Toronto Mayor John Tory doesn’t shy away from describing his upcoming visit to Silicon Valley as promotional – after all, that’s exactly what the local tech community could use right now, he says.
Tory will be part of a delegation including the mayors of Waterloo, Kitchener, and Cambridge, Ont., and representatives from MaRS and Communitech innovation hubs that will visit the Valley from April 3 – 6. His hope is to spread a message to the 300,000 Canadian ex-pats currently working there that it’s a great time to come back home. He’s also hoping to win the attention of venture capitalists for tech startups in the region, and visit with some of the tech giants that have become big employers in Toronto.
“The assumption we have that everyone knows everything that is happening here in Toronto is a false one. You can’t count on people coming here to get a full sense of what’s happening, so you have to go there to tell them,” Tory says. “You don’t want it to sound like a trip where we’re handing out balloons, but we’re going to tell a story.”
The trade mission to Silicon Valley follows a March 23 visit by Tory to the Kitchener-Waterloo area. There, the mayors discussed the need to work together and increase ties between the cities.
The stretch of the 401 highway from Toronto to Waterloo, Ont. is being coined as “the corridor” by local governments and others in the tech community. The region features universities with high profiles in STEM fields, 15,000 technology companies employing more than 200,000 people, and has been recognized by Compass as one of the top 20 startup hubs in the world. Last October, Communitech CEO Iain Klugman and Bank of Montreal vice-chair Kevin Lynch co-authored an editorial published in the Globe and Mail calling on government support for the corridor’s tech ecosystem.
“The story of the Toronto-Waterloo corridor is not well known,” Tory says. “There are a lot of Canadians that graduated from schools like (University of Toronto), Ryerson (University), and (the University of Waterloo) and moved to silicon Valley thinking there wasn’t the opportunity here.”
Students graduating from the University of Waterloo’s computer engineering programs and either being recruited by a tech giant, or seeking to start their own business in Silicon Valley, has become a familiar storyline during the past few years. Take Eric Migicovsky, for example, a Waterloo graduate who founded Pebble in Silicon Valley in order to take advantage of local financing laws that allowed for crowdfunding.
Last fall, as part of its annual Dreamforce conference in San Francisco, Salesforce.com Inc. hosted a panel with the C100, a non-profit group composed of Canadian entrepreneurs looking to help other Canadians set up in Silicon Valley.
The message was clear – Canadian tech firms can’t ignore the Valley – and was best summed up by Clarence So, an executive vice-president at Salesforce who moved from Canada to work in the Bay area.
“There’s something in the Bay area that’s just magical and is why a lot of Canadian companies end up taking capital here,” he said. “You need to get out of where you started and you need to come here. You can stay in Canada, but you need to have a couple of feet here.”
Tory’s trip will include a visit to Salesforce headquarters, as well as other tech giants that employ anywhere between hundreds and thousands of people in offices recently set up in the Toronto and Waterloo region. (Salesforce alone employs about 700 out of its Toronto-based office.) He says that’s evidence that we’re not seeing a one-direction brain drain situation.
“There are some fears expressed that if they come here they will vacuum up a lot of the talent and firms that exist here. I don’t believe that,” Tory says, noting that multi-national corporations have shown over time that they spur more innovation in the regions where they set up shop.
Tory plans to tout the lower costs of operating in Canada, as well as the high quality of life enjoyed by employees living in “the corridor.” He’s also hoping to help gain more attention from venture capitalists to bridge the funding gap so tech startups can remain in Canada after their early stages.
Better yet, he’d like to see some ex-pats come back and lend their experience in Toronto again.
“Talent that’s gone down there, got that experience and can come back and bring some experience in scaling up here,” he says. “Those are the people that we’ll be trying to attract to come up first.”
The story being told by the Mayor is echoed by Catherine Barr, a founding member of the C100. At the Salesforce panel last October, she described Canada’s startup eco-system as one that is maturing, but lacking in the talent to get to the next level.
“There’s some really solid companies that are moving to be leaders in their industry,” she said. “There is a dearth of seasoned executives in Canada that know how to scale businesses.”
Yet the federal government is bad at approving visas for executives that could help, often taking months to approve the paperwork, she said.
Tory says he wants the federal government to help entrepreneurs come into the country. He’s also looking for help from the provincial government to improve transportation between Toronto and Waterloo.
The mayor’s full itinerary in San Franciso includes visits with Cisco, Google, Facebook, Salesforce, Twitter, Autodesk, and Square.