Silicon Valley may still be the best-known tech hub in the U.S., but startup leaders in New York City and Toronto are betting that by building a super-connected “East Coast corridor” they can lure more talent and money away from the West Coast.
Earlier this month, New York accelerator Grand Central Tech announced that it was partnering with Toronto-based innovation hub MaRS to offer support, services, and physical workspace to Canadian technology ventures looking to expand to New York City. At an event on Tuesday hosted at Grand Central Tech, entrepreneurs and VCs from Toronto and New York spoke about the advantages of building a startup in their respective cities and about what they can offer each other. It’s all part of an effort to build what Grand Central Tech cofounder and managing director Matt Harrigan dubbed “an East Coast alliance.”
Entrepreneurs from New York and Toronto said at Tuesday’s event that their interest in expanding to the partner city was not just to gain a foothold in that particular city, but to crack the U.S. and Canada as a whole.
And while neither New York nor Toronto could rightly be called an “emerging” tech ecosystem, the partnership between Grand Central Tech and MaRS is indicative of a trend in growing startup ecosystems — partnering with another city to help entrepreneurs gain access to talent, capital, or other resources they may lack at home. In August, two of Texas’ largest startup organizations — the Capital Factory in Austin and the Dallas Entrepreneur Center — announced that they would be offering their services in the partner city as part of an effort to build a “Texas Startup Megatropolis.”
For some of the New York and Toronto-based entrepreneurs at Tuesday’s event, the need to expand to the other’s market was obvious. Michael Katchen — founder of Toronto startup Wealthsimple, which offers an investment service for young professionals — said that opening an office in New York was a no-brainer, given that Toronto and New York are both financial centers.
However, entrepreneurs from Toronto and New York touched on a few lessons that are also applicable to smaller startup markets.
The first takeaway is that inclusivity can be an important selling point for prospective talent. Toronto entrepreneur Allen Lau — CEO of online storytelling platform Wattpad and cofounder of early VC firm Two Small Fish Ventures — said he believes that Toronto’s reputation as a melting pot (50 percent of the city’s population comes from outside of Canada) has become increasingly enticing since the election of President Donald Trump and his efforts to tighten immigration laws in the U.S. In June, Canada launched a “fast-track visa” to shorten the work permit and visa-issuing process to two weeks for highly skilled technical workers.
“We just hired someone born and raised in Detroit, who was working in New York for her entire career up until now. We just hired her through the fast-track visa to come to Toronto and work for us as a product manager,” Lau said. “It’s the diversity, it’s the inclusion that is really attractive to her. Given the climate here [in the U.S.], she wants a change.”
The second lesson is that cities should take stock of their market’s particular strengths. Some of the Toronto entrepreneurs in attendance said that they opened a New York office to take advantage of the city’s sales talent and to build connections in its media and marketing industries. Meanwhile, some of the New York entrepreneurs said they looked to Toronto for engineering talent, particularly graduates from the University of Waterloo and the University of Toronto.
Finally, startup ecosystems should consider the importance of having a “flagship organization” that entrepreneurs can turn to if they are interested in learning more about a particular market and expanding there. Dessy Daskalov — CTO and cofounder of Nudge Rewards, a recent participant of MaRS’ accelerator program — said that her company turned to MaRS to figure out what potential customers and investors her cofounder could reach out to in New York.
“Especially when you’re an early company, when you get an intro through an organization like MaRS, you’re a lot more credible,” Daskalov said.
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