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Google's Mountain View headquarters, also referred to as Googleplex, aims to provide a fun atmosphere for its employees, including recreation areas, as well as 14 dining establishments serving various world cuisine. (DON FERIA)
Google's Mountain View headquarters, also referred to as Googleplex, aims to provide a fun atmosphere for its employees, including recreation areas, as well as 14 dining establishments serving various world cuisine. (DON FERIA)

Down in the Valley

Canadians making presence felt in Silicon Valley Add to ...

When Guelph, Ont., native Kamal Shah arrived in Silicon Valley after finishing college in 1994, he was part of a wave of migration to the heart of the digital world – tech-heads from Canada and all over the globe who wanted to be a part of the dawning age of the World Wide Web.

Today, Mr. Shah and his generation are at the forefront of a growing and influential Canadian entrepreneurial presence.

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To help them navigate the valley’s intensely competitive landscape, a number of high-powered resources have been put in place. Some are mainly social – the Digital Moose lounge, for example, is a networking group for Canadians that often organizes trips to San Jose Sharks hockey games – while others are more focused on the business side.

The C100, for instance, is a non-profit dedicating to supporting Canadian tech businesses. Its membership, based primarily in California, includes some of the biggest names in the industry, such as Google Inc. and Facebook Inc.

That’s because behind the Canuck camaraderie are some very real business interests: Some of the best talent in the tech world is coming from Canada, and everybody wants a piece of it.

“The most honourable interest is self-interest,” says Robert Montgomery, co-chair of the Canadian Innovation Exchange and chief executive officer for Achilles Media Ltd. “In the valley it’s not nirvana – there’s a huge level of competition for [new investment opportunities] Some of the funds there are looking to invest in Canadian businesses to create win-wins.”

The relationship between the U.S. venture capital world and the Canadian tech industry became a bit more free-flowing last year, after the Canadian government simplified a section of the tax code that affected venture capital investment. By narrowing the definition of taxable Canadian property, the government effectively lifted a tax reporting burden on foreign investors, specifically in the tech and life sciences sectors.

The decision to make things easier for foreign investment firms came at a time when the global economy was starting to come out of a period of recession, one that had depressed the flow of deals on both side of the border.

As such, the pace of cross-border activity has increased. The Canadian consulate in Silicon Valley has partnered on a number of initiatives in recent years aimed at getting small Canadian firms exposure to the California tech sector.

The consulate is currently working with the Canadian Innovation Exchange and the Plug and Play Tech Center, a California-based startup incubation chamber, to offer Canadian firms a chance to spend the summer in Silicon Valley, learning from other companies and tech experts. The Canadian Technology Accelerator, which is accepting applications from Canadian startups until March 11, is one of a number of programs designed to make it easier for Canadians to tap into the talent and money pools in California. As more Canadians rise to senior positions in companies such as Google, those opportunities are growing.

“Around the time I showed up, a lot of Canadians were arriving, specially with the Web phenomenon happening,” says Mr. Shah, who recently founded Fotobabble, a site that lets users add voice comments to their digital photos.

“That group of Canadians that came around that time have now been here 15 years, they’re starting their own companies, they’re in leadership positions at a number of organizations – Canadians are going from worker bees to positions of power.”

In recent years, Boston and New York have also become hotbeds of the tech sector, challenging Silicon Valley for talent. While the valley continues to lead the pack, its East Coast rivals have the added advantage of being closer to Canadian talent. The competition for that talent has, as a result, intensified, something that works in favour of Canadian startups.

“There definitely is a level of momentum and energy down here around ideas that is incredibly exciting,” Mr. Shah says. “It’s nice to live in a place where all my colleagues are always thinking of new ideas.”

For in-depth profiles of Mr. Shah and other Canadian entrepreneurs working in Silicon Valley, go to www.globeandmail.com/yourbusiness.

Follow on Twitter: @omarelakkad

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