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Conference links Canadian startups with Silicon Valley

Networking at the Grow 2010 conference last year.


Canadian entrepreneurs no longer have to head south to fight for the attention of Silicon Valley's early-stage investors – the big names from California are headed north instead.

Heavy hitters such as Google, Facebook, LinkedIn and Microsoft are coming to Canada to meet this country's crop of startup talent – and they're bringing their wallets with them.

It's taking place at the second annual GROW 2011 conference being held in Vancouver Aug. 17 to 19.

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Debbie Landa, founder of Dealmaker Media, a San Francisco-based networking and conference company, started the conference last year . Her aim: to connect the next generation of Canadian entrepreneurs with the top early-stage investors from California's Silicon Valley.

Originally from Saskatoon, Ms. Landa saw a gap between the talent in Canada and the success of its entrepreneurs. She hopes conferences such as GROW 2011 can change that.

"We've been watching what the Americans do instead of leading the way," Ms. Landa said.

"If the Americans start coming up to Canada more often, we're going to get some of the top-quality Silicon Valley investors syndicate deals with the Canadian investors and build an entrepreneurial community in Canada," she said.

"There shouldn't be a border when it comes to business on the Web," she added.

Chris O'Neill, managing director of Google Canada, said a major challenge for the Canadian startup community is funding. Mr. O'Neill, who spent a dozen years working in Silicon Valley, will attend GROW 2011 not only to contribute knowledge to the entrepreneurial community but also to keep his eyes open for "interesting" companies.

"We're always open to hearing innovative stories," he said, noting that Google has bought six Canadian Internet startups since 2005, including BumpTop, SocialDeck and PushLife.

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"We're putting our money where our mouths are," Mr. O'Neill said.

"[GROW 2011]creates an opportunity to meet with all the great entrepreneurs we have got," he added. "No matter where you are in the world, you have to have a connection to the Valley if you're going to push the mobile envelope."

Daniel Debow, co-founder of Rypple Inc., will also attend this year's conference. The company, founded in 2007 and which offers online performance-management tools, now has 30 employees in Toronto.

Mr. Debow attends the conference to hear advice from the experts, network with other entrepreneurs, meet the "ton of high-profile investors from Silicon Valley" and soak up the atmosphere of excitement, he said.

"In Canada, you don't often get a chance to hang around with all of these people," Mr. Debow said. "It's not like the Valley, where we can walk down the street and there [are]20 companies who you can talk with about the same problems you have."

The attitude that Americans have towards technology startups is another draw for him.

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"One thing you get when you walk in the Valley is this incredibly invigorating sense of the possible – let's not be happy building a $2- to $3-million business; let's build a $1-billion business," Mr. Debow said.

So far, Canada only has that attitude in the mining and resources sectors, he contended. But the country is a great place to grow a Web business, he said.

He knows from experience: His first startup, Workbrain Corp. was acquired for $227-million in 2007.

Six hundred people are expected to attend the conference, 30 per cent of whom are investors, Ms. Landa said. The remainder will be company founders such as Mr. Debow, tech-savvy entrepreneurs who hope to impress the big players.

Tickets to GROW 2011 are selling for $495.

Ms. Landa hopes the conference will help blur the lines between traditional and Internet-based businesses. This will help Canadian companies grow faster, she said.

"My goal is to inspire a nation to build amazing companies," she said.

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