TORONTO – Toronto earned its nickname “Hollywood North” thanks to its flourishing film industry, but ‘the centre of the universe’ may be on its way to earning itself a new nickname – “Silicon Valley North.”
Toronto has become a hub for tech start-ups.
This year alone, Google scooped up University of Toronto startup DNNresearch to improve its speech and object recognition research and in July Toronto-based location data services startup Locationary was acquired by Apple in a bid to improve its mapping systems.
The city has close ties to outer cities like Waterloo – where now-ailing smartphone-maker BlackBerry was born – and Markham, known for its city slogan “Canada’s high-tech capital” and its broad range of technology company offices, including Apple Canada’s office.
Toronto also has a steady flow of talent from the area universities. Peyman Nilforoush, CEO of earned advertising platform inPowered, knows this better than anyone.
The Toronto-area native himself found his love of business and technology at the University of Toronto; fast-forward to the present, and Nilforoush is a successful entrepreneur whose Toronto-grown business has taken him to the heart of Silicon Valley.
Peyman and his brother Pirouz started their entrepreneurial journey in 1999 with their first business NetShelter – a tech blog advertising network that would eventually garner over 150 million global readers thanks to blogs like MacRumors, Slash Gear, and 9to5 Mac.
By 2006, the brothers had made about $1 million in venture capital and by 2008 they got the funding to take the business from Toronto to Silicon Valley.
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In 2012, they re-branded as InPowered and launched an earned advertising platform that allows brands to promote positive content about their products through a trusted database of experts.
Similar to how Facebook Sponsored Stories promote likes and positive comments from users’ friends, companies using the service promote expert recommendations about their product to influence consumers. In other words, paid advertising that doesn’t look like advertising.
But the brother’s success has allowed them to reinvest in the tech scene that they still call home.
The pair opened an office in the heart of downtown Toronto in June in the hopes of scooping up some of the area’s talented graduates and to mentor young entrepreneurs just starting in the workforce.
“We thought what if you actually help those start-ups – connect them to the right people, help them get the right talent and basically help them have the exact same thing that you would if you were a start-up in the Silicon Valley,” Nilforoush told Global News during an interview at inPowered’s Toronto office.
“It was so clear for me, that at the end of the day, if you can do that for enough Canadian start-ups, Toronto could become one of the largest places for entrepreneurs and massively successful start-ups.”
Toronto: A perfect environment for start-up culture
Nilforoush strongly believes that Toronto has three major areas of opportunity for a strong start-up culture to flourish; the first being cost. In his experience, relative to Silicon Valley, the cost of running a business in Toronto in most cases is nearly half.
There is also an emerging capital structure for start-ups in the area, “The joke is always that it’s just a handful, or five measures of the capital in Canada, but its growing.”
But the main attraction is the talent pool.
“If you think about Facebook, Google, all of the big Valley companies – most of them were started out of the universities. It’s the talent from the engineering schools that fuelled the tech scene in Silicon Valley,” said Nilforoush.
He pointed out that with the combined engineering talents from schools like University of Toronto, Queen’s University and University of Waterloo; there are a bevy of eager graduates filtering into the workforce.
“The undergrad schools in Canada are unanimously harder than those in the U.S. I’ve talked to many folks who have ended up going to schools like Stanford University for their Masters, or PhD, and they always acknowledge that the undergrad programs out here are much more difficult than the ones out there,” said Nilforoush.
Major tech companies have noticed this too.
Companies like Google and Facebook have made an effort to attract some of those graduates.
“The question is what happens after those graduates come out and I think that’s basically a massive opportunity,” said Nilforoush.
Grads believe more mentoring is needed
Graduates are vocal about their interest in entrepreneurship. According to the Bank of Montreal, almost half of Canadian post-secondary students surveyed — 46 per cent — said they see themselves starting a business after graduation.
Michael Campbell, a recent graduate of Queen’s engineering physics program, just completed an entrepreneurship ‘incubator’ program called the Queens Innovation Connector – a so-called “boot camp for business” summer program hosted by the school.
Campbell, alongside a team of peers, was tasked with coming up with a small business idea in order to compete in a Dragons’-Den-style competition that awarded teams with a cash prize to help finance the business.
Campbell’s team won for its idea – a portable cellphone charging station designed for bars and restaurants so patrons can charge their smartphones.
But as the grad heads out into the workforce – hoping to develop the business – he recognizes that there is still a need for mentorship from entrepreneurs.
“Every day you are tackling problems that you don’t know the answer to; some of the government resources are there, and they are helpful, but being able to talk to entrepreneurs who have done it before and walk in their shoes is a really great experience for someone like me,” Campbell told Global News.
“Being able to tap into people like… it’s what we need to be able to move ahead.”
After hearing more about Nilforoush’s business and plan to mentor people like himself, Campbell noted that he was relieved to hear that grads don’t necessarily have to go to Silicon Valley to seek start-up advice.
As for Nilforoush’s main piece of advice for grads – find what you are passionate about.
“Having passion about your product or company will show others that it is something worth getting behind,” said Nilforoush.