The Myth of a Better Mousetrap

Commonly used productivity and innovation indicators show Canada’s innovation economy declining relative to other countries. Despite large public investments, Canada still trails most of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries on productivity.

The Canadian government has played a significant role in efforts to reverse this decline. For more than five decades, we have seen the proliferation of new programs at the federal and provincial levels aiming to spur productivity and the growth of an innovation economy—yet without significant improvements in country-level data.   

This Impact Brief lays out five opportunities for the federal government to change the nature of its programming to reverse the decline. To arrive at our conclusions, we have reviewed over 25 years of federal government budgets and documents prepared by the key innovation department: Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED) and its predecessor, Industry Canada.

Commonly used productivity and innovation indicators show Canada’s innovation economy declining relative to other countries. Despite large public investments, Canada still trails most of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries on productivity.

The Canadian government has played a significant role in efforts to reverse this decline. For more than five decades, we have seen the proliferation of new programs at the federal and provincial levels aiming to spur productivity and the growth of an innovation economy—yet without significant improvements in country-level data.   

This Impact Brief lays out five opportunities for the federal government to change the nature of its programming to reverse the decline. To arrive at our conclusions, we have reviewed over 25 years of federal government budgets and documents prepared by the key innovation department: Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED) and its predecessor, Industry Canada.

Opportunity 1. Focus on Commercialization

Budgetary documents show a continued and strong focus on research and development (R&D). Although innovation is emphasized increasingly, commercialization of research remains neglected. This thinking is analogous to the myth of the better mousetrap, that a better product is all that is needed for commercial success. The first opportunity for the government is to revamp their activities to increase their focus on commercialization and related functions, such as marketing and sales.

Opportunity 2. Establish Strategic Objectives

As the key department in the promotion of innovation for the federal government, ISED’s own strategy plays an instrumental role in advancing Canada’s innovation agenda. Although ISED may have an overarching objective guiding its
operations, none of the documentation that we have reviewed pointed to a clear purpose. A significant opportunity is to develop an overarching objective (or set of objectives) for Canada’s central innovation department and turn this into concrete plans whose success can be measured in relation to those objectives.

Opportunity 3. Focus on Demand Creation

Of the challenges that Canada is facing in developing an innovation economy, demand creation is perhaps the most acute. It is likely that we will never have the sufficient local demand to enable our companies to gain experience selling at home before learning how to export. The lack of demand creation programs is a  glaring weakness in government programming and one with the greatest potential for positive change and improved results.

Opportunity 4. Improve Program Design Through Rigorous Research and Evaluation

Our innovation-related programs face two key design issues. First, much of the background work done to identify problems in the innovation economy and to inform program design is carried out through opinion-based
research that rarely touches on the underlying reasons for the problems at hand. Second, once programs are
in place, policy-making and program development tend to set unrealistic targets requiring success rates in excess of what is practical. Innovation programs require more rigorous research during design and more realistic targets during implementation. 

Opportunity 5. Eliminate Scientific Research and Experimental Development (SR&ED) Tax Credits

The Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) administers the $3-billion SR&ED program, which uses a tax incentive to encourage Canadian businesses of all sizes and in all sectors to conduct R&D in Canada. However, the SR&ED filings and surveys currently conducted by the CRA and other federal agencies (e.g. Statistics Canada) do not allow us to capture net benefits beyond expenditures and simple indicators. In the absence of strong evidence, it is time to seriously evaluate whether Canada actually benefits from the SR&ED program. It is our contention that the time for this program has passed, and that the entire program should be phased out and eventually eliminated.

With such a bold and ambitious move, the federal government could free up to $3 billion a year to focus on demand creation, an area in which Canada has the greatest problem and a large need that is inadequately addressed. It could marry this demand creation to social needs and fund new purchases in areas like health care and clean technology.

In conclusion, if we are to stem the slow erosion of our innovation capabilities, then we must look to opportunities such as those identified above to recast how ISED and other departments (e.g. Finance Canada) provide support to the innovation economy. Without radical changes, we are doomed to continue this slow decline in competitiveness and productivity until
it is too late.

Growth or Profit – What is the Market Saying?

This year’s crop of IPOs has had lacklustre returns. So much so, in fact that people have begun to suggest that the market is moving away from valuing growth over profit. Of course, given a chance to play with stats instead of working, I picked stats and proceeded to look to see if there is any merit to the claim.

First let’s look at what happened to the 10 biggest tech IPOs of the year in terms of their change in value since opening day close. The following chart shows the dismal returns I was talking about. Only two of the ten have gone up since the end of opening day. In fact Lyft and Slack have plummeted (but in the case of Slack, it has only fallen back to its issue price.)

