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COVID-19 roundup: $250 million more for the innovation economy

Innovation, Science and Industry Minister Navdeep Bains listens to a question on the telephone during a news conference in Ottawa, Tuesday April 7, 2020. The Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld
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It’s day 38 since Canada’s 100th coronavirus case. The number of cases is 31,642 as of publication time, up 1,536 since yesterday, an 18 per cent increase in daily new cases from the three-day prior average. On their respective 38th day, U.S. daily new cases were up four per cent from the three-day prior average; the U.K. was down 15 per cent in daily new cases from the three-day prior; and in Italy, new cases were down 20 per cent.* 

After weeks of skepticism about the accuracy of its reporting, Wuhan has revised its death toll upwards by 50 per cent from 2,579 to 3,869. In the span of eight days, the global death toll has increased from 100,000 to 150,000.

Plugging the gaps: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Friday announced Ottawa is adding $250 million in new money to the National Research Council of Canada’s Industrial Research Assistance Program (IRAP). The moves follow weeks of concerns from innovation-economy executives and groups that many Canadian startups and scale-ups were shut out of other COVID-19 support measures, such as wage subsidies or new credit facilities. IRAP gives Canadian firms with fewer than 500 employees up to $10 million in funding for technology-development and -commercialization projects. The new money will be available to pre-revenue startups and companies that haven’t previously used the program; Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains said funding will “begin to be delivered in a matter of days,” and that more than 1,000 firms are expected to benefit over the next three months. Ottawa’s six regional development agencies will also get an additional $675 million to support small- and medium-sized firms that can’t access other COVID-19 programs.

Bains spoke with The Logic this afternoon about the plans. “The measures we’ve taken today deal with some of those pain points. It’s about identifying highly skilled innovators that we want to make sure to stay in Canada. I want to make sure that we focus on startups—pre-revenue or not—high-growth companies, software-as-a-service [SaaS] companies,” said Bains. “All these are now eligible under [IRAP]. And we feel this will address the concerns with regards to keeping highly skilled employees paid and making sure that they stay in Canada.” He also discussed a host of other requests from tech companies—including pausing scientific research and experimental development (SR&ED) audits and fintechs’ plan to loan $2 billion to tech firms—and whether he still plans to get telecoms to lower their rates by 25 per cent. 

Hamid Arabzadeh, CEO of Ranovus, called IRAP one of the federal government’s best innovation supports. It pays out monthly, unlike tax credit- or claims-based programs, which require companies to have the cash to cover salaries and other expenses upfront. “They’re tough in terms of choosing the projects, but once they understand what you’re trying to do and how [it’s] differentiated globally, they’re willing to put [in] money for you to take extra risk,” he said. The program’s thorough vetting process could advantage existing clients.

Existing COVID-19 business-support programs don’t help firms focused on generating intellectual property and data assets instead of immediate sales, or those scaling up through hiring and R&D investments, said Arabzadeh. The Ottawa-based data-centre hardware company didn’t qualify for the wage-subsidy program because it requires applicants to show a significant recent drop in revenue. Ranovus hasn’t laid off any of its 60 staff, but “we don’t have visibility of how the market is going to turn, so we have to moderate our R&D expenditure,” he said. IRAP will help fill the gap. 

ICYMI: The Canada Revenue Agency portal for wage-subsidy applications will open on April 27, and the tax department hopes to process those that don’t require additional review within a week, officials told a parliamentary committee teleconference on Thursday evening.  

Sector specifics: Ottawa will spend $1.7 billion to clean up orphaned and abandoned oil wells in the three westernmost provinces. Alberta loaned $100 million in late March to a provincial non-profit charged with similar work as part of its own COVID-19 jobs program. The federal government is also setting up a $750-million fund for emissions-reduction efforts, primarily methane. It’s the first of the sector-specific rescue plans to which Finance Minister Bill Morneau alluded in mid-March; asked on Friday about other in-trouble industries like tourism and airlines, he pointed to Air Canada re-hiring staff using the wage-subsidy program and promised more credit support for mid-sized and large firms in a “short while.” 

In the markets: North American stocks rallied Friday: the Dow Jones climbed 2.99 per cent, the Nasdaq added 1.38 per cent, while the S&P 500 and S&P/TSX rose 2.68 and 3.31 per cent, respectively. This was the second consecutive week of gains, despite a week full of high unemployment numbers and bleak reports from global banks and companies alike. 

