How Ontario plans to become the world’s top technology hub

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Venture Beat  |  John Koetsier  |  May 8, 2013 7:01 AM

Ontario startup hub

Canadians: humble, mild, polite, with a global reputation for being non-aggressive.

Except, of course, at a hockey game. And, increasingly, in Ontario, where startups, government, industry, universities, angels, and venture capitalists are working aggressively to try to create the world’s leading technology hub.

Inside Waterloo, Ontario’s new $160M center for quantum computing.

“We want the world’s next biggest tech company to be built in Ontario,” the most populous Canadian province’s minister of research and innovation, Reza Moridi, told a small group of journalists recently in Toronto.

That’s aggression — even if spoken in a kinder, gentler way by an urbane, mild-mannered politician.

It also might strike some as hubris, given that Ontario’s biggest technology story to date is that of a dying smartphone manufacturer, BlackBerry (formerly known as Research In Motion).

But it’s not just words, and it’s not just the government that’s behind this effort.

Ontario’s reverse brain drain

Ontario is home to about 40 percent of Canada’s population and accounts for 48 percent of Canada’s gross domestic product. It’s the fourth-largest population center in North America, after Mexico City, New York, and Los Angeles, and it produces more cars than any other region in North America, including Michigan. Ontario also has the Americas’ second-biggest financial services sector, after New York.

More to the point, it’s North America’s second-leading cluster for technology companies, after California, and has the third-largest concentration of life sciences companies on the continent.

Google bought local startup BufferBox in late 2012

Google bought local startup BufferBox in late 2012

The government has invested $3.6 billion in those sectors, primarily, over the last decade, with two-thirds going to research and development, and one-third focused on building the entrepreneurship ecosystem.

That money has had an impact.

For years, countries like Canada and the U.K. have complained about a brain drain, with the best talent heading stateside for more options and better pay. Not anymore. In fact, quite the reverse.

“My co-founder left Silicon Valley to come here,” Cream.hr CEO Kateline McGregor told me.

She’s starting her company at Communitech, a thriving, almost frenetic community of startups, accelerators, massive technology companies, students, and coworkers in Waterloo, Ontario. An hour’s drive up the 401 from Toronto, Waterloo is a city of 98,000 that saw more than 500 startups take root in 2012. And the massive burst of innovation has not gone unnoticed.

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