Canadian tech community takes stand against Trump

Photo: A U.S. clampdown on immigration has some tech workers looking north of the border. (Communitech photo: Anthony Reinhart)

Trump, travel bans and talent

After two months of wondering how the U.S. election might affect the Canadian tech community, we’ve seen answers begin to emerge in the early days of President Donald Trump’s administration. When Trump signed an executive order restricting immigration from several Muslim-majority countries, Canada’s tech leaders signed an open letter affirming their support for diversity and global labour mobility, and swiftly issued a call for our own government to welcome any tech workers affected by the order. The new president’s stance stood in stark contrast to Canada’s approach to immigration, as personified by Mahfouz Al-Sheikh, a Syrian software developer who was welcomed into Waterloo Region’s tech community.

As subsequent reports surfaced of a Trump proposal to curtail visas for foreign tech workers, some floated the possibility of Silicon Valley companies moving their foreign employees north to Canada. Of course, efforts to lure Silicon Valley tech workers – specifically Canadian expats – to Canada have been under way since last June, when Communitech and partners launched the Go North Canada campaign. The initiative had already borne fruit before the Trump administration was sworn in.

Individual companies have also succeeded in bringing top U.S. talent into their ranks in recent months, including Waterloo Region’s Thalmic Labs. Abhi Bhatt of Austin, TX, where he worked for Under Armour, has joined the fast-growing wearables company as its new Vice-President of Product Experience.

Thalmic CEO Stephen Lake, who was named along with his co-founders to the Forbes 30 under 30 list for consumer technology last month, penned a Medium post debunking the myth of significantly higher pay in Silicon Valley, once living costs are factored in.

On the topic of Silicon Valley, some of its best-known venture capitalists are behind Atomic Labs – an investment firm that builds its own startups in-house – which took the wraps off its new Waterloo Region engineering office, giving local developers a way to connect with California without having to move there.

Artificial intelligence; genuine interest

Canada’s reputation as a centre of excellence in artificial intelligence research and innovation was affirmed again as Microsoft acquired Maluuba, a homegrown Waterloo Region startup with operations in Montreal, for an undisclosed sum. Wired took a look at why Microsoft was especially interested in Maluuba’s capabilities around natural language understanding.

A push to enhance Toronto’s status as an AI powerhouse will also help accelerate development of the Toronto-Waterloo Region corridor, an initiative that received ongoing attention in January with the release of the Tech North report. The partners behind the report took part in a well-attended panel discussion in Toronto late in the month.

For global media giant Thomson Reuters – which is bookending the Corridor with an innovation lab at Communitech and a planned technology centre in Toronto – AI is playing a key role in the development of future products.

Meanwhile, a University of Waterloo Velocity startup called Emagin, which uses AI to manage municipal water systems, was among 10 companies from around the world accepted into the H2O accelerator in San Francisco, which focuses on commercializing water-related technologies.

Focus on fintech

One of the Toronto-Waterloo Region Corridor’s other key strengths is in financial technology, due to Toronto’s significance as a North American financial centre and the corridor’s large concentration of tech companies.

Going hand-in-glove with fintech, naturally, is cybersecurity, a sub-sector of tech that’s also well-represented in the Corridor. The fast growth and sophisticated capabilities of Cambridge-based eSentire were featured recently, and we sat down with Cédric Jeannot, CEO of A Privacy, which is making impressive inroads in Asia while maintaining its engineering operations in Waterloo, where it started.

Civic innovation

Cities, of course, are increasingly turning to technology to meet numerous other challenges posed by urban life. Miovision, whose technology helps cities manage road traffic, has launched a new research operation to mine its traffic datasets to inform future innovations. Miovision, as you might recall from previous Roundups, is the company spearheading Catalyst137, a sprawling technology centre focused on the Internet of Things.

Making cities smarter is the motivation behind Digital Kitchener, a recently-released plan from Waterloo Region’s largest city, which will include a Civic Innovation Lab in the Communitech Hub.

In reviewing his city’s key achievements of 2016, Kitchener Mayor Berry Vrbanovic cited several positive developments related to the technology sector, including the expansion of the Communitech Hub and University of Waterloo Velocity Garage, and strengthened ties with Toronto Mayor John Tory on the Corridor initiative. In a similar look back on the previous year, Waterloo Mayor Dave Jaworsky pointed to Shopify’s local expansion and the approval of the Communitech Data Hub as key tech developments in that city’s core.

Meanwhile, the City of Cambridge, in Waterloo Region’s south end, is staking a claim on tech incubation with the planned Grand Innovations centre, focusing on advanced manufacturing, e-waste recycling and cybersecurity. Conestoga College will anchor the facility from an academic perspective.

Women in tech

The spotlight on women in tech – specifically, the shortage of them and the reasons behind it – continued apace in January, with a conference in Toronto called “Moving the Dial” taking a close look at how the industry can better promote and support women.

Anna Foat, an executive-in-residence who mentors female entrepreneurs in Communitech’s Fierce Founders program, laid out the issues and chronicled her own experiences in a piece for BetaKit.

Mentorship, of course, is a critical component in advancing the status of women in tech. We chronicled the launch of the second iteration of Communitech’s Women in Tech Mentorship Program.

And last month, the Fierce Founders Bootcamp admitted its first not-for-profit social agency, the Shore Centre, to its six-day program.

In other news

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About The Author

Anthony Reinhart
Director, Editorial Strategy
Google+

Anthony Reinhart is a veteran journalist who left the Globe and Mail to join Communitech in 2011. Tony has covered everything from crime, politics and courts to business, the arts and sports, and his writing has won numerous journalism awards. He is Communitech's Director of Editorial Strategy and senior staff writer.