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The Leaders · Season 1

Growing high-tech talent in Canada

Aug 6, 2020

Salim Teja, HBA ’96, of Radical Ventures explains why world-class tech talent is fueling a network of up-and-coming innovative firms in Canada.


Salim Teja

Next generation technology start-ups and entrepreneurs are finding out Canada is a great place to establish roots. Salim Teja, HBA ’96, of Radical Ventures explains why world-class tech talent is fueling a network of up-and-coming innovative firms in Canada.


Insights and wisdom lie within every business decision. Welcome to the Leaders by Ivey podcast, where we discover hidden narratives and unlock key learnings for our own leadership and career journeys. Welcome back to the Leaders by Ivey podcast. I’m  Matt Quinn, this time we welcome Salim Teja HBA’96 and partner at radical ventures. In this discussion we talk about how Canada is growing into a leader for fostering entrepreneurship and technology. With resources and world leading schools abound. The future looks bright. Salim is enthusiastic about what he's seeing for small businesses, large businesses and the resources that our countries putting towards entrepreneurship and technology. I love this conversation, enjoy! Let's dive right in Salim, thanks very much for joining us today. Could you give us a bit of background about who you are what you do and what is your relation to Ivey. Sure, well my name is Salim Teja and I am a partner at radical ventures, which is a three hundred and fifty million dollar venture capital fund here in Toronto. That is focused on investments in the AI space. So looking at technologies like machine learning, natural language, processing, computer vision and robotics, and its application to industries like health care, financial, financial services and other sectors, I am an Ivey HBA grad, 1996 and then spent the next twenty five or so years in the technology sector. I sort of spent the first third of my career as an entrepreneur building out my own start up out in the bay area, and so early on in my career had a was really fortunate to have a really great experience, starting and scaling a venture start up out in the bay area. I then came back to Canada and spent the next third of my career, doing venture investing with the firm called Bright Spark ventures, and you know we were very fortunate to be involved in some really great Canadian technology companies. Then the final third of my career I spent building technology ecosystems. I was at Mars Discovery district as the president and of our venture services program, and so it was very involved in managing a portfolio of just over twelve hundred start-ups across four sectors: healthcare, financial services, clean tech, and enterprise. Software and really, you know, did a lot of work to put Toronto and Canada on the map in terms of the global technology scene. And for those that haven't heard of the Mars Discovery District, do look it up. They do some pretty amazing work with individuals with businesses, but I would say, even more community building, which is really cool, so check that out. I want to come back to something that you mentioned and get you to define it. How do you define AI because it's a something that's getting thrown around quite a bit? How do you define it? Yeah, I mean I think it's. It is a very broad term and I think it's a application to a number of technologies is only growing. I think when we think of a I, you know, I think what we are really trying to look for is really having machines or systems use data, to learn, provide insights and take actions in the form of hardware or software or systems that really create unique business environments, technical environments and perhaps allow us to do things that we weren't able to do with purely just a human intervention. And so I think we are looking for applications of AI across a number of different sectors, but also looking for technical breakthroughs in AI things, like quantum computing, like systems and chips that may emerge as the next technology architecture for industry and for companies and users. So given we're sitting here middle of summer now, there's so much happening. I'd like for you to talk a little bit about personally and with your organization, the most significant challenge you faced in the past number of weeks, and how did you respond to that for sure over the last several weeks and months I think that the COVID crisis has been on everyone's mind and for us I think it's been really important to help to transition our company to a safe, remote work environment and continues sort of the day to day business we do on the investing side. But beyond that sort of working with our portfolio companies, who are all being impacted by this health crisis in different ways and helping them both to move to themselves to a remote environment, but also then to think through how their businesses might be reimagined with the new realities of the current health care crisis. And so, we have been spending a lot of time working with our portfolio of companies to really understand. What's changing, what are the new realities of the business and how do we help them navigate this time with uncertainty? You know in a strong of a way, as we can for some of our companies and some industries. I think they are completely being disrupted and redefined and perhaps even reimagined, as we think of what the future may look like outside of COVID. And so, if you think of sectors like transportation and the travel industry, you think of education, lots of change happening and a lot of uncertainty, and then we also are involved in a number of sectors where there is just now explosive growth, an overwhelming demand, and certainly the world of health care, the