Program builds resource of innovation-savvy board directors for high-growth tech firms

Mark Lowey
January 24, 2024

A training program aimed at providing knowledgeable board directors for early-stage, high-growth Canadian tech companies has expanded during the last two years despite the slump in the tech sector.

Launched in September 2021, the Council of Canadian Innovators’ (CCI) Innovation Governance program has grown from one training level to three, and now has more than 850 alumni who now comprise a resource in board governance expertise.

“We are quite proud to have this new platform in Canada that is helping to increase capacity in the governance base when it comes to governing high-growth companies,” Patrick Searle (photo at right), CCI’s vice-president, corporate affairs, told Research Money.

The alumni group, which grows by around 300 people a year as new people go through the program, “are a huge resource in being able to be board members, advisors, mentors –different roles – to high-growth companies,” he said.

Creating such a resource of board expertise was how the Innovation Governance Program got started. The CCI’s national network of 150 chief executive officers reached out to the non-profit organization during the COVID pandemic, when a then-robust tech sector was seeking capital but CEOs were worried they didn’t have enough knowledgeable board members for early-stage, fast-growing companies.

“We saw in Boston and Silicon Valley a lot of [tech] companies have CEOs sitting on the boards of each other’s company. And we weren’t seeing that in Canada’s tech sector,” Searle said.

CCI’s first step was to create a Board Member Advisory Program, a specialized referral program where the organization’s CEOs were encouraged to put themselves forward to become advisors, observers or directors of tech company boards.

At the same time, CCI also wanted to address the well-known diversity challenge for corporate boards, which often lack representation from under-represented populations including Canadians with disabilities, Indigenous Canadians, Canadians from the queer community, racialized Canadians and women.

“One of the key things that we wanted was to both build capacity within the innovation economy, but also make boardrooms in Canada look more like Canada,” Searle said.

Although other organizations and private companies offered board governance training programs, they typically were teaching governance for big, established companies rather than governance tailored to early-stage, fast-growing startup tech firms in a scale-up market.

“Our goal was to build a program that could teach people who are on boards of scaling companies, of startup companies, about the foundations of the intangible economy,” Searle said.

Along with training company managers and potential new board directors, the program aims to help directors of an established traditional company –  who might be asked to join a tech company – understand and adapt to the needs of a scaling startup, Searle said.

Continuing demand and support for program

The Innovation Governance Program’s curriculum in the fall of 2021 started with one level of online training, delivered with partners that included Deloitte, cybersecurity firm Cycura, Sustainable Development Technology Canada, and the federal funded Innovation Asset Collective – all of which provided instructors. Level 1’s topics include the role of directors, intellectual property, data governance, cybersecurity risk, compliance and finance, and capital investment.

Every participant has to take Level 1, no matter their current board experience, Searle said. “That means there are people who have been board chairs of public companies for 20 years sitting in the same classroom as someone who is working to get on their first board.”

The initial curriculum expanded to Level 2. It covers aspects such as: boardroom dynamics; financing; commercialization and business models; environmental, social and governance aspects; talent development, attraction and retention; and artificial intelligence governance, for which AltaML, an Edmonton-headquartered AI-powered solutions developer, is a partner.

“We have really honest, frank conversations between CEOs that come and sit in on the classes,” Searle said. “We think it’s super-important that we train people to know how hard it is to be running a fast-growing company.”

Level 1 is open to 100 participants and Level 2 to 50 participants. CCI charges individuals a pay-for-participation fee of $2,500 for each of the program’s three six-week course levels.

“We’ve priced our program to be competitive to the average professional development budget for a high-growth scaling technology company for an individual in a mid-career leadership role,” Searle said. “The fee is there to ensure that we have sustainability for the program.”

However, he noted that the continuing demand for CCI’s Innovation Governance program also is coming from a growing number of companies, including VC funders, that want to sponsor their staff or future board directors to take the training. “For companies that being partners who have portfolios, they’re seeing it as a way to help their portfolio companies grow stronger.”

CCI also works with community organizations to identify individuals from under-represented groups, whose participation in the program is sponsored by those partners and organizations.

“Our goal for 2024 is to increase our reach into those under-represented groups, working with equity councils and business associations that work to amplify an increased capacity for those under-represented groups,” Searle said.

All the program’s content is delivered online over six weeks, three times per year. In addition, once a week groups of 10 to 15 participants selected from across Canada meet online to discuss case studies of the topic for each week. For example, Toronto-based TMX Group, which owns and operates the Toronto Stock Exchange, TSX Venture Exchange and other stock exchanges, is the partner for the “access to capital” week.

“All of our instructors are either on boards or are running companies,” Searle said. “That’s what makes our program helpful, because you can ask a very direct question to someone who’ll actually have an answer.”

