Geek Speak: Pascal Spothelfer, CEO of B.C. Technology Industry Association
Pascal Spothelfer says small companies dominate the technology sector in British Columbia, and the industry needs more medium-size companies to continue to grow. Born in Switzerland, the 49-year-old West Vancouver resident has served as the president and chief executive officer of the B.C. Technology Industry Association since 2007.
Spothelfer, who has degrees in business and law, previously worked as president and CEO of Burnaby-based Spectrum Signal Processing, which is now owned by Vecima Networks. He also served in an executive capacity at Teekay Shipping and NovAtel after moving to Canada in 1994.
According to Spothelfer, the BCTIA represents about 2,500 member companies, which employ 50,000 workers across the province. In September, the association will begin offering “direct services” in the areas of education, management expertise, and business intelligence and outreach to growth companies through a program funded by the federal and provincial governments. On June 8, the BCTIA will hand out its 2010 Technology Impact Awards at the Vancouver Convention Centre.
The Georgia Straight reached Spothelfer by phone at the association’s office in downtown Vancouver.
What are the B.C. Technology Industry Association’s plans for the near future?
The purpose of the association is to enable the growth of our industry. That’s directly related to the growth of our companies—not just our member companies, but companies in general—and obviously by the ability of the industry to generate new companies through its entrepreneurial spirit. All our work and plans are directly related to that purpose.
What are the major challenges facing B.C.’s tech sector?
Notwithstanding our growth over the past 10 years, where the industry has consistently outgrown the rest of the economy in British Columbia, we are an industry that’s largely made up of small and very small companies. To have a really healthy ecosystem, what we need is a better distribution of companies, from large ones to small ones.
We have a few significant companies, but what we’re really lacking is kind of the middle level of companies that have, say, 50 to 250 employees, because these are the companies that, number one, are the source for large companies ultimately. But they’re also the ones where the management talent is being trained, so that we can continue to successfully grow small companies into larger ones. That’s probably, I think, the key challenge for our industry.
Ahead of the last B.C. election, you wrote a commentary that noted neither the Liberals nor the NDP gave the tech industry more than a “passing mention” in their platforms. Do you think politicians need to be paying more attention to the tech sector?
Well, it’s not necessarily just the tech sector. I think, if you look at the future of advanced economies like ours, our future is much more knowledge-based than what we have today. Having said that, if you look at the structure of the B.C. economy, which has a lot of strength in natural resources, doing one (i.e., grow the knowledge industry) doesn’t mean you’re not doing the other (maintaining or growing a healthy resource industry).
I think we have a very luxurious position in British Columbia, to be blessed with a lot of natural resources. But we have to make sure that we don’t just rely on these resources, but that we build upon them to build a knowledge economy on top of it. That’s not something that happens overnight. That’s a continued, strategic, long-term effort. I think, in the past, we’ve had too many initiatives that were kind of point solutions or point initiatives, but they were not embedded in a long-term strategy.
The federal government has launched a consultation for a digital-economy strategy. What would you like to see in a Canadian digital-economy strategy?
That’s a big question that can’t be kind of answered quickly. I really welcome the fact that the federal government is looking at that. But I really have to understand, which I don’t at this point, what the purpose of the whole consultation is and what the federal government wants to achieve with it.
Because what does the word “digital economy” mean? If you look at the knowledge of the tech sector in general, it’s so varied and faceted. It ranges from IT to communications to life sciences, clean tech, digital media, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. So—“digital economy”—does that embrace all that, or what is really the goal of the exercise? Frankly, I haven’t spent enough time looking at it to give a good answer to that.
How much of a concern is copyright reform to your members?
It’s very important. I think Canada is being looked at by the U.S. and other industrialized countries as almost Third World, with respect to copyright. If we are serious about building economic growth on capitalizing on intellectual property, its protection is incredibly important. The obvious area of concern is the music and other artistic products that can be downloaded through the Internet.
But I think it’s more an attitude issue. It’s not just about patents. But I think it’s intellectual property in general that deserves to be protected to allow the generators of that intellectual property to make a living off it. If we want to have our intellectual property protected internationally, we have to make sure that we protect everybody’s intellectual property within the country.
How does the industry feel about the HST?
We welcome the introduction of the harmonized sales tax. We believe that it makes the tax system much more transparent. It simplifies the administration of the tax. Ultimately, what it does, from an investment point of view, is it lowers the input costs for companies, irrespective of size. That’s true for companies—from very small companies, which is the majority of our membership, to large companies. Older input costs are being reduced, which is very helpful for investment and ultimately job creation.
We’ve for years now bemoaned the fact that the Canadian economy and industry doesn’t have the same level of productivity that other countries have, and we continue to fall back in that. The only way we can catch up on the productivity side is to entice our companies to invest in technology that allows them to produce more with less input. The HST is one of the measures that really makes a difference there.
I think a lot of the discussion that is taking place on the HST right now is, in my opinion, misleading and almost portrays it as a new tax. It is a different tax replacing an old one.
What ingredients does Vancouver need to become a major technology hub?
Let’s first define a “major technology hub”. We will never be a Silicon Valley. Just the size of the B.C. economy, the size of our talent pool is dwarfed compared to the size of the economy and the talent pool in Silicon Valley. Having said that, we have a sizable talent pool. We have some sectors that are world-class.
At the end of the day, what makes an area a strong technology pocket is the availability of great people. Talent is the ultimate capital for any knowledge-based industry, including the tech industry. One of the big advantages we have in B.C. is it’s a place where people want to live, and that helps tremendously.
But we also have to make sure that, if they want to live here, they have jobs that help them to build their career. I think, if we can build these larger companies that are able to export more, that can grow faster, then we’ll have the jobs to provide to our fresh graduates and people and immigrants that want to live here. I think that’s ultimately the key to our success.
Every Friday, Geek Speak catches up with someone in Vancouver’s technology sector, video-game industry, or social-media scene. Who should we interview next? Tell Stephen Hui on Twitter at twitter.com/stephenhui.