world of robotics as we look at it in terms of supply chain resiliency and the application of these technologies have just exploded right now and so trying to manage some companies, who are a little uncertain in some companies who are managing explosive growth has certainly been one of our key focus areas over the past several weeks and months. So, it sounds to me you're helping these companies be nimble where they can try to find a path, if there, is one looking back, is there anything that you can point to where you go? I really wish I had looked at this differently or had done something differently. This has been a very interesting question that we've asked all of our guests. What do you think? Well, I think you know in the business world and certainly as it relates to technology, we've been through a lot of cycles where we've seen you know either the business environment or the geopolitical environment cause uncertainty and disruption in the business cycle, and I think in going into this crisis, you know we were spending a lot of time thinking through what do we learn through past crisis? How do we sort of apply those lessons to plans to help the companies move forward through this current crisis and ultimately, how do we get out the other end in good shape number one. I think one of the things that we learnt through past crisis was that we never know how long these sorts of issue these situations may last, and so it's really important early on to be really decisive and to think of both. You know the best-case scenario, but also the worst case scenario, so that we are as a business able to survive and perhaps plan for what the new business realities may look like. So we spent a lot of time with our entrepreneurs in our companies. Thinking through you know what is the best-case scenario, what is the worst case scenario, and how do we survive through that? The second than is really spending a lot of time, helping the CEOs and the founders manage change through this type of uncertainty, change to their business strategy, perhaps changes to their teams and really coaching them to really think about. You know: how do you create a common sense of purpose? How do you then empower your people as an organization so that you can navigate this change effectively and then how do you also increase the amount of communication happening both internally within the organization and externally, amongst partners and stakeholders so that we are able to learn, be nimble and be responsive in real time to how we're trying to change? And so you know, I think, we're trying to apply many of those lessons to the current environment, and hopefully we do it better as we try and navigate the current environment. What I like about this is you've said things tools to use like give a sense of what's coming, empowering the team more communication, but I can imagine for you helping that leader. You talk about technology and tools, but it sounds like there's some people, skills and emotional intelligence coming through there. How have you helped a leader to take the leap or make that definitive step, like you mentioned before other themes that you found work for helping the leader move forward? Yeah I mean, I think we when, whenever I think any leader is going through an entrepreneurial experience like a start-up, I mean it's an incredibly stressful experience, both from you know the highs and lows of building the business to the highs and lows personally, of thee of the mental exhaustion that can come from growing these types of companies, and I think we found it very useful to identify mentors for our business leaders so that they can both share. You know professional issues and challenges that they're going through and get some support and some feedback, but then also from a personal standpoint being able to connect to others who have been through this journey understand what the highs and lows are like and being able to do some coaching through that. We think you know, is really important, and so you know, I think, certainly in the start-up space. There is a lot of focus in conversation around mental health and well being these days because of the nature of the entrepreneurial experience, and so I think we take that to heart very purposefully and try and find networks and connections that we can make that hopefully are useful to the companies and the founders so that that support network of a person or a place to fall back to when one's feeling overwhelmed or the scrap. Absolutely. We've got faculty staff students, entrepreneurs that listen to this to this podcast. Let's talk about the students in particular now, when you're out in the in the entrepreneur community to you talking about AI talking about technology, are there skills that you go man? I wish students knew more about this or I miss wish they had more experience in that. Could you give us some of your thoughts around that, because then we could, you know, start talking about it more as a community, I mean, I think it's really important, regardless of what anyone is studying to really bring a multi disciplinary approach to careers and rules, and so I think you know we find really good success with people who have a really strong interest, aptitude or background in science and technology, coupled with perhaps an understanding of business, an entrepreneurship which, I think is you know really powerful and important as well. As you know, I think a growing awareness, perhaps of particular industries through maybe internships, that they've done or past jobs that they may have had in their careers where they can really apply their skill, sets to think about innovation in these sectors in really different ways. So I think part of this is the IQ and you know what we can learn in a formal