In terms of Revenue Growth Rates, this is for the most part, a great crop of IPOs.

But at the same time, every single one of these companies is still losing money. And we’re not talking about a little money, but a lot. Gobs and gobs of losses in fact.

And how are they doing? Just fine thanks. In fact they all have very healthy revenue multiples (In fact Crowdstrike’s is frankly obscene.)

And what is the relationship between these factors? There isn’t one and let me tell you I tried to find one. I graphed them all and put in trendlines. I calculated correlations. I even changed my method of analysis to use rankings instead of absolute numbers and I couldn’t get any correlation worth talking about other than between losses and growth. As we know the more you lose the more you can grow.

But as to the assertion made by analysts that the market has forsaken growth in favour of companies that might be able to make money some day? Nope, this data doesn’t say that. What it says is absolutely nothing. (And to think I wrote a blog about statistics that don’t show anything.) Whatever…go back to work and grow, grow, grow. The big stats still show that growth is the best driver of shareholder value so lose away and wait till the next downturn when we might have a new normal.

Does Canada Have Enough Venture Capital?

In Canada, access to venture capital (VC) is cited as a persistent barrier to the creation of world-class firms, prompting the development of programs and funds to overcome it. Policy is operating under the assumption that availability of VC funding is as much a problem today as it was years ago. But what is the current state of VC funds in Canada? Is there a gap? If so, why?

To help us answer these questions, we took a closer look at: the availability of VC funding in Canada in international comparison; the sources and availability of funds by VC stage within Canada; the structure of the Canadian VC system; and the sources of VC flowing into Canada’s leading tech companies.


Contrary to popular belief, Canada performs exceptionally well globally, ranking among the top countries in the world for availability of capital in both absolute and relative terms. Internationally, Canada ranks third in absolute VC dollars invested, behind the United States and China and far ahead of more populous countries such as the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and South Korea. Canada also ranks third on a gross domestic product-basis in VC invested per year, lagging only the United States and Israel.

For a long time, it has been thought that investments from international sources have propped up overall VC funds in Canada, particularly at later stages of growth. But the evidence suggests that this may hold true for earliest rounds of investing as well. In fact, there were 22% more Series A investments made by foreign firms than by Canadian VCs in Canada and more than twice as many foreign firms investing in Canada than Canadian firms making investments. This implies sufficiency of capital for Series A rounds and potentially even later rounds.

The data also helped uncover a major issue with Canadian investors who are less likely to put forward competitive and significant sums of money. Among the companies we analyzed, only 18% financed were exclusively supported by VC firms based in Canada, and nearly 30% had no Canadian investors. In addition, businesses with no Canadian investors received 2.7 times as much money as those with Canadian investors only.

When it comes to leading Canadian technology companies, businesses that relied exclusively on US and other foreign funding in their Series A round eventually raised more money than Canadian-financed firms and were positioned better to become Unicorns.

Perhaps one of the main factors shaping our perception of capital in Canada is the lack of results on the scaling front. Canada ranks last among Unicorn-creating Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries. Although Canada ranks third in the world for the amount of VC invested annually, we place last in the world at turning this investment into Unicorns. The situation is so bad that even if we were to create four times as many Unicorns, we would still be in last place.

The structure of the Canadian VC system also poses some challenges:

  1. We have too many VC firms with too little capital, potentially causing competition for deals and smaller investments, far less than the companies need to grow fully.
  2. With smaller investments, these companies have less capital to support losses and important business functions (e.g. marketing and sales) that would help them grow faster.

Our current report has put forward evidence that there is, in fact, sufficient capital for Canadian companies, especially when international flows of monies are considered. Certainly, there is some disconnect between data and the general VC insufficiency narrative commonly heard in Canada. Overall, we believe that significantly more effort should be focused on exploring the underlying causes of the capital (in)sufficiency problem. Only then will we be equipped to design and deliver meaningful solutions that get at the underlying “disease”, rather than the symptoms alone.

Why WeWork Blinked

I met with someone yesterday who has an office at WeWork and was pleased to see the relaxed atmosphere, posters advertising Meditation Hour, and beer on tap. (It was morning so I couldn’t have any beer.) That visit reminded me that I wanted to look at their prospectus and check out issues relating to their valuation as it had been under attack recently. Lo and behold, yesterday happened to be the day that WeWork delayed their IPO. After looking at their prospectus, I understand why.