On Friday, China reported a quarterly GDP plunge of 6.8 per cent, the first time it recorded a contraction since it began publishing the data in 1992. The U.S. Congressional Budget Office said the country’s US$2-trillion stimulus package will add US$1.76 trillion to federal budget deficits over the decade. The International Finance Corporation, the World Bank’s sister organization in Asia, predicted close to 11 million people in Asia could go into poverty. The body plans to allocate US$8 billion worth of relief programs designed to support small- and medium-sized businesses in emerging-market economies. Kristalina Georgieva, the International Monetary Fund (IMF)’s managing director, told the BBC that the body’s economic predictions “may be actually a more optimistic picture than reality produces.” Said Georgieva, “Epidemiologists are now helping us make macroeconomic projections. Never in the history of the IMF have we had that.”

“They’re all negotiating with the government, but they’re not calling Warren”: Charlie Munger, the 96-year-old vice-chairman of Berkshire Hathaway and Warren Buffett’s longtime business partner, said no one is calling one of the world’s biggest investors for capital. Berkshire invested tens of billions of dollars during the 2008–2009 financial crash, but this time, things are different. “Everybody’s just frozen,” Munger said. “And the phone is not ringing off the hook.”

Trace me on my cellphone: A coalition of EU scientists and technologists is developing what it calls a “privacy-preserving” standard for Bluetooth-based contact tracing, and it wants Apple and Google to follow its lead. France’s state-supported contact-tracing app project StopCovid—which people would install voluntarily on their phones, and which would only use Bluetooth—will not be ready by the time the country’s National Assembly is set to debate it at the end of April. Italy is testing a similar app in some regions, with a government official saying the technology could be “a pillar of our strategy to deal with the post-emergency phase.” Australians are being asked to download a voluntary app, set to roll out within the next two weeks, “as a matter of national service” by their prime minister. Canada’s privacy commissioner has issued guidelines including “key privacy principles that should factor into any assessment of measures proposed to combat COVID-19 that have an impact on the privacy of Canadians.” But does contact tracing actually pose a privacy risk? Wired put some privacy experts’ concerns to Google, Apple and the technologists building the systems. 

A COVID-19 command centre: Cinchy, a Toronto-based data-collaboration company, told The Logic that it met with the Ontario government on April 9 to pitch what it called a highly secure central platform that would connect Canada’s public health agencies with the data collected by contact-tracing technologies and more. That data could be used to build systems that could alert hospitals to surges in cases or shortages in medical equipment. 

“Litigation always follows the money”: Canadian manufacturers are pivoting to produce personal protective and medical equipment as Ottawa tries to procure more domestic supplies to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. But while the federal government has given itself new powers to circumvent patents to combat the public health emergency, it has yet to assume them; lawyers told The Logic these firms should avoid putting themselves at risk of litigation by infringing on others’ intellectual property.

Relief for Quebec businesses: Quebec’s provincial government announced a $100-million job-retention program to in part “optimize the functioning of businesses and the labour market.” Employers, cooperatives, non-profits, professional groups and the like are eligible to apply for a 100 per cent reimbursement of expenses up to $100,000, and 50 per cent of expenses between $100,000 and $500,000. Successful applicants can also apply for other federal and provincial aid programs. The government will accept applications until September 30, or until the $100 million is spent.

Cross-country checkup: Starting Monday at noon, Transport Canada will require all air passengers to wear non-medical masks or face-coverings on flights. B.C. is preparing to ease some restrictions next month, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry announced Friday; it will allow about 40 per cent to 60 per cent of “normal” public activity, compared to the current 30 per cent. Modelling from the University of Toronto suggests Canadians may need to continue some degree of social distancing until 2022, or until a vaccine is widely available. Toronto Public Health has launched its own database for tracking people who have come in contact with the virus, calling the province’s system “outdated and clunky.” Ontario has partnered with Apple and Rogers to give 21,000 iPads to students in low-income families, amid prolonged online schooling. About 6.8 million Canadians—nearly 40 per cent of workers—worked from home during the week of March 22, according to Statistics Canada; 4.7 million of them don’t typically do so. 

Bay Street to Main Street: 

  • Shopify stock jumped 12.15 per cent on Friday after its CTO tweeted the company was processing “Black Friday level traffic every day.”
  • Real-time transaction data from RBC shows how consumers are reacting to turning points in the pandemic through their spending. 
  • The Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec is shaking up its executive team. “Regrouping our teams within strong business units will increase our efficiency and ability to seize more opportunities,” said CEO Charles Emond.
  • Life insurance companies are cutting premiums for small- and mid-sized businesses amid a drop in claims during the pandemic. 
  • Big banks are lowering mortgage rates as the cost of raising money for the lenders stabilizes. 
  • Transat plans to leverage the 75 per cent federal wage subsidy and rehire the 3,750 or so employees it laid off due to the pandemic. 
  • Canadian asset manager Onex has purchased London-based health-care staffing firm Independent Clinical Services Group, weeks after Onex CEO Gerry Schwartz said the firm would be seeking buying opportunities in the depressed market.
  • Some farmers warned they may sit out the season if the federal government does not extend relief funding to the industry.
  • Canadians may be waiting longer for 5G, as COVID-19 puts pressure on telecom budgets, and as baseless conspiracy theories trigger suspicions that the technology is linked to the virus. 

