With a big vision, Toronto founders can attract AI talent from Silicon Valley 

Insights from Radical Ventures & Vector Institute 

July 30, 2020

Recent uncertainty surrounding H1-B and work visas in the United States for many professional roles — including computer programming — provides an opportunity for Toronto-based founders to recruit outstanding machine learning talent from south of the border. To take advantage of this opportunity, founders should review these five best practices for finding, pitching, and attracting great AI practitioners from the U.S. to their startups in Toronto.

1. Pitch Toronto’s AI Pedigree

Founders need to be able to sell Toronto as the best next destination for U.S.-based machine learning engineers who are open to a change of scenery but still keen to be near the AI action. Fortunately, the facts are on the side of the founders. The region is home to deep learning pioneers, including Turing Award recipient Geoffrey Hinton. The University of Toronto and University of Waterloo both employ accomplished AI researchers and have programs considered best-in-class. The Vector Institute attracts and retains top-tier AI researchers from around the world, and provides opportunities for machine learning practitioners in its sponsor organizations — startups included — to work alongside its researchers on cutting-edge industry-related projects.

Toronto’s rising profile is also revealed in the numbers. With nearly 15,000 tech companies, the Toronto-Waterloo corridor is the second largest technology cluster on the continent[1], boasting a high concentration of AI startups. Venture capital interest in Canadian AI companies is growing, with $658 million invested in 2019, up from $289 million two years prior, the majority of which was invested in Toronto and Montreal-based companies.[2] The last three years have also seen a flood of investment from large organizations, with over 45 corporate AI labs opening or expanding in the region. Ambition, expertise, and energy permeate the corridor. For engineers interested in moving to a city with a flourishing community of high-performing peers and interesting projects, Toronto is a prime destination.

2. Target the right talent

Founders must be able to identify the subset of people that are actually inclined to move to the region. Unsurprisingly, the audience most receptive to the Toronto pitch are Canadians — particularly former Torontonians — that currently live and work in the U.S.. It’s not unusual for these professionals to have a longing to return north of the border at some point. Proximity to friends, family, and roots are strong draws, especially as people mature. Non-Canadian immigrants working in the U.S. may also find the pitch appealing, motivated by an appreciation of Canada’s stability and the relative ease and speed of the country’s immigration process. With Canada’s Global Skills strategy, highly-skilled foreign nationals who meet eligibility criteria can have their visas processed in two weeks from the time they apply. Focusing on these two sets of professionals as potential candidates will increase the chance that founders find someone receptive to making the jump to Canada.

3. Articulate a vision

Receptive does not mean ready though. Finding and pitching candidates open to a move to Toronto is not enough to actually attract them. Laura Buhler, founder of C100, a California-based non-profit association that aims to make the Canadian diaspora a strategic asset for expat Canadians in technology, has insight on how such candidates think. Buhler says, “[Founders] have to know that the best talent is going towards the biggest opportunity, and the most compelling mission.” She says such talent will ask themselves, “’Can I pursue my most meaningful leadership opportunities there? Can I take my run at it?’”

Founders need to ensure that the opportunity they’re presenting matches the ambitions of the candidate. That’s a tall order, one that requires understanding what motivates a great candidate, being honest about whether your organization can provide it, and making the preparations and adjustments required to do so.

Top candidates often have one desire in common: to make a big impact. This can mean being responsible for work that moves the needle of a company’s success, creating a completely new and exciting technology or product, or doing work that does good for humanity.

Meg Lizza, Director of Talent at Radical Ventures, an early-stage venture fund focused on AI and deep tech investments, says, “There’s impact where you’re going into a team and you as an individual contributor will be building something from scratch and impacting the company as a whole,” or doing “something that’s improving the current state of the world.”  This means that founders need to sell a big vision, but also plan and speak authentically about the magnitude of impact that a candidate has the opportunity to make if they join the team.

4. Plan for career growth

Most founders have no trouble selling their vision. However, they often overlook an aspect of the candidate’s motivation that can make or break a recruitment: the desire for impact in the role to be ongoing. Candidates will often turn companies down because there’s no roadmap beyond a couple of pressing short to medium-term projects. Lizza says, “A lot of the time, [candidates who accepted a role] say, ‘I did the proof of concept work. We did the implementation. We trained the model. Tuned it. Put it into production. Now, we’re kind of just in maintenance phase and there’s nothing left for me to do.’”

Highly-talented AI practitioners don’t like to be idle, and if it seems like there’s no long-term plan for the role, successfully recruiting them will be difficult. Founders need to have a sense of what engineers will do after the project in mind has been completed and put into production. This may mean addressing a candidate’s opportunity to grow their position, potentially into a leadership role. 

5. Offer competitive compensation

Finally, founders need to have a compensation bandwidth prepared before recruitment begins along with flexibility for the right person. They also need to avoid the temptation to benchmark to local companies. If candidates are moving from New York, Boston, or Silicon Valley, expectations will be high. The compensation your startup offers does not need to be the same as those markets, but it may need to be in the ballpark. Toronto founders are competing with every other opportunity that that individual has, and some of those alternatives will likely be in markets in which the candidate can command significant remuneration. If a founder’s ability to pay falls well below other markets, they need to be upfront with candidates about this, sell them on other benefits, and be realistic about their expectations.

Being cognizant of these five points will help founders capitalize on the opportunity to attract top talent from down south. Buhler says, “People do want to move back. The longing is there. I think that [anyone recruiting for Canadian startups] should understand that people do want to move back, but they need to pitch a different story about why it should be now. If they’re willing to pay for the talent, and if they have a mission that’s big enough and exciting enough that candidates can see themselves really growing with the company, startups will be able to recruit.”

With these elements organized, Toronto-based founders can leverage the city’s well-deserved reputation as an AI hub — and the current turbulence regarding work visas in the U.S. — to gain an advantage in the fierce competition to hire outstanding AI talent.

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1. Startup Genome. Ecosystems: Toronto-Waterloo. https://startupgenome.com/ecosystems/toronto-waterloo

2. PwC Canada, CB Insights. MoneyTree Canada report. H2 and FY 2019. https://www.pwc.com/ca/en/technology/publications/697449-pwc-cb-insights-money-tree-canada-h2-19.pdf

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