It’s not surprising to hear that Toronto consistently stands above the competition when it comes to Canada’s tech sector. Located in the financial capital of the country – home to the national offices of the Big Five banks, and boasting an impressive concentration of multimillionaires – Toronto seems like the obvious destination for many innovative tech entrepreneurs looking for backers.
But what if you don’t want to live in Toronto?
Provincial governments throughout Canada are waking up to the fact that a thriving tech sector is crucial for economic prosperity – and so they’re providing funding, and seeking out partnerships with universities and venture capitalists in order to foster startup ecosystems and tech hubs. A whole new generation of entrepreneurs are realizing that it just might be possible to create successful tech careers in cities other than Toronto.
Let’s take a look at three Canadian cities that are looking to give Toronto a run for its money.
Saskatoon: Building a community
Maybe you don’t think of Saskatoon as a thriving centre for tech innovation – but times are changing.
With the proliferation of trendy coffee shops, restaurants and bars – along with the opening of the Remai Modern Art Gallery in 2017, which promises to be Canada’s first dedicated modern art museum – Saskatoon is looking a lot less like a sleepy little town and more like a city on the move. And this sense of optimism is reflected in its startup scene.
Consider the success of 7shifts. After developing a popular mobile scheduling app, the team behind this startup recently raised $1.2 million in venture capital – and then relocated their headquarters to Saskatoon. As Jordan Boesch, co-founder and CEO, told the Saskatoon StarPhoenix, “A lot of people were saying, ‘Follow-on funding’s going to be difficult given that you’re in Saskatchewan; people aren’t going to invest in you as a tech company.” But they were wrong, and now he’s in the process of hiring 10 to 15 more employees, and the company’s software is “used by about 1,600 businesses across North America, Scandinavia, the Middle East and Australia.”
And that pattern of success is being repeated by other startups in Saskatoon, whether it’s Vendasta or Noodlecake Studios, a small indie game studio that has become a significant player in the global mobile gaming market. And while it’s still early days for Saskatchewan’s tech sector, the success of startups in Saskatoon is inspiring. As Boesch says, all these companies are “doing exciting things and attracting talent to either come to Saskatchewan or stay in Saskatchewan.”
Montreal: More than a construction site
Montreal has a great nightlife; affordable rents; and a cornucopia of universities with the lowest tuition in the country. And it’s also home to Ubisoft Montreal, one of the world’s most successful game development studios. In fact, Quebec is the primary producer of video games in Canada.
It therefore seemed strange to a lot of people that one of the major complaints from tech entrepreneurs in Montreal was that they often had a hard time securing funding. But in recent years, both federal and municipal governments have been working on plans to heighten Montreal’s reputation as a city where tech know-how is valued, which led to the announcement last June of Capital Intelligent Mtl – a $100-million fund to promote Montreal’s Smart City Action Plan, in partnership with 23 venture capital firms and financial institutions. Looking to emulate other cities like Amsterdam or Barcelona – where innovative solutions are being devised to improve the efficiency of city services – the fund promises to fuel some of Montreal’s most creative startups.
Add to this the fact that Montreal was chosen by the New York-based Intelligent Community Forum (ICF) as 2016’s Intelligent Community of the Year – only the 4th time a Canadian city has won the award since its inception in 1999 – and it’s clear that Montreal is positioning itself to be one of Canada’s top tech cities. As ICF co-founder Lou Zacharilla said, “Our jury believed that Montreal played the innovation game at the highest possible level.”
Of course, you might want to brush up on your French before booking your ticket.
Vancouver: Trouble in paradise
A lot of people believe that Vancouver is destined to be a major player in the tech industry. Allegedly 40% of downtown Vancouver real estate houses startups. But it’s starting to look like serious provincial mismanagement might be stalling the city’s success.
Perhaps nothing illustrates Vancouver’s problem better than a recent article in the New York Times, concerning talks that have been taking place between the governments of Seattle and Vancouver. These discussions have centred on the possibility of creating a “tech corridor,” which would ease border restrictions and facilitate the movement of “people, ideas and capital” between the two cities. The benefits of such a co-operative approach seem obvious: Microsoft, for instance, sees an expansion in Vancouver as an easy way to access global talent, while for Vancouver it could, with the backing of major American companies, lead to a large-scale expansion of its still relatively small base of tech companies. Unfortunately, two potential deal-breakers have been identified – and they both have to do with Vancouver.
First off, anybody who’s lived there in the past 10 years knows that the price of real estate (whether you’re buying or renting) is completely insane. Even Bloomberg has reported on it, and how it’s forcing millennials to leave a city they love because they can no longer afford to live there, leading to brain drain. And the other problem concerns the discrepancy in wages between the two cities, with Vancouver companies offering much lower salaries than their Seattle counterparts. Not surprisingly, these low wages aren’t helping to keep struggling Vancouver millennials in the city either.
But don’t count Vancouver out just yet. If these problems get addressed sooner rather than later, there’s still a chance we might finally see Vancouver become the tech powerhouse a lot of us believe it can be.
So, non-Torontonians, take heart! With a little help from forward-thinking governments, community-minded investors and, of course, free-spirited entrepreneurs, Canada’s tech sector just might take root in a neighbourhood near you.
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