Judging by Techstars Toronto demo day, Managing Director Sunil Sharma had a very productive Web Summit in Lisbon.
It was at that November conference that Sharma not only convinced two international startups to participate in the startup accelerator’s first cohort, but to take advantage of Canada’s Startup Visa Program and immigrate to Toronto to operate their businesses on a permanent basis.
Flow.ai, a firm that started in The Netherlands and bills itself as “the Photoshop of voice design”, was trending on social media during Web Summit. Sharma says he happened to run into them and pitched them on the idea of coming to Toronto. He also encountered Elmy, a digital marketplace for beauty and wellness professionals. Both firms presented at Techstars Toronto Demo Day on Thursday.
“There’s no question that part of our strategy was to look for companies anywhere in the world,” Sharma told IT World Canada. “We have a lot of advantages in Canada to attract and retain these people from different countries.”
That includes the capability to fast-track immigration. Techstars Toronto can offer to help entrepreneurs relocated through the Startup Visa program because its venture capital partner Real Ventures is listed as a designated fund. Support from a designated fund is required for entrepreneurs to apply for a Startup Visa.
The Flow.ai founders team is packed with engineering talent and includes a PhD in natural language processing. Together they’ve created a platform that allows users to design conversational interfaces, then deploy them to voice assistant and chatbot endpoints. (Think Alexa, Google Home, and Facebook Messenger.) It enables users to do this without knowing how to write code, or even to pay anything to start with since it uses a freemium business model. After launching in November, Flow.ai says it already has 4,000 users.
About to open up its seed round of fundraising, the founders see Toronto as the perfect place to be.
“We want to be one of the biggest AI companies in the world,” says Murat Ozmerd, co-founder of Flow.ai. “That’s our vision and we should do it in Toronto.”
Ozmerd has a personal connection to Canada, he says. Three years ago he was vacationing in Victoria, B.C. with his wife when they learned that they were going to have a baby. Now he likes to celebrate his baby daughter’s birthday in Canada.
Personal reasons aside, Toronto is teeming with AI talent, he says. It’s in close proximity to Waterloo, Ont. and Montreal, two other eco-systems where AI is taking off. Rather than just moving to Silicon Valley, locating in Toronto is the more savvy choice.
“If you go to Silicon Valley, you’re going to get crushed,” he says. “You can’t attract the right talent because they’re going to get bought up by the big companies.”
Elmy Chief Technology Officer Maksym Domariev agrees that Toronto is a good place to operate. He points to the Startup Visa and the federal SR&ED tax credit program as evidence that the government is friendly to innovative startups. Plus, hiring high-quality talent and renting out office space is less expensive than it is in most U.S. cities.
Besides, as a company that’s building a digital marketplace for beauty professionals, it was important to set up shop in a city full of good-looking people.
“From the look and feel of Toronto, people here are more into the beauty industry than Chicago,” he says. “Because they are better looking, they’re spending more time on haircuts and makeup.”
Elmy has raised $1.5 million so far and plans to raise another fundraising round.
With files from Eric Emin Wood