When hardware engineer Mike Bishop left Waterloo for California nearly a decade ago, he was looking for the kind of career challenges that seemed available only in Silicon Valley.
He found what he was looking for at Apple headquarters in Cupertino, where the University of Waterloo grad had previously spent two co-op terms.
“At Apple, I could learn at a faster rate,” he says. “It took me out of my comfort zone. It was really challenging.”
Fast forward eight years. Bishop and his young family have moved back to Waterloo, drawn by family ties but also by Canada’s booming tech scene and an increase in cutting-edge projects.
“I was looking for a culture that offered the chance to do big things and engage with really interesting challenges and technology,” says Bishop, now Director of Product Development and Hardware for illumiSonics, a Waterloo startup that makes innovative imaging systems for the medical industry. “I also wanted to come back to Canada and play for the home team.”
It's an increasingly familiar story.
Canadian Chris Neumann moved to Silicon Valley in 2002 to do a master’s degree in computer science at Stanford University. He stayed on to work as a software engineer. He was the first employee at big data pioneer Aster Data, which was acquired in 2011. He then co-founded and later sold DataHero. He went on to start, and later sell, Commonwealth Ventures, which connected international founders with Silicon Valley investors.
While running Commonwealth Ventures, Neumann realized that 90 per cent of the investment he was helping to raise was going to Canadian companies.
“Even to a proud Canadian, this was a stunning result that I didn’t see coming,” he wrote in a recent blog about why he has moved back to Vancouver.
Neumann says two forces are working in favour of the Canadian tech scene right now.
First, the Canadian startup ecosystem is “finally reaching escape velocity – with compelling new startups emerging faster than almost any other country in the world.” And second, U.S. investors have become far more comfortable investing in Canadian-based companies, rather than requiring them to incorporate south of the border.
In 2021, Neumann sold his San Francisco-based Commonwealth Ventures to Montreal-based Panache Ventures and joined the firm as a partner in Vancouver. Since then, he is often asked why he chose to return to Canada.
“The short answer is that the Canadian tech ecosystem is at a generational inflection point and I want to be part of it,” he says.
Chris Albinson couldn’t agree more.
Communitech CEO Chris Albinson speaks at the opening of the Toronto Stock Exchange
at Communitech in February, 2022. The event was emblematic of the momentum
that's been building in the Canadian tech industry in recent years.
(Photo: Wayne Simpson for Communitech)
“This is Canada’s time,” says the Communitech CEO, who returned to Ontario in 2021 after working in venture capital in the San Francisco Bay Area for more than 20 years.
Not only is Canada producing leading-edge tech and world-class companies, it has a global reputation as a trusted nation and one that welcomes immigrants and embraces diversity.
That collection of attributes has only begun to converge recently.
When Albinson moved to Northern California in 1999, “there was this perception that if you wanted to build big things, that was the place to go.”
At the same time, there was a growing sense of pride among Canadians in the Valley.
“It used to be that Canadians, a generation before, would go down and they would very intentionally not talk about being Canadian,” says Albinson. “Whereas I would say that my generation, and everybody younger, have gone down and very proudly worn the Maple Leaf on the backpack.”
One result was the creation of the C100, an association of successful Canadian tech people that Albinson co-founded with Anthony Lee in 2009. Their aim was to help Canadian-led tech businesses grow internationally through mentorship, partnership and investment.
At the C100’s first growth summit, one venture capitalist told the gathering that “you can’t build big things in Canada.” His comment struck a nerve with a number of young tech founders in the audience, including Wealthsimple co-founder and CEO Michael Katchen, Shopify President Harley Finkelstein and Clio co-founder and CEO Jack Newton.
“Everyone basically got up and said, ‘bullshit! You can build really big, awesome things in Canada and we’re going to do it,’” recalls Albinson. “That was a watershed moment for me. That was like, not only can we build big, awesome things, we want to, and I’m passionate about doing that with these awesome people.”
Canada’s success at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver was another galvanizing moment. Fuelled by the first iteration of the Own the Podium strategy, Canadian athletes won 26 medals in total, including 14 golds – the most golds ever by a single nation at an Olympic Winter Games at that time.
“When the Vancouver results came in, for Canadians in the Valley, it was like, ‘Oh, man, Canada actually wants to win, Canada wants to be the best in the world. This is really weird, what’s going on?’ And it started to quickly cross-pollinate into Canadian tech founders.”
When Communitech began searching for someone to fill the shoes of long-time CEO Iain Klugman, Albinson was high on the candidate list. He accepted the role in early 2021.
What attracted him back to Canada after 20 years in the Bay Area?
“It was the same decision that had me go down to the Valley in 1999,” Albinson says. “Like, ‘Where is the most amazing place to go build really great things and have a lot of passion and excitement and do it with amazing like-minded people?’ And Canada is the place to go do that now, the same way the Valley was in 1999.”
