The Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Technology and Innovation, with a new name and a new CEO running the show, is on the cusp of releasing a new strategy that will focus on home-grown companies and talent.
For years, NATI has been the umbrella group for all things digital in Newfoundland and Labrador, representing an industry said to be worth $1.4 billion to $1.6 billion annually. With Paul Preston taking over as CEO earlier this year, replacing longtime helmsman Ron Taylor, the organization is adjusting its focus somewhat to give more emphasis to helping NL-based companies to grow.
“We’re just about finished a strategic review to see how we can support the startup ecosystem,” said Preston in an interview. “We still have the large companies that are members but our focus now is more on the companies based here that are growing here and will stay here.”
Preston said the association – which is in the process of changing its name from the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Technology Industries – will continue in its mission to support digital industries in the province. But there has been great success in the development of home-grown companies in Newfoundland and Labrador, such as: anti-fraud and money laundering software maker Verafin; Celtx, which makes pre-production software for the film industry; and marketing collaboration software producer HeyOrca. NATI wants the province to grow more of these companies.
Preston said there will be three pillars to the new strategy:
- Talent – There is a colossal need for the human resources to grow businesses, certainly in technical skills like coding but also in business development, sales and related fields. Preston said the province’s university and community college now graduate about 50 coders a year, but the Brookfield Institute has said the province will need 2,000 of these people in the next five years. “We’re going to need to get to about 200 [programmers] a year over the next five years,” said Preston. “We know we have to increase the tech talent.”
- Programs and support – NATI has always offered programs to improve and encourage the use of digital technologies, and will continue to provide them.
- Bringing technology to key segments of the economy – NATI for a while was known as being “IT-centric”, said Preston, but one of the goals now is to increase the use of digital technologies in all parts of the economy, including the resource-based industries like fishing and mining.
The priority among these three pillars is talent development, and Preston said that NATI already has developed proposals for multi-year programs to accelerate the output of programmers and business people. It would be unrealistic to expect institutions to change curriculum overnight, he said, but the community has to address this problem promptly.
While it wasn't listed in the priorities, NATI is also a strong partner in the move to develop more biotech companies in Newfoundland and Labrador. It is a founding partner in Bounce Innovation, in which the startup and medical communities collaborate to produce new healthcare technologies.
Preston brings an understanding to the CEO role of business conditions both in Newfoundland and Labrador and beyond the province’s borders. He spent 11 years with the Conference Board of Canada based in Ottawa and telecommuting from his home in St. John’s.
He understands how the St. John’s startup community has changed in recent years and that there is an increasing group of companies with global ambitions maturing in the city.
“There’s been a realization here recently that you can start a company here – a company with global reach – and grow it here,” said Preston. “You may have some overseas staff but that’s true of every multinational.”