environment and part of this is the EQ. You know what we've learned through lived life in particular rules and experiences and bringing that altogether to ultimately really be good problem solvers. You know, I think that at the end of the day, you know, especially in our world, where we're dealing with really young companies who are focused on solving big problems. You know either at a microscale or at a macro scale. Building a business is all about problem solving, and so we want to find people who are really good at that and bring a diversity of experience in a diversity of thinking to that process into that organization. So knowledge sharing the networks. What else do you think is needed? Maybe that we don't have enough of now? That is an opportunity to improve in Canada in Ontario to keep businesses here, whether it be Toronto, Ottawa, Kitchener or Waterloo are London. What could we be doing? A better job of? Listen. I think we need to be nurturing and developing very ambitious entrepreneurs who are thinking about big ideas and global problems, and so you know, I think we want to encourage really big thinking from the entrepreneurs themselves and then I think we need to surround those. Entrepreneurs were with really smart globally, connected capital, really smart, globally, connected customer networks and really smart interested talent networks in order to really help find the people in fuel the talent that these companies will need to get to the next stage of their business. And I think, when I look geo politically at what's happening around the world in Europe or in the US. I think Canada has a really exciting story to tell in terms of you know, both our quality of life as well. As you know, the areas of business that we are really excelling in right. Now: science and technology, life sciences, clean tech, where we have some really ambitious entrepreneurs, hoping to build global companies and attracting people from all over the world, but also developing talent right here at home, in order to be part of these really great companies, and so I think we have a unique opportunity over the next five to seven years, to really capitalize on this magnifying glass that we have on Canada right now and really hopefully find some really great success stories coming out of all of the great ecosystems across the country. So I’m going to ask for a bit of advice or for our listeners. Do you have something that you want to share a passion of yours, an initiative, a cause or a problem that you're trying to solve or, like I said, passionate about what would you like our listeners to go and look at research or go and do? You know I find myself very fortunate in the career that I’m in I almost have a front row seat at the bleeding edge of technology and science and see really. You know closely how breakthroughs are accelerating and innovations are accelerating and our opportunity to reinvent industries, reinvent companies and we invent societies, are really going to be impacted by technologies, and you know what's exciting for me right now, and what I’m seeing is. I finally feel like we're at a stage as an ecosystem, where we are identifying meaningful problems, important global problems that can be addressed by science and technology now, and you know this whole concept of you know identifying impact with the work that we're doing and the opportunity to have societal impact. I think is really incredible now, and so you know, I think the one thing I’m very passionate about is being able to leverage all of these. You know breakthroughs in science and technology to make meaningful progress on some of these, you know challenges that we have challenges and health care challenges and education challenges in you know: sustainability in affordable housing. You know how can entrepreneurs play an active role in being problem solvers, and how do we rally around these entrepreneurs, help support them and give them the tools and resources that they need to help make positive change in the world, and I think that that's something I’m really excited about. I need entrepreneurs every day that have that sense of purpose and that mission, and it's exciting. I think to see you know be at that early stage now of what I believe will be a real golden age of where we'll be seeing some really interesting. Innovations in science and technology take us to new heights. And you've already mentioned the work that the mars district does in kind of helping, I’m sure helping with some of that tech alliance here in London, Ontario is another one for those that are listening that want to dig a little bit deeper. Can you recommend some other places, resources organizations that are doing a good job of tackling these meaningful problems? Yeah, certainly check out, I would say Mars Discovery District. Not only do they have really great programs, but they've developed a lot of online programming that people can participate in and really get to know what's happening in the different industry sectors and which companies are focused on particular renovations. If there's interest in the world of ai, you know right here in Toronto, we have something called the Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence. In Montreal we have something called Mila and Edmonton. We have an institute called Amy, all of whom are doing world class research in the areas of machine learning, and I think also have some really great resources to help people understand how these new technologies are going to affect different industries and create new business opportunities. We're seeing a lot of entrepreneurial knowledge sharing now happening across the border between Canada and us, and there's a really great organization called C100 that really helps to network Canadians in the valley