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MARK VAUGHAN-JACKSON: Innovation, technology and timing

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It might be an overused phrase, but sometimes timing really is everything.

Right now, it’s a pretty good time to be in Newfoundland and Labrador’s technology and innovation sector.

Every week it seems I hear about a conference, workshop or pitch event for entrepreneurs to sell their ideas to potential investors, or hear about a start-up that has managed to secure seed funding or one that’s just inked an international contract selling its latest tech development.

And it was good timing for Paul Preston to accept the offer to become the new CEO of the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Technology Industries (NATI).

It’s a new position but a familiar field for Preston.

A while back, he left Newfoundland to work in Ottawa with the Conference Board of Canada think-tank.

“The role, in a nutshell, was to help governments, industry, academia do innovation better and do technology adoption better,” Preston said. “So we would do things like advising business on ‘how do you manage an innovation portfolio?’ ‘How do you move from idea to commercialization and scale-up,’ advising governments on innovation programming on anything from funding to procurement, etc. So it was a blend of how to we get businesses to innovate better? How do we make Canada, quite frankly, an innovation nation?”

Fast-forward a bit and Preston moved home.

Thanks to technology — and a little travel when required — he still worked for the Conference Board, he just got to do it from his home province.

Paul Preston is the new CEO of the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Technology Industries (NATI).
Paul Preston is the new CEO of the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Technology Industries (NATI).

Preston is proof of how, when it comes to the tech and innovation sector, your physical location doesn’t necessarily mean anything when it comes to where you work or where your clients are.

“Someone like me living here, working for an Ottawa-based think-tank whose role was pan-Canadian, I was able to make it work. I was a digital worker, a lot of travel, yes, but technology and innovation industries are borderless to a large degree.”

That experience stands him in good stead as he begins his duties as NATI’s CEO.

NATI’s broad mission is to foster the province’s tech and innovation sector.

A big part of that is educating the public — especially youth — about what that sector is and how they can make a living in it after they finish their education.

While Preston says N.L.’s sector is pretty healthy, it’s clear there’s a need for more skilled workers to fill gaps.

Research suggest tech workers in this province are paid as much as seven per cent higher than the national average. That same research points to a shortage of workers in the field.

“We know that getting out to the K-12 system, in particular, and getting out in front of youth and helping them understand what a role in innovation and technology may look like is vital,” Preston said.

“There’s a huge opportunity for companies here to scale and grow, but we need the workers that are going to be there to help fuel that growth and work in those firms. … There’s different pathways to get there and, frankly, a role in technology and innovation isn’t just a programmer. There’s many different things you can do.”

Preston said NATI’s role is also about letting other industries know what the tech sector can do for them.

“When we talk about technology and innovation, every company is a tech company, every company is an innovation company these days, with digitalization and so forth. I look at our role as how do we span other industries? How do we drive technology and innovation in other sectors, as well? Like ocean tech, health, oil and gas — some of those industries where we do have a competitive strength here.”

He also sees the tech and innovation sector as a bridge between other sectors.

“We’re always going to have a strength of natural resources in Canada and here in the province,” he said. “However, we’re going to need to look at how do we bolster that? How do we add more value to those resources? How do we look at technology and innovation development that can help diversify the economy, that can provide well-paying jobs, that can attract investment here? It’s seeing our role in the broader ecosystem and collaboration and partnerships with organization across the ecosystem is critical.”

Clearly, Preston and his colleagues have a lot on their to-do list. But based on the buzz, the timing might be just right for them to be able to start knocking things off that list.

Mark Vaughan-Jackson is The Telegram’s business editor. He can be reached by email at mark.vaughan-jackson@thetelegram.com

Related column:

Mark Vaughan-Jackson: Putting our money where our ideas are


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