and should — look further still. While trading in the U.S. is second nature for Canadians and Europe is a popular destination, too, we have work to do to capitalize on opportunities in the Asia-Pacific.
Nathan Andrew Nelson, director of international strategy and innovation at Export Development Canada (EDC), sums up the challenge neatly: “Trade is an offensive sport. If you’re not growing, somebody else is going to come in and take a piece of your market share.”
EDC, which provides financial services and educational assets to help de-risk exports for Canadian companies, is expanding its own footprint in Indonesia and South Korea as well as increasing its presence in India and Singapore. It’s building connections with the major players in countries that would be interested in Canadian products. The aim is to create a bridgehead for entrepreneurs to enter these markets.
With deep expertise to draw on at home and growing sources of assistance abroad, Canadian companies are more supported than ever as they expand overseas. In many cases the products they sell aren’t consumer facing — our national sweet spot is making the complex technologies that businesses, healthcare and infrastructure systems need to function. But increasingly, Canadian know-how is at work behind the scenes in keeping the global economy turning.
Dennis Ensing is chief venture advisor and vice president of venture programming at MaRS.
Image source: istock, Illustration: Made by Emblem