Jim Balsillie

Canada’s capacity in innovation is unlimited, says Jim Balsillie

The former RIM co-CEO believes entrepreneurs in this country are exceptionally gifted, but more capacity building is needed at the policy level

Jim Balsillie Jim Balsillie believes CPAs have much more to contribute to improving Canada’s innovation performance (Photo courtesy of Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI))

Jim Balsillie, CPA, has been at the forefront of Canadian innovation for two decades—perhaps most famously as the entrepreneur who introduced the BlackBerry smartphone to the world as the chairman and co-CEO, with Mike Lazaridis, of Research in Motion (RIM) Limited.

Here, Balsillie shares his views on a variety of contemporary business issues, including where he believes Canada stands on competitiveness and innovation in a tightly competitive global market.

CPA CANADA: You have founded or co-founded several organizations, including the Digital Governance Council, the Institute for New Economic Thinking, the Balsillie School of International Affairs, the Arctic Research Foundation, the Centre for Digital Rights, the Centre for International Governance Innovation and the Council of Canadian Innovators (CCI). What is the mandate of CCI?
JIM BALSILLIE (JB): CCI is a business council for companies in the contemporary, knowledge-based economy who compete and sell globally. When we started in 2015, there was no forum for Canadian tech CEOs to have their policy views heard in an organized fashion and to network and share best practices among themselves. Domestic policy input up until then was dominated by foreign tech CEOs and/or CEOs from traditional domestic commodity production and services companies.

We started with 18 CEOs as members and now have 150 CEO members.

CPA CANADA: How has your experience as chairman and co-CEO of a large tech company, RIM, impacted your perception of Canadian innovation on the world stage?
JB: I have always believed that Canada’s capacity in innovation is unlimited and that Canadian entrepreneurs can succeed globally at the same level as their peers from the United States and elsewhere.

As an example, in 2009 RIM was the fastest-growing company in the world and we scaled it to $20 billion in revenue by 2011.

But I have also learned that Canada doesn’t have a domestic policy ecosystem that knows how to effectively relate to and support local tech entrepreneurs. I am now in my third decade of trying to improve policy capacity at the government level so that our companies can have wind at their backs, not their faces, as is often the case.

Through CCI, I have the privilege to regularly meet the most successful entrepreneurs in Canada and I can tell you they are as gifted and ambitious as any I have met around the world.

CPA CANADA: There is a general perception that Canada lags behind other countries in terms of its competitiveness and innovation. Is that perception accurate and if so, what are the causes?
JB: Yes, that is accurate. Since 1976, Canada’s productivity has been the worst of all OECD countries, resulting in real wages remaining essentially stagnant since then. Forty years after the advent of the knowledge-based economy, Canada’s deficit on intellectual property payments and receipts is widening at an alarming rate, a position we share with developing economies. This deficit would be significantly larger if the value of net flows of data were included.

The OECD also forecasts that Canada will maintain this last place position for decades to come.

The reason for this is that Canada’s policy community has missed the shift from the traditional, production-based economy to a knowledge-based economy, and thus has failed to develop strategies that enable our companies to secure a larger portion of the global value chains. We are contributing to the development of intangible assets, but not sufficiently sharing in the ownership or economic exploitation of those assets.

Since 1976, Canada’s productivity has been the worst of all OECD countries.

CPA CANADA: You have also served with the U.S. Council on Competitiveness. What similarities and/or differences have you noticed between U.S. business perceptions and attitudes to competitiveness and innovation, compared to those in Canada?
JB: The level of discourse in those American forums, compared to what is to be found in Ottawa, is like night and day. The U.S. policy community is incredibly sophisticated, in regular contact with their business community, and always looking to advance its geopolitical goals through its commercial actors. It’s a win-win situation for government and U.S. businesses.

In Canada, it took us 15 years to convince policymakers to finally begin accepting that the economy has changed and that it needs to work with domestic wealth creators in order to advance Canada’s prosperity.

CPA CANADA: What is the purpose of the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI), which you co-founded? And how prominent a role do you believe Canada will play in the development of international governance best practices?
JB: CIGI is a think tank established to conduct world-leading research and analysis and offer policy solutions for the digital era. There is a long history of middle powers that have played historically important roles in international affairs, and I believe Canada can and should play a constructive role in helping to build and update global institutions, standards and governance frameworks.

Success in these realms can make for a better world and, in parallel, advance Canada’s interests.

Jim Balsillie speaking at podiumJim Balsillie says he would not have had the same career trajectory without his CPA (Photo courtesy of Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI))

CPA CANADA: How has having a CPA designation influenced your career in so many fields of interest to both business and society at large?
JB: I would not have had the same career trajectory without my CPA. It provides foundational knowledge for understanding what financial statements do and don’t tell you, as well as for understanding business structuring, capital management and organizational controls.

It has also been very helpful to my understanding of policy issues such as the legal economic appropriation structures for the two key assets for the intangible economy—IP and data. Optimizing these assets for maximum economic benefit is similar to optimizing tax strategies, which is why I think CPAs can play an important role here.

CPA CANADA: How can Canadian CPAs contribute to improved innovation over the next decade?
JB: I am certain that CPAs have much more to contribute to improving Canada’s innovation performance.

Commercializing ideas to scale requires exquisite management—controllership—of legal realms such as standards, intellectual property filings, licensing strategies, data governance, artificial intelligence, employment policies and non-disclosure agreements, etc., as well as influencing the myriad of evolving public policies that underpin these legal rights and responsibilities.

Canada's business and policy communities haven’t built a deep well of expertise in these realms to both understand their importance and craft implementation strategies. However, CPA training offers an excellent foundation to build on in order to fill this gap—especially for ambitious young CPAs.


Read about CPAs who are charting innovative paths to the future, and check out our Q+A with MaRS CFO Nicole Barry.