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Canada is North America’s up-and-coming startup center

TechCrunch | | April 21, 2017

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They say that nice guys finish last — and Canada, with its reputation for polite citizenry and its charming prime minister, is used to being overlooked. Sure, Canada may tower over the United States in physical size, but many countries of similar stature — G7 nations, for example — dismiss the Great White North as nothing more than America’s top hat.

This is a mistake.

Canada, with nine percent of the world’s forests, is a land of plenty. As well as an enviable array of natural resources, Canada also boasts incredible support for entrepreneurs, both homegrown and international. Many household names, such as Slack, Hootsuite and Shopify — which may be mistakenly considered as U.S. products — hail from north of the border. This proves Canada is capable of delivering on startup success.

And it’s no surprise that startups excel in the country. Sure, there is less access to VC funding and the persuasive call of Canada’s southern neighbor, but the Canadian government is working hard to build and keep successful startup ecosystems. There is a huge selection of government aid available to small businesses, some of which includes grants that don’t have to be paid back.

Alongside substantial government backing is Canada’s array of world-class universities. The University of Waterloo — increasingly known as Canada’s answer to MIT — sees incredible numbers go to Silicon Valley every year, while others all over the country produce thousands of talented grads.

While eventually losing out to Colombia, Canada was shortlisted as country of the year by The Economist in 2016. The United States’ northern neighbor boasts world-class universities and resources to develop talent and, currently, the Canadian dollar is 0.75 cents to the American dollar. This means a highly educated workforce is available for less capital for entrepreneurs all over the world who are ready and willing to make the leap to Canada.

Origin story

Canada has a proud history of technological innovation. Communications company Nortel pushed expansion in the 1970s, bringing talented telecom engineers. In 1983, after a wave of deregulation, Nortel gave way to Bell Canada Enterprise (BCE), which signaled an era of telecom preeminence.

If that weren’t enough, a year later, in 1984, Research in Motion (RIM), which today is better known as BlackBerry, was founded. While the sun may have set on BlackBerry, the impact of their phones — and the eponymous messaging service — has left a lasting impact on cellular phone technology.

Fast-forward to the nineties and the Canadian government expanded its Scientific Research and Experimental Development (SR&ED) tax incentive program to allow for assistance to companies performing research and development. The legacy of this decision is clearly illustrated by Canada’s fervent support of startups in recent times.

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Since the turn of the new millennium, Canada has been determined to churn out initiative after initiative to support new business. The opening of the MaRS Discovery District in 2005 — a 1.5-million-square-foot complex located in Toronto’s downtown — provided entrepreneurs with skills via its venture program, and included a network of 1,000 high-potential-growth startups that collectively generated more than $1.3 billion in revenue from 2008-2015. Just two years later, Maple Leaf Angels set up shop in the city center, with a focus on investing in early-stage companies.

Universities across the country have worked to provide space and support for startups to grow, too. In 2010, Ryerson University founded the Digital Media Zone (DMZ), a combined incubator/accelerator program that has assisted more than 130 companies.

In later years, a wave of funding opportunities and globally recognized accelerator programs took root across Canada. The Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System (OMERS) deployed $180 million in early-stage startups between 2011 and 2014, while BDC Capital launched its IT Venture Fund II, a fund worth $150 million. 2014 saw U.S. heavyweight The Founder Institute, founded by Adeo Ressi and Jonathan Greechen, open its first Canadian branch. In March 2016, 500 Startups announced its $30 million Canada fund.

With such a strong foundation of startup initiatives and technology success, it’s no wonder that Canada is in such a strong position now.

Toronto-Waterloo corridor

Despite a population of just 2.8 million, Toronto has been named the most diverse city in the world. About half of its residents were born outside of Canada, and the city is home to 230 nationalities. As Canada’s largest city, it’s quite naturally the country’s commercial, industrial and financial center. It stands to reason that this would make Toronto stand out as the country’s biggest tech hub, too.

As an example, Toronto-born FreshBooks, an accounting platform for small businesses, has more than 10 million users, and a 43,000-square-foot office in the city, which houses 245 employees. Self-publishing company Wattpad, which lets writers share their work on the platform, has 45 million users worldwide. In November, the company signed a deal with Universal Cable Productions — the creator of Suits — with the idea to sift through the stories online to turn the popular ones into TV shows. On-demand platform AskforTask has more than 150,000 taskers, and has doubled its business each year since launching in 2012.

The aforementioned MaRS Discovery District is a tower of strength in the city’s startup community, too. The four-story brick building takes up almost one city block, and is one of the world’s largest innovation hubs, offering funding, mentorship and facilities to the city’s creators. Ryerson University’s Digital Media Zone incubator is also a resource for early-stage companies worldwide, as are a range of University of Toronto incubators and accelerators. BetaKit, a news publication led by Douglas Soltys that documents Canadian startup news, is also based in the city.

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As Canada’s financial hub, Toronto is home to much of the country’s investment. OMERS Ventures has had arguably one of the biggest impacts on the Canadian startup scene. The VC firm backs startups directly, including Spotify, of which the firm owns six percent. Canada also boasts the Venture Capital Action Plan (VCAP) to encourage more Canadian private investors. For every $2 in funding, the government gives another $1 to early-stage companies.

Other financial support includes 500 Startup’s Canadian fund; the Scientific Research and Experimental Development Program, a federal tax incentive for companies conducting research; and the Industrial Research Assistance Program, which provides entrepreneurs with funding and advisory services to help them develop technology.

Yet despite this, Toronto is yet to birth a homegrown unicorn. While there are up to 4,100 active startups in the city, none are valued at over a billion dollars, and aren’t necessarily household names outside the tech scene.

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Just 60 miles west of Toronto, however, is Waterloo, a small city of 134,000 residents, which holds much of Canada’s tech talent. Like San Francisco and the Bay Area, Toronto and Waterloo form a corridor of startup innovation between them. Yet, while Toronto is yet to see any businesses hit that magical unicorn status, Waterloo has.

Waterloo is the home of telecoms giant BlackBerry, as well as newer companies that include video optimization platform Vidyard — which last year raised $35 million in Series C funding — and Bridgit, a communication app for construction teams that won Google Demo Day: Women’s Edition in 2015. Similarly, Shopify, considered one of the country’s most successful startups, has an office in Waterloo (as well as offices in Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and San Francisco).

Waterloo boasts the MIT of Canada — the University of Waterloo — which sends talent to startup ecosystems. In fact, every year, recruiters from Apple, Google and Facebook, among others, flock to this Canadian tech hub to onboard new employees; graduates of the University of Waterloo are the second-most-frequently hired in Silicon Valley after students from University of California, Berkeley. The university’s students are famously inventive, too. In 2009, Kik Interactive was founded by a group of students who wished to create new technologies for use on mobile smartphones; it has gone on to become an incredible success.

The Toronto and Waterloo corridor is sometimes billed — unsurprisingly — as the Silicon Valley of the North. Waterloo mayor John Tory has said that the Toronto-Waterloo corridor has all the elements for huge success, much of which comes from the quality of universities in the area. The University of Waterloo ranks 24th in the world for computer science and information systems, and the University of Toronto — one of Canada’s most prestigious schools — ranks 16th.

While many tech giants already have a presence in these cities, there are efforts underway to make Toronto-Waterloo rise to the top of the world’s tech scene. Following the release of the City of Toronto’s Startup Eco-system Strategy in 2015, the city launched StartUp HERE Toronto, a website built and managed by startup influencers to feature startup news and events and put a spotlight on entrepreneurs in the Toronto-Waterloo corridor.

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