Where is Silicon Valley North? It depends who you ask. Vancouverites will proudly tell you how Hootsuite and Mobify paved the way for Facebook and Amazon; Ottawans may claim local early tech giants like Corel and Nortel originated the brand; the dean of the University of Waterloo would like you to believe their region’s thousand-plus startups earn them the title; meanwhile, some have argued that Montreal’s academic heft and annual startup festival justify the name.
Silicon Valley North is nowhere and everywhere, because our successes have never hinged on a single location, and Toronto is as far from Vancouver as London is from Lebanon.
“We will never have one spot,” says Marcus Daniels, co-founder and CEO of Highline, an accelerator hub aimed at market-ready Canadian startups. “There’s an old adage that you have to be Silicon Valley. There will never be another Silicon Valley.”
“We’re seeking very deliberately to benefit from the dysfunctional American immigration system.”
All this begs the question: Why are we even bothering to fill these imaginary shoes?
Marcus Daniels, co-founder and CEO, HIGHLINE
Daniels argues that the nickname is a product of pure global marketing, a weapon in the “global battle for entrepreneurial talent.” To be fair, the Harper government is totally honest about this: “We’re seeking very deliberately to benefit from the dysfunctional American immigration system,” Immigration Minister Jason Kenney has said.A recent CBC article touting Vancouver as the true Silicon Valley North details the government strategies to steer international talent away from the original Silicon Valley, including giant billboards in San Francisco Bay telling disgruntled would-be immigrants mired in the U.S. immigration bog to “Pivot to Canada”. The government’s recently launched “start-up visa” is further proof of this embracing national face.
And the marketing doesn’t end abroad. It’s also changing the way we view ourselves. If Waterloo keeps calling itself “Silicon Valley North,” Canadians might just start to believe it. (So might tech-savvy high school students wondering where they want to spend thousands in tuition, which leads one to question who’s bandying about these nicknames.)
“We’re not trying to be innovative. We’re trying to replicate. No one talks about New York as ‘Silicon Valley East.’”
So what’s wrong with tossing around the expression, even if it’s vague?
Clinging to the impossible goal of becoming “the next Silicon Valley” may in fact be holding Canadian companies back, Daniels argues. In May 2014, the National Post ran a story about how Waterloo is aiming to “mimic Silicon Valley for growth,” though Waterloo’s executive director of economic development, Rod Regier, was quick to clarify that they’re not “trying to replicate Silicon Valley or anything like that.”
But replication is exactly what Daniels is worried about.
When it comes to the Silicon Valley North brand, “we’re not trying to be innovative,” he says. “We’re trying to replicate. No one talks about New York as ‘Silicon Valley East’… We can compete globally.”
This is the same kind of national inferiority complex that’s given birth to shows like Canada’s Next Top Model and one of our most famous music festivals being a spinoff of South By Southwest. So many of Canada’s successes are bred from American ones, and whenever a Canadian does make it big, they move down south. No wonder our tech industry is plagued by the same scars left by Jim Carrey and Wayne Gretzky.
Five years, that’s all we’ve got
How long will it take for Canadian tech to grow into its own? Here, Daniels is confident: Five years. By 2020 or so, more Canadian companies will have gone public, and in doing so will have carved out a tangible global identity.
But we can’t get there unless we first stop fighting over this Silly-con North title. When we mentally divide our sectors—Waterloo startups from Vancouver’s big-business migration—we’re dividing the facets that made Silicon Valley what it is. Waterloo may be ranked the 16th hottest startup city in the world, Daniels notes, but if more Waterloo startups collaborated their resources with number-eight Toronto’s, both cities would fare better.
So, where is Silicon Valley North? All of Canada could be, if we’d just stop fighting over it. And then, maybe, we’d be able to finally shed these national inferiority issues, and get over Gretzky.