For example, the Level 3 component, launched last spring, was developed and is taught by Gary Solway, a partner at Bennet Jones, one of three co-authors of the book Directors’ Duties in Canada, and who has led and been involved with some of the largest transactions in Canada’s tech sector. BMO also is a partner for Level 3.

Level 3, open to 50 participants and which includes a textbook, is a “deep dive” into governance “that is meant to put people through a very intense wringer of governance training,” Searle said. Key topics include: boardroom best practices, director legal practice and liability, financing and funding, mergers and acquisitions, risk, insurance, accounting and tax, and global strategies.

Participants who successfully complete all three levels of training receive a professional certificate. So far, about 100 people have obtained their certificate.

Governance is taught through a technology lens, says alumnus

Allison Christilaw (photo at left), an alumnus of CCI’s Innovation Governance Program, has completed all three levels and received her certificate. She took the program even though she’s a graduate of the Institute of Corporate Directors, has board advisory experience, serves as board director of a U.S.-based public company, and is chair of the board at the Haltech Regional Innovation Centre in Ontario.

“I’m pretty familiar with governance,” she said in an interview. “I took Innovation Governance because it was introducing me to a whole different network of people, which I really enjoyed. It’s a different perspective.”

The program also provided her with some better knowledge of technology and approaching board governance through that tech lens. She said the module she liked best, and what she learned the most from, was on the intellectual property pitfalls and dealbreakers.

“The instructor gave real live examples of situations that had gone wrong or right, because of doing [or not doing] the right diligence. I found that extremely valuable,” she said.

Christilaw said she really enjoys working in the innovation space through the Haltech Innovation Centre, especially with startups. “It’s exciting and invigorating. And now I can talk the language better than I could before.”

Many people who take Level 1 of CCI’s Innovation Governance Program are company managers rather than board directors. The training gives them an understanding of what a fast-growing tech company’s board of directors is looking for from management, Christilaw said.  “Understanding what’s important to directors is I think very important for a member of the management team.”

Christilaw said she has recommended the program to others, especially through the Haltech Innovation Centre where she’s working with entrepreneurs who are early in their career. “These are experienced entrepreneurs, but they haven’t had any formal training as to the governance and doing it the right way, of driving your advisory board.”

Another aspect of CCI’s program she liked was the receptiveness of Patrick Searle and Gabriella Boulos, CCI’s manager of education programs, to participants’ suggestions on how to improve the program.

“They’re not defensive at all about the program,” Christilaw said. “They’re always looking for ways and feedback that it can be better.”

Broadening Council of Canadian Innovators’ network

In addition to the Innovation Governance Program’s online learning, the program hosts  “meet-ups” across Canada where participants can meet CEOs from CCI’s network and program partners, such as from the Deloitte Fast 50 network. “It’s a huge opportunity to join a network that can help your career grow,” Searle said.

Every year in June, CCI hosts an annual in-person governance summit in Toronto to bring together its network CEOs and other C-suite members, program partners and alumni.

“We’ve had people from every province participate in our programming,” Searle said. “It’s a way for people to make connections if they’re travelling to different parts of the country.

The Innovation Governance Program has continuously evolved since it started, he said. For example, when Level 2 first started, the talent market was seeing wage-flation and employees’ expectations being out of reach for many early-stage tech companies.

“Now as you start a conversation off, it’s a very different landscape,” Searle said. “That’s how we changed our curriculum, but we stayed with the tenets that boards talk about talent, boards talk about finance. How we teach evolves.”

Program participants suggest their own ideas for the curriculum, such as having more case studies, or “pop-up” conversations to respond to events in the news, or micro-sessions on certain tech business models. The program is agile enough to introduce new material in response to those suggestions within its six-week training sessions.

CCI for the past eight years brought together its network of CEOs and others from the C-suite to talk as leading scale-up companies. With the Innovation Governance Program, “now what we’re able to do is actually bring together the board members of our companies,” Searle said. “We actually can now have these conversations at a scale-up director level.”

Complementing the Innovation Governance Program, CCI in partnership with Ontario’s Cyber Security Centre of Excellence also runs a policy-focused training program in collaboration with the Dais and Rogers Cyberscure Catalyst at Toronto Metropolitan University. This program focuses on providing participants with a deeper understanding of the digital technology governance landscape in Canada and globally.

The program’s first course is “Secure and Responsible Tech Policy Foundations,” an eight-week online course that focuses on training professionals – including those in government – who are developing the policies that are implemented and used by tech companies governed by boards.

The policy-focused course, coupled with the Innovation Governance Program, has broadened CCI’s network and perspective, including the conversation the organization is able to have with its network, Searle said.

“We can actually now have these conversations at a scale-up director level,” he said. “That’s the biggest shift for CCI, from being just CEOs to now being the people that CEOs have to interact with: their board members, their chairs, as well as the people building policy in government and the public and private sectors.”


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