to Canadian entrepreneurs here and help them share networks and insights and thought leadership. So, all of those, I think, are really great communities to be able to connect into and opportunities to build networks. So, the last thing I want I want to ask you about: is we talked about businesses that are starting here, resources that are growing talent? That's here pitch me on moving my business or becoming an entrepreneur in Canada. Why should I think about doing this? Why is Canada the right place for me to really thrive in this environment? Well, we first of all believe that you know all companies are really fueled by world class talent, and we believe that you know Canada can be a really great environment for world class talent, both the incredible talent that we're graduating through our universities, the talent that's coming through the really strong sectors that we have in the country and the really great talent that were able to bring in from around the world in order for them to be part of this incredible experience here in Canada, and so the first thing I would express to people is just you know what an opportunity it is here to really build a world class team and tap into both the home grown people and the people from abroad that we can connect them to in order to really help accelerate their business and- and I think you know certain regions around the country on hour- developing a global reputation around the incredible talent that we have here. So that's number one. Number two, I think, is not only the business environment that we have here, but the quality of life that people can afford when they're here now, very often when you're trying to secure a talent, it's not just about getting access to that talent, but it's keeping them here and having them place roots, and I think that you know. As a country, we have the right kind of value system that that really, I think, is encouraging people to set up set up, show set their roots down here and to be here and so just from a living experience. I think Canada can be a really great you know place to be, and then I think, as a country you know we can provide an incredible network of capital. Customer connections for early market access were close to. You know one of the largest markets in the world to really be able to scale. You know from a proximity standpoint from a sector standpoint, you know, Canada has a ton to contribute and offer, and so those would be the things that we would stress in the pitch for new opportunities to come here. That's awesome and I know, there's a number of companies that we probably rub shoulders with every day use their services use their products. I know Shopify is one that often gets brought up. Can you think of other great companies that that come to mind when you think of these guys have done a great job or here's an example of how great an entrepreneurial mindset can be in a company could be? Could you could you throw it another couple names for the listeners yeah. You know, we've got a really great company called Pocket Health, which is a really great start up here. They are helping the health care system, move their digital records and their imaging files online, so that patients can actually have access to their medical data and be able to share that data with other providers and other networks. As you can imagine, you know, as we've been in right in the middle of this COVID crisis and hospitals have been shut down, people who'd normally go and get their medical files, imaging files via CD from hospitals now are looking for, you know really different ways of getting access to this data, and this company has just absolutely exploded being at the right place at the right time, really championing the patient experience and helping them get access to their own. You know medical files, medical data, images and- and so it's a really great case. Study of you know how we have really fantastic health care innovation happening in this country. We have a another, really great company called Aspect Biosystems based in Vancouver. They have built one of the world's very first 3D bio printers which prints human tissue wow. So if you can imagine the word of future world of regenerative medicine, where one day we may use our stem cells to print tissue patches to print organs, to really treat specific types of disease areas, a leveraging, regenerative medicine, we have a company here in our own backyard. That is pioneering what may sound like science fiction to you today, but is really now becoming a reality, as we think of where the field of medicine may eventually go, and so really great ground-breaking companies and entrepreneurs. You know doing really big things to not only I’d, say advance, you know economies, but also advance impact with you know, societies and tackling big challenges. Yeah and it'll impact, not just our own backyard but the globe, and so that's pretty cool to hear about, Salim, thank you very much for joining us today. Is there anything else that you'd like to leave the listeners with? Should they follow you, are you on twitter? What's your website, how should people follow the work that you're doing and the companies that you're working with what they're doing sure you can learn about radical at is our website, and there you will find all of the companies that we've invested in all of the thought leadership that we've developed around where innovation is going and a number of resources to tap into to learn more other podcasts other speaker series and networks to tap into so that would be a really great resource to start. That's great thanks for your time. Thank you for having me! Like what you heard on today's episode, subscribe to the leaders by Ivey podcast. Have any feedback send us an email at Thanks again!