In total, the company has raised $5.6 billion of equity and has revenue last year of $1.8 billion. That’s a ratio of 3.1 times which isn’t far above the ratio of 2.3 times for software industry IPOs over the last six years. (Check out our recent report on IPOs for data.) The problem is that WeWork isn’t a software company but it looks like they tried to value themselves like one.

The average software company going public has a gross margin (Gross Profit/Revenue) of 65% whereas WeWork has one of 16%. (Bear with me here, I’m about to get even more boring.) That means the Capital to Gross Margin ratio is 18.7 times, way more that that of the software industry’s recent IPO ratio of 2.59 times. 

WeWork has a great growth rate, 105% in the last year which puts them well above software industry IPOs of 55% over the last six years. They were initially looking for a valuation of about $47 billion and this would imply a revenue multiple of about 26 times. Even this would be high compared with Shopify’s which was worth a revenue multiple of 20 times for an equivalent growth rate. 

The problem is that you can’t use a revenue multiple similar to software companies when the gross margin is so low. WeWork is a high cost operation so a better way to look at it would be to look at a Gross Margin Multiple. Software industry IPOs over the last six years averaged revenue multiples of 8 times. This would be equivalent to a Gross Margin Multiple of 12.3 times. WeWork was looking for a Gross Margin Multiple of 157 times. 

Even if you factor in their high growth rate, they might have deserved a gross margin multiple of 30 times. This would have valued the company at under $10 billion. They had already reduced expectations to a valuation of $20 billion. The problem was that with a valuation of below $10 billion, it was less than half their valuation at the beginning of the year. Someone was about to get a haircut.

Overall, I think they are in a great market with a very needed product that users love. There may be a problem though with unit economics. The average software company is losing 60% of revenue or 100% or so of gross margin. WeWork is losing 89% of revenue which is not out of line. What is out of line is losing 536% of gross margin. Overall, something has got to change in their business model as these numbers do not point to a company that can ever make money and whose valuation was justifiably questioned.


The Narwhal List – July 2019 Update

There has been a lot of action in the Canadian tech scene over the last six months. Deals are happening with increased regularity and for bigger amounts. We thought it would be worthwhile to update the Narwhal List for July 2019 to show what has happened over the last six months. July itself has been a busy month and this update doesn’t include anything happening in July.

First of all, four companies graduated from the list. Milestone and Lightspeed went public and H&R Block acquired Wave Financial for the princely sum of $398 M US. Wealthsimple, a company we hoped would become the next Unicorn exited the list as Power Financial ponied up for another round and became a majority shareholder. Here’s to hoping that Wealthsimple goes out and raises another round from an external party and becomes independent again.

Eleven companies including Vena Solutions and Lungpacer are either new or returning to the list. These 11 companies raised an average of $36 million US each.

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And finally, 8 companies already on the list raised an average of $38 million US of capital and moved up. At the top end of these companies was Fusion Pharmaceuticals which raised an eye-popping $105 M US.

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You can see a completely updated list of the Narwhal List for July 2019 at

Sonder is a great “Started in Canada” story!

Today’s article in the Globe and Mail about Sonder, the San Francisco based travel company tells a great story. Founded in Canada in 2012, they moved quickly to the US where 90% of their 560 or so employees now reside. (Employee data from LinkedIn.) They are heading to $400 million in sales this year and just raised a $210 million US D round of capital (CBInsights). So far they’ve raised $340 m US and are officially a Unicorn. In Narwhal List terms, Sonder has a Financial velocity of 48. This is 39% higher than Canada’s leading tech Narwhal, Element AI which has a Financial Velocity of 35.

If you paid attention to our latest research summary, you’ll see why we think they are doing it right. First of all, they are in a horizontal consumer market. This is where all sorts of strong growth is possible. Secondly they are amassing copious amounts of capital. With last year’s revenue of about $200 million they now have 1.7 times as much capital as revenue. They have employee growth of 94% in the last year and 244% in the last two. This is exactly the growth they need to propel them towards an IPO.

Why this is great for Canada

You may be asking why I think this is a great Canadian story. After all, they are now based in San Francisco. It is sad that Sonder had to move south to be successful. But it’s great because it shows that we can create good ideas here and have the entrepreneurs to propel them to glory. It’s great because Sonder is now about to bring a second headquarters back into Canada and that’s a place where we can incubate new talent. Most of all, we’ll be building employees with the experience of working in fast growing companies and that can only be good for our ecosystem.

If we get enough of these stories, the Shopifys and Sonders, we will eventually have enough anchor companies around which a more successful ecosystem can flourish.