CTAs help unlock the global business potential of Canadian startups

Technology startups are not like other companies. They have specific needs, and the Canadian Trade Commissioner Service (TCS) has a dedicated program to help take them to the next level. The TCS’s Canadian Technology Accelerator, or CTA program offers tailored support to high‑growth, high‑potential Canadian companies that have a market‑ready product or technology and that are looking to scale up and expand into key tech markets.

How did the CTA get started?

CanadExport recently sat down for an interview with Andrea Clements, who has been the Director of the Global Affairs Canada division responsible for the CTA since 2018. According to Clements, the CTA started in 2009 as a pilot project of the TCS’s San Francisco office, which “realized that Canadian technology companies needed some extra help to really compete in the global innovation economy.”

As a result of the pilot’s success, the CTA was launched as a full‑fledged program in 2013. More than 730 participants have completed the program since then, and those businesses have gone on to generate $278 million in new revenue, raise more than $740 million in capital and create nearly 3,000 new Canadian jobs.

The program has also greatly expanded since its Silicon Valley start. Today, the network includes CTAs in 12 global technology hubs in North America, Europe and Asia, with the newest programs launching in London and New Delhi in 2022.

What does the CTA offer?

With coaching and mentorship from industry leaders, support for accessing financial resources, and access to potential clients and strategic partners, participation in a CTA is a huge leg‑up for Canadian companies that want to explore global growth opportunities and bring their business to the international stage.

What participants have to say

Since its launch in 2013, based on survey responses from CTA graduates:

The CTA “offers a deeper understanding of the commercial opportunities in the market,” says Clements.

Although programming is adapted to the specific market and sector of each individual CTA, customized services typically include:

“There’s just such a steep learning curve when you’re entering a new market and having that white‑glove, hand‑holding service can be really, really important to a company, opening those doors. It’s not cold calls. We’re doing warm introductions,” Clements says. She adds that “companies still have to do the work, and there is a commitment required by the companies participating, but business development is made easier and facilitated by the Trade Commissioners in each of these markets.”

How has the CTA adapted to COVID‑9 realities?

To facilitate the success of businesses all across Canada during the COVID‑19 pandemic, the CTA also rapidly transformed to deliver programming virtually in all markets. In fact, as Clements notes, the CTA was one of the first TCS programs to pivot to virtual programming in March 2020.

Some virtual components are likely to remain in place over the long‑term, especially the pre‑sessions in which companies get together before the start of the program in the CTA market. But in‑person activities will once again be an essential part of the CTA program when pandemic‑related restrictions are lifted. “I think companies really do want that in‑person network and connection, despite some of the success that I think we did have,” Clements says.

How are CTA participants selected?

According to Clements, the ideal CTA candidate has a unique, viable and market‑ready product or technology solution, as well as traction in the Canadian marketplace, the ability to quickly scale up, and a committed management team.

Clements also stresses the competitive nature of the CTA application process. CTA applications are carefully reviewed against the eligibility and assessment criteria by a selection panel of local industry experts, including investors and mentors, as well as Trade Commissioners in relevant CTA markets. “There’s often an interview involved as well, where they do have an opportunity to pitch. And local industry experts will review the applications and make sure that it’s a good fit for the market,” she adds.

Not every market is going to be right for everyone, which is why it’s so important for companies “to do the research and talk to the Trade Commissioners on the ground, who are very knowledgeable about the opportunities, to try to figure out, is this market somewhere where we’re going to get some traction, we’re going to get some business, and then put that time in. I’ve seen so many examples of that pay off.”

How are CTA locations chosen?

A CTA participant’s itinerary

The Singapore CTA team outlines a typical CTA journey for participants.

  1. Initial onboarding into the CTA
    • Participants meet with the team of Trade Commissioners in Singapore (either virtually or in‑person), as well as other participants and partners they will be working with for the duration of the program.
  2. Diving into the program elements, Part 1
    • Participants benefit from market briefing workshops to gain a better understanding of the market.
  3. Diving into the program elements, Part 2
    • After gaining a better understanding of the market, participants begin self‑guided mentorship sessions. Trade Commissioners and program partners engage in follow‑ups during this time to ensure participants are advancing and operations are running smoothly.
  4. The showcase event and program wrap‑up
    • In the final stages of the program, participants will present their companies at a showcase event in front of a curated audience. Trade Commissioners follow‑up with companies to assess further needs and make tailored introductions to key players within the local ecosystem, as well as to other programs, initiatives or events that could support their global business journey.

In determining where to locate a CTA, Clements says the TCS relies on its own internal data about where the best opportunities might lie, where its clients found the most success in the past, and, because of the mentorship aspect of the CTA, whether there are many Canadian expats in a particular market.

The TCS also looks at existing studies that rate a city or global tech hub on their innovation level and ecosystem based on criteria such as:

In terms of the sector of focus for each particular CTA program, Clements says the TCS leaves it to its office in that market to “decide on the best opportunity for their market because they’re the ones on the ground who have the networks on the ground to leverage those opportunities.” She adds that the TCS’s regional offices across Canada also play a role in this process by making sure “that we have the Canadian capabilities to match that opportunity” abroad.

What can CTA alumni expect from the TCS?

Companies that complete a CTA program can continue to get support from the TCS as they pursue their international expansion journeys. They can also take part in more than one program. Clements says the TCS does off‑boarding sessions with all CTA participants, and “once a client has completed a CTA, we try to say, ok, what’s next for you in the Trade Commissioner Service.” That includes putting them in touch in touch with a Trade Commissioner “from a regional office to talk about the types of things that they do to support clients.” Clements notes that the TCS has an on‑the‑ground presence in more than 160 cities around the globe to help Canadian companies grow internationally, “and so we hope that each CTA graduate will connect with their regional officer and think about what their global strategy will look like.”

What’s next for the CTA?

Clements highlights multi‑location programs as an exciting step forward for the CTA, and one that leverages the TCS’s global network of offices and Trade Commissioners. For example, the TCS office in Singapore recently organized a program for a group of cleantech companies focused on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). “So instead of just looking at Singapore, they brought in three other markets in the ASEAN region and were able to really give the clients experience in those markets as well. So maybe there were some opportunities for them in Vietnam, Malaysia or the Philippines, and not just Singapore, and they were able to explore those markets at the same time.”

In terms of emerging areas of focus for the CTA, Clements mentions three in particular that are gaining traction: auto tech, ag tech and smart cities.

“The innovation of our network is incredible, and it continues on a daily basis, and [Trade Commissioners] really have the companies’ best interests at heart and want to support them,” she says. “So I just would encourage companies to take a look at this particular program, but also all the different services that the TCS offers to companies to help in their global expansion.”

Visit the Canadian Technology Accelerators webpage for a list of upcoming CTA programs, and to learn more about the CTA. And take a look at the TCS’s other services, initiatives and funding programs.

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