More than five decades have passed since the IT industry first took root in the rich research and development (R&D) soil of Ottawa, and Denzil Doyle can be credited with much of the watering that prompted the cluster’s growth spurt.
Known to many as the “father of high tech in Canada,” Doyle is currently the chairman of Ottawa-based Capital Alliance Ventures Inc., a labour-sponsored investment fund. In 1956 Doyle graduated from Queens University with a bachelor’s of science in electrical engineering. The technical education available at that time didn’t even touch on computers, Doyle recalled. “Believe it or not, they were just beginning to teach transistors. The workplace still really wasn’t adopting it and other universities were not even teaching it.”
But after university Doyle plunged right into the R&D scene, which he calls an important precursor to the Canadian high-tech industry. After a stint at Computing Devices of Canada, now General Dynamics Canada, he became a research scientist with the Defense Research Telecommunications Establishment (DRTE), working on the latest in “real-time computing.”
“Going back to the late ’50s and early ’60s, we were applying computer systems to short wave communications, which was unusual at that time. We were trying to develop a communication system that would allow the military to communicate in the Far North during blackouts,” Doyle recalled. It was through this work that Doyle said he was “accidentally” introduced to Digital Equipment Corp. The DRTE became Digital’s first customer, but when Digital decided to open an office in Ottawa, Doyle made his move into sales, becoming Digital Equipment of Canada’s (DEC) first employee.
That was in 1963 — a great year for sales, Doyle recalls. “We sold $1 million that first year…that’s like $10 million now.” DEC continued to grow in Canada, opening sales offices in Toronto and Montreal in 1964, and in Edmonton three years later. Doyle was primarily a salesperson during this time, but he said he “got into R&D and manufacturing in a funny way.” Someone proposed the idea of manufacturing digital modules in Canada instead of just selling them here. “We put together one engineering group in Kanata (Ont.), which got us into higher technology manufacturing.”
Doyle moved up from sales manager to general manager, and by 1970 he was the company president. In 1972 DEC also moved to a larger location — a 60,000 square-foot building (it eventually grew to 280,000 square feet) — and became the first major employer in Kanata. That same year, Corel founder Michael Cowpland and Terry Matthews launched Mitel, also opening an office in Kanata. “They bought real-time computers from us, used them to build their systems and got manufacturing help from us,” Doyle said.
In the years that followed, there were a “whole lot of companies” spinning off of Computing Devices and other firms in the area, Doyle said. That was also about the time Nortel Networks, then known as Northern Electric, opened up a research lab in adjacent Nepean, Ont.
Doyle ran DEC from 1963 to 1981 when he decided to leave and open his own venture capital company, DoyleTech Corp. It was during this time that he invested in a number of small high-tech companies himself, including Vancouver-based wireless data company Mobile Data International, and Instantel Inc., a provider of vibration monitoring technology for the mining and construction markets. He also consulted for small companies and entrepreneurs, helping them formulate business plans and raise capital. “In some cases I put my own money into them.”
Meanwhile, the high-tech industry was “booming” in Kanata. “By then I bet you there were 15,000 high-tech employees there.” That’s when the federal government started “messing around” with the situation, by suggesting the companies located in this cluster spread out their operations into other towns and provinces — something that just didn’t make sense and would have done a lot of damage, considering the cluster concept was working so well, he said.
Instead, Doyle came up with the idea of replicating similar high-tech clusters across Canada. He proposed to the federal government that he “would like to try to work with municipalities that have high concentrations of R&D but no enterprise activity” — in particular, Halifax and Saskatoon. He wanted to travel to those areas and “scour the labs and write business opportunity documents.”
But Doyle said the government didn’t understand what he was talking about. Tired of waiting, he started working on his plan for Saskatoon. “I was running back and forth for three years,” he said, adding that he started about 50 companies there.
“People refer to it as technology venturing. I’ve done it in every province and every major city. I was motivated to do it because it was so harmful to dissect the Ottawa cluster and move it outside the region and I felt that Canada should have at least 10 clusters like the Ottawa cluster.” He said he did a lot of other similar work in New Brunswick, but wasn’t as successful as in Saskatchewan. Other cities where he’s had some influence include Vancouver and Kitchener/Waterloo, Ont.
Doyle said his greatest achievement is helping build a digital Canada, but adds that he “got the greatest kick out of work in Saskatchewan because it was so visible, it responded well, and the entrepreneurs needed exactly that kind of mentoring — they lapped it up pretty well.”