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Navdeep Bains at CES: drones, robot cars and Trump

Industry minister works at selling Canada’s innovation story amid growing global insularity.

navdeep bains, ces

Navdeep Bains, Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, visits Ericsson at the 2017 CES.

Navdeep Bains at CES:

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With another Consumer Electronics Show in the books, technology companies the world over are now getting back down to the business. The year ahead will pose new challenges for them, not just on technological fronts, but also because of the new geo-political order dawning.

The United States is threatening to become more protectionist under incoming president Donald Trump and a number of western democracies are verging toward nationalism. Canada, so far, is one of the few beacons of liberal openness remaining.

It’s with that backdrop that Navdeep Bains, Canada’s Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, journeyed to this year’s CES in Las Vegas. His mission: to drum up business for Canadian companies and to sell the nation as a good place for technology companies to both invest and peddle their products and services.

I had a chance to sit down and chat with Bains about some of the new world order, as well as developments in Canada. Here’s an edited version of that conversation.

What are you hoping to accomplish here at CES?

Canada is an innovative economy and that’s a very important message I want to send to our Canadian delegation, but also to other investors and companies here and basically to the world. We’re not about building the cheapest products, we’re about building smart products and solutions and we’re improving people’s lives. We have an incredible ecosystem of startups, a lot of successful companies here, so it’s about supporting them.

Through our trade representatives we’re helping them find customers and deal on a business-to-business level. Myself, I’m also here to brand Canada and talk about our innovation agenda. In particular, to talk about our government’s commitment to innovation and the investments we’ve made and that we’ll continue to make.

Who are you meeting with?

I met with Wistron from Taipei and really looking at opportunities to invest in Canada. I met with Ericsson as well, and again the idea is to talk about our innovation agenda. When I’m with these companies I’m talking about our government’s commitment to talent and people.

We also talk about our government’s commitment to enabling technology, so a lot of that technology is here – big data, virtual reality, augmented reality, robotics, 5G, autonomous vehicles. There’s a lot of technology being discussed here so we’re asking, what kind of role can we play?

I talk a lot about our cluster strategy and how we want companies to work closely with government, academia and civil society and create these super-clusters, or collaborative environments where we can work together and share ideas.

I was proud to be part of a [VR] announcement with Samsung, Cirque du Soleil and [Montreal’s] Felix & Paul. That’s basically two very strong Canadian companies partnering with a multinational technology company to provide better entertainment value to consumers. That kind of collaboration is so critical. That’s a good example of a cluster.

I’m going to be meeting with BlackBerry and talking about the investments they’ve made in QNX, an additional $100 million, to really look at how they can adapt their software and security technologies with Ford and other vehicles and really help drive the autonomous vehicle initiatives in Canada.

Are there any Canadian startups here that have caught your eye?

Cleo [based in Calgary] has a very neat invention, it’s a very small drone with a unique design that has neat commercial applications. It can be used in your home, for example, for security purposes. It’s the size of a puck. If you have alarm sensors in your home, this drone can be triggered to go and check it out and provide you with real-time images on your phone.

That kind of technology has commercial applicability, it can be used in warehouses and factories. It’s exciting to see a company like that. It’s a really modest investment they’ve made, but they have this really unique technology and design. It’s something we want to see more of.

How are you dealing with possible U.S. protectionism under Donald Trump?

We had a plan in place during [our election] campaign. We made it clear we need to make significant investments in infrastructure and middle-class families, so we talked about reducing the tax rate for middle-class families and increasing the child tax benefit to deal with the rising costs and anxieties.

We also had a plan to make sure we attract the right people to create Canadian jobs. We’ve increased immigration levels from 200,000 to 300,000 and a new global skills strategy that will help streamline more talent from abroad, high-end and in-demand talent to help companies grow.

We have a very integrated economy with the U.S. and there’s no better example than the automotive sector. We have integrated parts suppliers, like 60 or 70 of them. We produce a vehicle every 14 seconds, that’s 2.3 million vehicles a year, and 95 per cent of them are exported to the U.S.

This is really important to our economy, it represents $18 billion of our gross domestic product. It’s very important to our jobs. For every assembly job, there are six jobs that are created.

There are 35 states in the U.S. where their top customer is Canada. There are an additional 13 states where the top three customers [include] Canada. There’s nine million jobs in the U.S. with a direct link to the Canadian economy so it’s mutually beneficial and we want to continue to build on that co-operation.

Do you think that’s going to be realized in the United States?

It’s about relationships, it’s about working with the new administration and respective governors and congress and senate. It’s working at an industry level and it’s also at an academic level. We have 40 academic institutions in Canada that do automotive research and they have collaborations with the U.S.

So how do we continue to leverage all those relationships to again highlight the integrated economies and the co-operations that we have and the benefits we have of creating this ecosystem that creates jobs both in Canada and the U.S.?

blackberry, lincoln

Ford’s autonomous Lincoln MKZ, jointly developed with BlackBerry, will soon be driving on Ontario roads.

Canada is finally getting going on autonomous cars, but it’s behind other countries. Why is that?

Canada has shown leadership in this area. Stratford (Ontario), for example, has shown leadership with using sensor technology to test autonomous vehicles. Our automotive innovation fund is designed to stimulate investments in this area. We’ve seen a significant investment by General Motors.

These are all positive signs that we have a strong manufacturing footprint in Canada but we are also positioning ourselves to build the car of the future. All these initiatives are now leading to investments.

The CRTC recently announced that broadband is a basic service, but shuffled the affordability issue over to you. How do you plan to address that problem?

When it comes to access, our government launched a $500 million program, Connect to Innovate, and it’s designed to provide fibre to the institutes in rural and remote communities. We think it’s so important for those communities to have access when it comes to education and doing business. We think that when we leverage that with the private sector it could be up to a billion dollar, so that’s a significant investment.

We’re encouraged to hear the remarks and investment made by the CRTC. That’ll complement a lot of the work we’re doing.

The challenge around affordability is not only in rural and remote communities, but also in urban centres. There are many socio-economic issues where families can’t afford high-speed internet, so we’ll work with the telecommunications sector on this. We’re looking at more competition, more choice and availability of service, as well as the availability of [wireless] spectrum to drive more competition.

Do you think competition is going to be main driver of affordability or is there something else the government can do?

We’re working with the telecommunications sector on that. From our point of view, they’ve made a significant investment, up to $13 billion. We’re doing our part with initiatives, so we’ll continue to look at how we can foster more investments and spectrum availability in terms of choice of services.

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