Still not sure if it’s a safety harness, a leach or a noose.
- Montreal-based entrepreneur
The person above, who didn’t want to be named, is referring to one of the government programs that fund R&D activity in Canada. Programs with alphabet soup names like SR&ED and IRAP can repay up to 85% of your developers’ salaries. (Yes, 85%)
Fred Lalonde, an experienced entrepreneur and founder of Hopper Travel, recently said these programs are the devil. And I think he was being nice. Here’s why:
- These programs create bureaucracy. The government hires technical “experts” to audit companies and decide whether the work they’ve done is innovative enough. To navigate through their requirements and make sure you use the right buzzwords, startups hire consultants (some of them previously employed as the aforementioned government auditors) to prepare their claims. All of this costs money.
- They’re a distraction. None of the people above add any value to your business. Every minute you spend dealing with them is a minute you could be spending learning about your customers/users, getting to product/market fit or gaining market traction.
- They create incentives to misalign resources. This is dangerous because it’s insidious. When you’re getting back 85% of your engineering salaries, it’s easy to just throw more engineers at your problems. As a result, Canadian startups have world class engineering teams, but often fall short on the product and user experience side.
I’ve spoken to a several Canadian startup entrepreneurs in the past few weeks about these programs and there is clearly a lot of frustration regarding them. Yet at the same time, there is a reluctancy to discuss the issue publicly for fear of biting the hand that feeds them giving the already limited pool of capital available to early stage startups here.
I’ve come to the conclusion that these programs do more harm than good, and it’s time we have an honest conversation about getting rid of them.
But wait, you say, how will our tech industry continue to exist? You can argue it’s time to just drop the crutches and learn to walk. After all, these programs don’t exist in Silicon Valley, yet they seem to be doing just fine.
Or, the government can take that capital and redeploy it in other ways, such as:
- Investing in venture capital. You don’t want the government investing directly in startups, but they can act as a catalyst by acting as a limited partner in funds managed by people with operational experience. This model has worked in Israel, and Quebec has taken some big steps in this direction recently with the creation of the Teralys Capital fund of funds as well as investing in Real Ventures.
- Invest in infrastructure that creates conditions for innovation and risk-taking, from universities to places like Notman House in Montreal or MaRS in Toronto.
- Creating startup friendly tax policies. We give tax holidays to foreign “specialists”; why not do the same for entrepreneurs, or early employees who decide to take the risk on a startup, or angels who invest in them?
What has your experience been with these R&D programs? Should we keep them or replace them, and if so, with what? Let’s get a discussion going in the comments below.