As US president Donald Trump spoke of a “survival of the West” in Warsaw yesterday, Canada’s tech leaders were counting their chips. The country’s tech market has been enjoying a boom of late: Canadian startups reaped $3.7 billion in venture capital this past year–the biggest since the dot com bubble burst. And as Trump and his government moves to limit the number of foreign workers it welcomes, Canada is poised to benefit.
Canada’s recently-launched Global Skills Strategy (GSS) is seen as a direct rebuke of Trump’s plan to slash H1-B visa employees, on which the majority of Silicon Valley’s key players rely for foreign skilled talent. The GSS, which will run for two years at a cost of $7.8m, will streamline the foreign-hiring process, cutting approval times to just two weeks. “We want to be open to people,” Canada minister of innovation Navdeep Bains recently told Axios.
Canada is not the only nation to make a run for foreign tech workers. New French president Emmanuel Macron recently issued a plea, in English, to those “who were disappointed by the decision of the president of the United States, I want to say that they will find in France a second homeland.”
China has, too, indicated that it is ready to onboard those choosing to leave the US. And Mexico, as has been reported here, is beginning to enjoy a Trump-backlash-boom in its own, rapidly-scaling tech industry.
Canada would, however, seem a more comfortable fit for those participating in a US brain drain. Its bilingual society and robust infrastructure are renowned across the world. And its government is making considerable advances towards the digital economy.
Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau, who describes himself as a “geek”, has long heralded the importance of tech to the Canadian economy. A problem, however, has been that many solutions are capitalized south of the border, using American VC money.
“We’ve always had brilliant entrepreneurs, great startups, great ideas, launched great things, and then they reach this moment where some big American company is willing to offer them $100 million, buy them out, and take the company south to Silicon Valley,” Trudeau told an audience at Toronto startup hub OneEleven in May. “That’s been the story of so many companies in this country and so many brilliant minds that have been poached.”
“The challenge is drawing [capital] in the right ways to be able to create homegrown success stories in Canada, and allow it to scale up,” he added. “And part of that is that Canadians haven’t always been great at tooting our own horn, and we are also extraordinarily adaptable.”
Now, it seems, that horn is beginning to sound. The Canadian government pledged $100m in its 2017 budget to the development of its AI market. DeepMind, the Alphabet-owned AI firm, recently announced that it will open a research location in Edmonton. Trump, meanwhile, has slashed the National Science Foundation’s budget by 11%, or $776m, and provoked the ire of scientists for his denial of climate change.
Toronto already has a major tech center in MaRS, a giant incubator, venture and coworking space in the heart of the city. Vancouver, Ottawa, Waterloo and Montreal have, too, modeled themselves as tech hubs in recent years.
Canada has 71,000 tech companies that employ 5.6% of the country’s workforce (the US tech industry employs 4% of its own working population). International applications to Canadian universities are up 25% this year. Venture funding of domestic startups is now reported to be $3.7bn–a 15-year high–and companies are beginning to go big.
Shopify, the Ottawa-based e-commerce giant, is the best example of this, boasting revenues of over $200m yearly and a market value around $8bn. Exits have become more frequent this year, bucking the BlackBerry curse to put Canadian tech companies back on the global map.
This year marks the 150th since Canada’s creation as a nation-state. It appears better poised than ever to open its arms to the tech world, rejecting the politics of division and protectionism that has characterized governments in the US, Britain and elsewhere in the West. And with a self-styled geek at its helm, expect Canada to hog a lot more headlines in the near future.