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As U.S. closes its doors, Canada has chance to attract top tech talent

Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of Reddit, speaks at Collision 2017 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Ohanian says that as U.S. loses its competitive advantage, Canada is poised to reap the benefits.

Diarmuid Greene / Collision / Sportsfile/Sportsfile

Silicon Valley is, and is likely to remain, the epicentre of the global tech industry. But with anti-immigration sentiment spreading across the United States – as President Donald Trump seeks to impose travel bans on citizens of other countries and to restrict the use of the H1B visas that allow foreigners to work in the United States – international talent has reason to feel unwanted. That provides an opportunity for other countries, and especially Canada, to attract the best and brightest minds.

That was the sentiment at last week's Collision conference, an annual gathering of startups and veterans in various fields within the technology industry. A number of talks at the New Orleans event focused on how the Trump administration might impact the U.S. technology industry, with titles like "The importance of immigration to Silicon Valley," "The first 100 days: How has Trump affected tech?" and "Regulation and the new administration."

One of the event's keynote speakers, billionaire technology investor Chris Sacca said he has "a sincere fear for the plight of the United States of America right now," adding that all of his bosses, including Alphabet president and Google co-founder Sergey Brin, were immigrants.

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A study by the National Foundation for American Policy of the country's unicorns – the name given to private companies valued at more than a billion dollars – found that more than half had founders from outside of the United States, and 71 per cent employ immigrants in their top ranks.

Without immigration, there would be no Reddit, the fourth-most-visited website in the United States, said its co-founder Alexis Ohanian during his keynote address. Mr. Ohanian is the son of a German immigrant on one side and the great-grandchild of Armenian refugees on the other.

"Those gestures [by the Trump administration], even if they were ultimately ineffective, send a very strong signal," Mr. Ohanian said in an interview. "They send a signal of uncertainty to people in this country who are starting companies here, who are worried about whether or not this is the place they want to put down roots, and that's incredibly unsettling, because these are the job creators."

Mr. Ohanian adds that American history is riddled with industries in which the country was a clear global leader, only to gradually lose its competitive advantage. He explains that the speed of innovation in technology puts its purveyors in constant threat of becoming obsolete, and that the ability to attract foreign talent has historically kept it ahead of global competitors.

"Canada is going to benefit a lot from this, and it's frustrating," he said. "Canada is very well positioned, geographically, politically and economically; there are already major tech centres in Canada, and obviously major startup communities in Canada and great tech companies too that are going to benefit from this."

Mr. Ohanian's fears may already be coming to fruition. The University of Toronto's newly minted $180-million artificial intelligence research hub, the Vector Institute, reported that it has been able to lure talent from Silicon Valley as a direct result of mounting fears over the Trump administration's immigration policies.

As a country that has historically seen its brightest tech minds migrate south, this departure represents a significant reversal, and opportunity.

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Not only are the talented minds that would otherwise flock to Silicon Valley reconsidering the destination, some of its current residents are concerned that they may no longer be as welcome, in spite of their contributions to the American economy.

"It feels like the value of my green card has gone down significantly," said Russell Smith, the co-founder and chief technology officer of Rainforest, a San Francisco-based application testing platform. Mr. Smith and his co-founder both moved to the Bay Area from Britain to found their company, and now employ 70 people, including 50 based in San Francisco and 20 that work remotely around the world.

"I think the Valley will still be the king, the place to have a company and raise money," he said. "Is it the place everybody at the company will work? No."

Mr. Smith believes that if the new administration continues to make foreigners feel unwelcome, the ratio of remote, freelance and contract staff at American tech firms will increase, which could present a different opportunity to its northern neighbour. Freelance, contract and remote talent, though often not job creators themselves, help spread the wealth of Silicon Valley to other nations, and Canada is well positioned to be a key destination for those working for the American technology industry from abroad.

One of the greatest concerns of freelance talent in America is access to affordable healthcare, something the Trump administration's proposed healthcare plan would eliminate. "Whether it's the U.K. or Canada or any country that has a really effective single-payer healthcare system, by definition they've addressed a lot of these issues," said venture capitalist and political strategist Bradley Tusk.

Mr. Tusk credits Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for presenting himself to the international community as a foil to the American president, adding that the perception of openness will ultimately help the country attract more of the brightest minds from abroad.

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"Trudeau has played off of Trump really intelligently," he said. "Instead of being the good looking kid who won the office, he's now seen as a lot more thoughtful and responsible."

While the Canadian government and its leader have effectively marketed themselves to the international community, Mr. Tusk believes it's ultimately up to Canada's technology community, rather than its government, to pursue foreign talent more aggressively during the Trump administration.

"You can issue a tweet or a press release on a dime, but changing your national policy or getting bureaucratic government agencies to do things in an efficient way is hard," he said. "It's far more likely that Toronto's entrepreneurs make the pitch effectively to software engineers in Bangalore or wherever than it is the government."

Though the annual Collision conference often serves to promote the American technology industry, many of its attendees left New Orleans with a sense that it is now the time for other countries, especially those with social, political and geographical advantages, to lure its brightest minds elsewhere.

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