Thanks to a culture of inventiveness, thriving universities, innovative new talent development programs and robust government support, we’re in the midst of a golden time for Canadian entrepreneurs. Venture capital investments in Canada totaled around $2 billion in 2014.
Canada’s largest newspaper, The Globe and Mail, took notice of the boom and tallied up 21 large-scale venture funding deals in Canadian tech, totaling $784 million. One company included on their list was Vision Critical, a customer intelligence software company I started in Vancouver just as the 2000 tech bubble was bursting. Since those dark days, I’ve seen the Canadian entrepreneurship grow into the juggernaut it has become today.
The road hasn’t always been smooth. Tech’s collapse 15 years ago left us with a conservative investment climate in the world economy and, as a result, many companies stunted. At the same time, Canada’s most famous tech export — BlackBerry — lost its way, dropping from a $55 billion valuation to $7 billion this year, with only 1 percent market share. The company has shed 10,000 employees since 2011.
The one upside of BlackBerry’s collapse has been the migration of talent to rising tech startups like cloud-based accounting software firm Freshbooks, video performance analysis software provider Vidyard, job hunting platform Careerify (recently scooped up by LinkedIn) and communications software firm Eleven-x. BlackBerry talent is now the backbone of companies like Vancouver’s social media management service Hootsuite (valued at $1 billion) and Kitchener’s educational platform D2L (which has raised $165 million in capital).
One of the biggest beneficiaries of the BlackBerry exodus was Shopify, a retail software company based in the Canadian capital of Ottawa — a city that hasn’t had much of a tech reputation since the collapse of that other one-time multinational telecom giant, Nortel. Shopify’s trajectory is the envy of every Canadian startup: co-founder Tobi Lütke realized that the e-commerce system he’d developed for his online snowboard store, founded in 2006, was in fact the most valuable part of the company. He refocused, built out fast and his software is now used by 162,000 merchants in 150 countries (and counting). This past spring, the company raised $131 million in an initial public offering, hitting a valuation of $1.27 billion — one of those rare unicorn sightings.
This much tech activity has created one problem: not enough talent. It can be tough to find qualified workers. This is where our universities, public-private partnerships and a few innovative enterprises have come to the rescue.
The country that gave you BlackBerry has more in store (don’t worry, it won’t be another Justin Bieber).
Last year, multi-billion dollar enterprise software company SAP launched a program in Canada to support education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and in so doing to build direct bridges between students and technology careers. The federal government has also made it easier for employers to obtain the talent they need by improving foreign credential recognitions. And Canada’s universities continue to invest in building and growing tech programs through both public and private partnerships.
In March, WESCAM, an Ontario-based imaging systems company, announced plans to invest $2 million in a collaboration with Canadian universities to help train a future security and defense technology workforce. And Canadian coders are taking matters into their own hands, learning with and from each other. Coding clubs like Ladies Learning Code, HackerYou, Bitmaker Labs, BrainStation and Camp Tech are popping up and growing throughout the country.
Canadian pride aside, it can be difficult for Canada, with its relatively small population, to compete in the global market against countries like the U.S. and China, but we have our own advantages when it comes to attracting top talent. Few nations can compete with our quality of life — the World Bank finds that Canadians enjoy among the highest standards of living in the world. Universal healthcare for all residents doesn’t hurt, either.
Canada’s Start-Up Visa is the first of its kind in the world, linking immigrant entrepreneurs with experienced private sector organizations that have expertise in working with startups. Proximity to the American tech scene is another advantage: Vancouver is a short flight from Silicon Valley and Toronto is just an hour from New York City. Companies like Facebook, Apple and Twitter, attracted by the buzz, have opened satellite offices in Toronto and Vancouver, and are busy recruiting talent.
The country that gave you BlackBerry has more in store (don’t worry, it won’t be another Justin Bieber). Look out for Kik, Recon, Wavo, Bionym and many others on the horizon. Canada is a hotbed for wearable tech, in particular. Thalmic Labs (Myo), InteraXon (Muse), Neptune (Pine) and others all shipped out products in 2014.
Why this obsession with wearables? Some of the credit can go to Canada’s outdoorsy sensibility: wearables are exactly what you need when you’re a health nut. This is especially the case in Vancouver, where many office workers devote an afternoon a week to group hikes up the nearby Grouse Grind mountain trail. Remember, Vancouver is the same city that gave birth to active yoga wear brand Lululemon.
I myself have a Muse headband that senses brainwaves to help me learn to stay focused better. And I can be distractible — with so many exciting developments in the Canadian startup world these days I need all the help I can get.