Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Don't all innovative startups deserve access to the same tax break?

One of the items included in the Ontario budget unveiled yesterday was "a 10-year Ontario income tax exemption for new corporations that commercialize intellectual property developed by qualifying Canadian universities, colleges or research institutes."

As with all budget announcements, this will be subject to refinements and revisions before it gets implemented ... if it ever does ... and an obvious first reaction would be that few tech startups are particularly concerned about paying income tax (and provincial income tax in particular). There's usually enough losses up-front to put off paying a significant amount of income tax for a long time.

What disappointed me, though, was the distinction this announcement made between university spinoffs and other tech startups. As presented in the budget, only spinoffs would qualify for the tax exemption.

We have several university spinoff companies in the Waterloo area, but most of our tech startups are not spinoffs -- certainly not in accordance with how Statistics Canada defines a spinoff. Neither are most of our largest tech companies. Some are, but most aren't.

I have an office at the Accelerator Centre at the UW Research & Technology Park, and on our floor we have spinoff companies and non-spinoff startups working side-by-side. If you weren't told which were which, you'd have a tough time separating one from the other in terms of the sophistication of the technology, market opportunity, or number of employees.

Under the budget proposal, however, we'd have the spinoff in one suite exempt from Ontario income tax and essentially being subsidized by its neighbouring startup that isn't a spinoff and doesn't qualify for the exemption. I can't see any justification for that distinction.

If the Ontario government wants to give a tax break to new companies commercializing innovative technology, let it extend that benefit to all tech startups regardless of their starting points. If the goal is to assist in the economic development of the province, it shouldn't matter whether companies that drive our economic success are university spinoffs or not.