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Silicon Valley event nurtures Canadian startups

Atlee Clark is director of C100, a San Francisco organization that helps Canadian tech companies in California.

It is, in many ways, the technology industry's version of a religious pilgrimage: Looking for answers (and maybe a willing investor), the faithful have come to the Valley.

This week, 17 of Canada's most promising startups – selected from a pool of hundreds of applicants – are in San Francisco for a conference called 48 Hours In The Valley.

Hosted by the C100, a support group for Canadian tech entrepreneurs in California, 48 Hours aims to put Canada's brightest technology minds in the same room with Silicon Valley's power elite – CEOs, venture capitalists and a rotating selection of the people responsible for some of the industry's biggest acquisitions.

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Some have come here for mentorship opportunities – to learn from the Valley's most prolific deal makers. Others have come to network. But almost all of them, whether they say it bluntly or not, are looking for something that's increasingly difficult to find in the Canadian startup scene – money.

"In Canada we really don't have the support in terms of the funding we need," says Hamed Abbasi, managing director of Vast Studios, a company that builds games tailored to women 35 years and older. "We've got talent, we've got passion, but the finance platform that's here [in Silicon Valley] isn't there."

This year's crop of startups represents some of the boldest business ideas in the industry – from a private photo-sharing site that lets medical professionals solicit advice about various conditions, to a company that builds password authentication tools powered by the user's unique cardiac rhythm.

Meeting them is a cross-section of the people responsible for building many of the strongest ties between Canada's tech scene and the heart of the industry.

At a welcome session on Monday, held in a renovated pier overlooking the San Francisco bay, founders and managers of the 17 startups were introduced to representatives from Bank of Montreal and the Toronto Stock Exchange, both of which have serious interest in the kind of Canadian startups that may end up going public.

Also attending were representatives from the Canadian consulate for San Francisco and Palo Alto, whose mission includes connecting Canadians to California's tech hubs.

The conference itself "is about giving an unfair advantage to Canadians," says Atlee Clark, executive director of the C100.

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By some estimates, there are about 300,000 Canadians living in and around Silicon Valley. And in a part of the world where everyone and their cousin has an idea for a startup, many of those Canadians are heavily involved in the tech industry.

But many startup founders have opted to remain in Canada, where cities such as Toronto, Vancouver and Waterloo have made it a priority to lure and retain tech industry talent.

Still, the same founders are under no illusions that, when it comes to finding the mentorship and investment dollars necessary to move beyond a startup-sized company, nowhere in Canada compares to Silicon Valley.

"We ask them to list their challenges, and a lot of it is about access to capital," says Ms. Clark. "But there are also challenges around scaling – 'How do I hire 50 engineers?'"

Not all the companies at this week's conference are in their infancy.

Indeed, many are fully formed and have already solicited significant investments. Figure 1, a private photo-sharing tool for medical images, already has a healthy user base of health-care professionals. Another company, Bionym, has caught investors' attention with a piece of hardware that authenticates users by measuring their heart rhythm.

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"One of the huge benefits [of making the trip to Silicon Valley] is the ability to grow your network," says Bionym CEO Karl Martin. "Whenever we come down we get so much done in just one day."

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