Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series on our interview with ACOA President Francis McGuire.

To Francis McGuire, the growth of Atlantic Canada’s startup community is above all a youth retention strategy, and he wants to accelerate the training of young people to support more high-growth companies.

In a wide-ranging interview this month, the President of the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency outlined his vision of the startup community and ACOA’s role in supporting it. He said the support organizations in Atlantic Canada need to continue doing what they’re doing to fund startups because the region has proven adept at financing early-stage companies.

But he returned repeatedly to the subject of human resources and to ensuring that successful startups can find the talent they need to grow.

“I’ve always thought that Atlantic Canada for early-stage financing is the best place in the world,” said McGuire, who assumed the senior role at ACOA two years ago. “If you can’t raise that first half-million here, then you have a really bad idea.”

What’s absolutely critical in the growth of new companies is ensuring they can find talented employees, he said, not just in technical areas like computer programing but also in business development.

McGuire noted that the most recent report by Silicon Valley-based Startup Genome ranked Atlantic Canada No. 4 in the world among “activation ecosystems” – that is, regions with fewer than 1,000 startups and lacking a deep history in startup development.

McGuire said the region has the capacity to raise the number of startups or high-growth innovation companies to 1,000 or more, from about 550 Atlantic Canadian startups at the end of 2018.

He called on universities and colleges to accelerate their efforts to produce more programmers and sales people who are badly needed in the burgeoning sector. McGuire said ACOA supports university programs – such as the Technology, Management and Entrepreneurship program at University of New Brunswick – that train entrepreneurs and the people they employ. But overall, the region’s institutions need to up their game, said McGuire.

“The institutions have to go faster,” said McGuire, who was previously President and CEO of Major Drilling Group International Inc. “We’re talking about 1,000 startups. Well, where are you going to get the 5,000 bodies [to staff them]? . . . We think the institutions are moving too slow.”

The subject of talent and human capital came up repeatedly in the interview – both what has happened and what’s needed. McGuire said Atlantic Canada has long had a problem in attracting and retaining young people, and startups have proven superb at offering young people challenging, well paid careers in the region.

“It’s the type of people they tend to employ,” said McGuire, referring to employees' technical capabilities and also their entrepreneurial attitudes. “If you can get a person into a startup so they can work at it for two or three years, whether they succeed or fail is almost secondary. They are the type of people that companies want to employ.”

He added that the 5,000 to 6,000 young people now working at startups tend to earn $50,000 or more within a few years, and that means they are paying significant taxes, which helps the region’s governments provide services.


Coming up tomorrow: McGuire’s views on helping scaling companies. 

Disclosure: ACOA is a client of Entrevestor.