Tristan Jung has a similar story.
I think long-term I always wanted to move back."
– Tristan Jung, Canadian Engineering Site Lead, Twitter
The University of Waterloo computer science grad spent four co-op terms in the Bay Area before accepting a full-time job there with Twitter in 2015. He was drawn by the opportunity to work for a major tech company on a product he loved.
“I think everyone here is very growth-mindset oriented,” he says of Silicon Valley. “They're all here to learn from each other; we're not here to compete with each other.”
He adds: “And for students, it’s kind of a cool experience to move to the Bay Area, at least for a little bit.”
After six years of California sunshine, Jung decided to move back to the Toronto area in mid-2021 to help Twitter set up a new engineering hub.
With the rise of remote work, Twitter is decentralizing its operations to take advantage of the talented tech workers who live in key regions beyond the Bay Area.
The company chose Toronto because of the significant amount of tech talent in the city and the number of nearby tech-oriented post-secondary institutions, including the University of Toronto, McMaster University, the University of Waterloo and Queen’s University.
For Jung, who has added “Canadian Engineering Site Lead” to his job title, the move was a chance to advance his career with Twitter while moving closer to family and friends.
“I think long-term I always wanted to move back,” he says. “The other thing was, I know folks who may not prefer to move to the Bay Area, and I wanted to make sure that Twitter as a company is able to provide opportunities for those folks.”
Such stories complicate the notion of “brain drain,” an old Canadian lament that suggests we lose our best and brightest to richer and more innovative U.S. companies, universities and research institutes.
Rather than brain drain, Chris Albinson thinks it’s more accurate and useful to talk about the multi-directional “flow” of talent, knowledge and resources across borders.
“I’ve always hated the notion of “brain drain,” he says. “It should be about flow… the movement of ideas, people and capital. There should be no difference between being based there (the U.S.) or based in Canada.”
Albinson says countries can benefit from the concept of flow by welcoming foreign talent, founders and capital investment – “the idea of making yourself a place where it’s really easy to come into, flow through. It’s a really powerful thing that you’ve got to cultivate and execute on.”
People need to realize there's a density of really high-performing companies in Canada like we've never seen before."
– Chris Albinson, Communitech CEO
By way of example, he points to the famous Y Combinator startup program in Mountain View, Calif., which works with two cohorts of talented young founders each year.
“Most of the high-performing companies that get into YC, the largest single source of these is Waterloo Region,” says Albinson. “And most of those founders are choosing to come back to Ontario to build their companies. It’s a very short, intensive program. You build the relationships, build up the networks and come back.”
Y Combinator grads that returned to Waterloo Region include the founders of Vidyard, Hive, Tyltgo, BufferBox (acquired by Google), North (formerly Thalmic Labs; also acquired by Google), and Faire (which opened its San Francisco and Waterloo operations simultaneously in 2017), among others.
Keeping such dynamic entrepreneurs in Canada has helped create a much-desired “density” of successful tech companies right across the country.
“You want to be the place where the greatest density of the most interesting companies and founders on the planet are,” says Albinson. “A combination of those things gets the flywheel going, and once it’s going, people just continue to come.”
Canada certainly has tech momentum. Consider the following:
The number of homegrown unicorns – privately held companies valued at $1 billion or more – jumped to 17 in 2021 from just three the year before.
Canadian companies attracted a record-breaking CDN$14.7 billion in investment across 752 deals in 2021, more than double the previous record set in 2019, according to the Canadian Venture Capital Association.
Toronto ranked No. 4 on real estate giant CBRE’s 2021 list of the top 50 cities in North America for tech talent. Seven other Canadian tech centres made the list, including Waterloo Region at No. 21.
In Waterloo Region alone, established heavyweights include OpenText, D2L, Magnet Forensics, Descartes Systems and BlackBerry, along with newly minted unicorns ApplyBoard, eSentire and Axelar. Joining these are a long list of successful scale-ups and mid-sized companies such as Vidyard, Intellijoint Surgical, TextNow, Nicoya, DarwinAI, Bonfire, Auvik Networks, Tulip, Miovision, Bridgit, Dozr, Trusscore, Clearpath Robotics, Maplesoft and Northern Digital, among others. And of course, there are U.S.-based companies with large operations in Waterloo Region – Google, Faire and Arctic Wolf Networks, to name just three.
“People need to realize there’s a density of really high-performing companies in Canada like we’ve never seen before,” says Albinson. “We’re the second largest innovation hub already and the fastest growing.”
That kind of density and momentum will continue to attract international talent and lure expat Canadians home.
“This is the most amazing place on the planet to come and build big, awesome things,” says Albinson. “We’re close. The brass ring is literally right in front of us.”
Last in a four-part series.