Crowdsourcing the crisis: A University of Waterloo team has created the COVID-19 Vulnerability Screener, a tool to identify older adults at risk of “adverse health outcomes” due to COVID-19. It was launched in Canada and South Africa and can be used by anyone at home or in retirement homes. Willful, a Toronto-based online will company, is offering free wills and power-of-attorney documents to frontline health-care workers. It said it’s seen a 620 per cent increase in demand for wills during the pandemic. 

Postcard from Stuttgart: In a world that has otherwise largely been turned upside down, Dustin Hamilton has two things to look forward to: a daily check-in call on Zoom with his German colleagues, and listening to the Toronto rock radio station Q107 to keep in touch with his Canadian roots. “I listen every day just to stay connected to back home,” said Hamilton, a senior consultant at public relations firm Sympra. Hamilton is on his fourth week of working from home. Once a week, he chats with his parents, sister and brother-in-law. Hamilton has travelled a lot throughout his career, which started off in Toronto, and was followed by stints in South Korea and China before he ended up in his current role in Germany. “My friends are sort of scattered around the world, and one of the nice things about staying at home is it’s reignited that fire of getting back in touch proactively. I have one friend in Barcelona that I FaceTimed with for eight hours on the weekend, just catching up.” 

Drinking from the firehose: Venture-backed startups around the world are struggling to get financial relief. In the United States, the small-business loan program has run out of money, and the Senate is due to reconvene on the issue next week, after failing to reach an agreement Thursday. Several VC-funded startups reported they could not meet the requirements to prove why the loans were needed, with some saying they were vaguely written. Lawyers said companies that have cash in the bank may also be disqualified. In Germany, the government cannot decide who is responsible for delivering its €2-billion startup-relief program. The British government, meanwhile, has extended to June 30 a government program that pays most of the wages of furloughed employees. 

  • Walmart will hire 50,000 more workers, on top of the 150,000 employees it has already taken on, to keep up with sustained demand.
  • Uber withdrew its 2020 financial guidance and will write down roughly US$2 billion in investments, citing the impact of the pandemic.
  • Consumer-goods giant Procter & Gamble reported its biggest U.S. sales increase in decades, at 10 per cent.
  • 3M has filed four lawsuits in the past week against alleged price-gougers in New York, California, Texas and Florida.
  • Startup accelerator Y Combinator is changing the terms of its investments: it will now take a four per cent stake in companies that raise a seed and Series A round—down from seven per cent—and on a case-by-case basis.
  • Altria CEO Howard Willard is stepping down, recovering from COVID-19.
  • Resellers using bots may be to blame for the Nintendo Switch shortage.
  • Sourd.io, a DIY tech project by Twilio’s Christine Sunu, can now monitor your quarantine sourdough.

Around the world: The United Nations said the pandemic is becoming “a broader child-rights crisis.” Brazil’s former president accused his successor Jair Bolsonaro of leading Brazilians “to the slaughterhouse.” Germany’s health minister said the country’s outbreak has become “controllable and manageable again.” The U.K. has launched a task force to develop a vaccine for the coronavirus at mass scale. The White Helmets, a group of Syrian volunteers who rescue civilians from war-ravaged spaces, have been carrying out disinfection work. Two California police departments have deployed the U.S.’s first “homeless outreach” drones to broadcast public safety messages. 

The three-person crew of the International Space Station returned to Earth on Friday morning and were greeted by a recovery crew wearing face masks and rubber gloves. “It’s a little bit difficult for us to feel like we’re truly going back to a different planet,” said astronaut Jessica Meir. “We were really the only three humans that were not subject to [the coronavirus] at the current time.”

An “astral-scape”: A group of Redditors are spending social isolation having out-of-body experiences through astral projection. Beginners can try the “Wake Back To Bed Technique.” 

* We’re emphasizing new cases, rather than running totals, because “flattening the curve” is when each day’s new cases are fewer than those of the previous day. The percentage increase is determined based on how today’s cases compare to a rolling three-day prior average. Numbers may also vary based on countries’ individual testing capacity and reporting.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to clarify the context around changes to the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec’s executive team.

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