Still, the hope is that the proliferation of small companies, some of which will attract enough investment to become bigger companies, will mean that those moving to Canada to work in tech will have plenty of options, even in a specific job doesn’t work out.
“Canada's story is a bit divergent from many of the other tech hubs. There's a willingness to tackle some of the big complex problems,” said Ilse Treurnicht, the CEO of MaRS, in an interview. Treurnicht certainly feels that the Canadian tech scene is on the verge of something big. Between the fact that Toronto is attracting more international interest generally (applications to University of Toronto from American students are up 80 percent this year) to the more varied types of companies that are setting up shop, there’s reason to hope that Canada could become a destination for tech talent.
But Canadian tech remains far less visible than Silicon Valley, in part because most of Canada’s big tech companies are less focused on consumer-facing products, such as apps, which can generate buzz and name recognition. Shopify, the Canadian e-commerce success story, remains an outlier. Past giants of Canadian tech are companies like Nortel and Research in Motion, one of which has gone bankrupt while the other is still bogged down trying to stage a Blackberry comeback. Treurnicht concedes that the nature of the tech business in Canada—from tech infrastructure, to fintech or digital solutions for the energy sectors—make it less visible abroad.
Even at MaRS, the growth areas are in biotech and artificial intelligence. The incubator’s namesake is short for medical and related sciences. And American tech giants with offices at MaRS tend to be regional sales and marketing offices, rather than programmers and developers working on actual product development. And those are things that many find inherently less sexy than the flashy new apps and products being built in Northern California.
The size of the tech sector can mean that not any and every startup will get funded as easily as it might in an area with more money to spend, such as Silicon Valley says Michael Serbinis, the CEO of League, a digital health startup that raised $25 million last year. That fact puts a bit of a damper on one crucial aspect of the Silicon Valley tech dream, which is that anyone can rake in some pretty big investments with a decent idea.
So if not an extreme sum of money and endless possibilities, what is Canadian tech selling to prospective companies and workers? For companies, it’s cheaper talent due to the exchange rate, and with less competition and more of a focus on work-life balance, less turnover and more loyal employees. To attract employees, Canada is trying to work another angle: homesickness.
Canada isn’t just trying to attract foreign or American talent. What seems more pragmatic and realistic, at least at the moment, is bringing Canadians working in Silicon Valley back home. Bannister at Real Ventures says that she’s consistently seen this happen: Canadians who move to Silicon Valley because of the excitement and job prospects, but get homesick when they’ve been there for a while, on the verge of burnout, or when they’re starting families and want more work life balance. With more job opportunities in Canada, she believes the equation is shifting for talented Canadians in tech.