Tapping into the Entrepreneurial Opportunity in Canada

It’s an understatement to say no two entrepreneurial stories are the same, whether it’s the transition from studying psychology to leading an AI-focused company or how fishing for sturgeon ended up being an integral part for one serial entrepreneur’s success.

Techvibes spoke with some of Canada’s most notable entrepreneurs this year and heard about their unique journeys—often times involving a roundabout path that took these leaders away from then back to Canada.

Wealthsimple CEO Michael Katchen left the foggy city of San Francisco a few years ago for Toronto. That move not only cleared his head but led Katchen to build a digital investment company. He said he wanted to construct a business that made a lasting difference.

“To do that, you have to be committed to staying somewhere to build it for 10 years. I had to ask myself the question: ‘Am I going to do this in San Francisco or is it time to go home to Canada?'” Katchen said in a June conversation.

Wealthsimple CEO Michael Katchen at Techvibes LIVE, July 21, 2017.
Wealthsimple CEO Michael Katchen at Techvibes LIVE, July 21, 2017.

“I saw what was happening in the Canadian technology space and I got really excited about being a part of it, trying to contribute to what I think is just a fundamentally important part of how our country needs to succeed over the coming 20 years,” he added. “And I never looked back.”

The draw of Toronto also reeled in Steve Irvine, the CEO of Integrate.ai, who thought he’d launch a new AI-focused company in Silicon Valley. The former lead of Facebook’s global partnerships team, Irvine said while his gut told him to stick around in California, conversations and research steered him north.

“I just started to find that more and more roads led back to Toronto, which was a little bit surprising. I started to realize that Toronto really is the founding city of modern AI,” Irvine said in an interview this July.

Integrate.ai’s Steve Irvine left the Valley and social media giant Facebook to build his own AI software company in Toronto.

He explained the city’s connection to deep learning, a subfield of AI that’s been largely pioneered by University of Toronto’s Geoffrey Hinton.

“We have this unbelievable research advantage here that I don’t think a lot of people know about. I already knew this was a great place to live and had a great diverse workforce,” he recalled. ‘This is genuinely the best place in the world to build a global leading AI business,’ and that’s when I made the decision to move back.”

While colleagues in the Valley supported Irvine’s decision, he said the reception from Canadians was chilly.

“It always started with the assumption that I couldn’t be back because it’s the best place to be. I had to be back for some other reason. That something drew me back. That if everything was okay, I would have stayed in Silicon Valley as an executive at Facebook,” he said.

It wasn’t hard facts that drew PixMob’s CTO Vincent Leclerc back to Canada, but government support for startups and entrepreneurs—something Ottawa is doubling down on with new programs and incentives to build a business in the country.

“There’s lots of funding to help businesses like us to reach out and become global very fast. One of them is a scientific research and experimental development program that helps us a lot because what we do; there’s no other companies doing what we do,” Leclerc told Techvibes earlier this year.

PixMob operates globally but their headquarters remain in Montreal’s Ahuntsic-Cartierville borough.

Headquartered in Montreal, PixMob develops their unique hardware and software in-house.

“There’s a lot of risk with that. The government is willing to help us by offloading some of the cost of that research that we do. So that helps a lot compared to the U.S. where we would need investors from day one,” Leclerc said.

Whether it is the people, the funding or the untapped potential in the Canadian market, technology leaders like Michael Serbinis, CEO of League, and Michael Litt, CEO of Waterloo-based Vidyard, have chosen Canada over the sunny skies of California to build their innovative companies.

Despite the seemingly reverse brain drain, Michele Romanow believes that Canadians need more visible entrepreneurs to be inspired—specifically female leaders. That is one of the reasons the entrepreneur and investor joined the Canadian Entrepreneurship Initiative, a new program endorsed by homegrown successes like Shopify’s Tobi Lutke and business magnate Richard Branson.

“Fifty percent of Canadians can’t identify a Canadian entrepreneur they look up to. That’s insane,” said Romanow in an interview with Techvibes this summer.

“If we don’t look up to entrepreneurs, if we don’t know our entrepreneurs, if we’re not there to support our entrepreneurs, we’re never going to build the economy of the future,” she added.

Michele Romanow is the co-founder of Clearbanc, the co-founder of Buytopia, and the youngest investor on CBC’s Dragons’ Den.

Although she’s gained national recognition for her role on CBC’s Dragons’ Den among other various ventures, Romanow said Canada need to celebrate women entrepreneurs and share their stories.

“Every once in awhile, I’ll get a seven-year-old or an eight-year-old girl on the street who will be like, ‘Michele, I watch the show, and I’m going to be just like you.’ Those are the moments your heart melts because you can appreciate exactly what it means to provide some level of, like, ‘Hey, this isn’t that hard. This is totally attainable for you too.’”