Techstars’ David Brown says Canada’s entrepreneurial advantage is openness to immigrants

david brown

In early March, Techstars announced plans to launch its first Canadian location in Toronto. Running in partnership with Real Ventures, the program is expected to begin in 2018.

The program will apparently function in a similar way as other Techstars locations like Boulder, Colorado, where startups receive an offer of a $100,000 convertible note.

To get some perspective in the meantime, BetaKit talked to Montreal native David Brown, co-CEO and founder of Techstars, to get his thoughts on Canada’s startup ecosystem and how Techstars adds to it.


Why did you decide to launch in Toronto?

David Cohen, who is my partner and co-CEO, spent a bunch of time in Toronto. We’ve been really excited for a long time about the whole Toronto-Kitchener-Waterloo tech scene.

There’s so much great activity. Not only from David’s time there, but our managing directors from our Boston program and from other programs have actually spent a fair amount of time in the area talking to startups that are interested in joining one of our accelerators in the US. So, if it’s such recruiting ground, why not have a program there? I think in addition to that, honestly the political situation in the United States makes it very interesting to have a program that’s not subject to stupid VISA requirements or whatever we’re doing down here.

So I think it’s an advantage that Canada has in terms of having a stronger entrepreneurial ecosystem that takes advantage of fantastic immigrant entrepreneurs. They may want to come to North America, but they may not want to come to the United States.

Are you getting interest from Techstars companies to work more in Canada to avoid these troubles that are coming from the VISA requirements?

I think those conversations are beginning obviously, nobody knows exactly what’s coming in terms of immigration rules in the United States. We’ve long felt that it’s sort of silly to have a requirement that you have to move to Silicon Valley in order to build a startup. We built our first startup in Boulder, Colorado and established a life here. Even though there’s a great thriving community now, there wasn’t then, and to sort of watch Boulder grow as a great startup community inspired us to want to try to do the same in other cities around the world, and Toronto is one of many great locations you can do that.

We’ve also had 500 Startups recently enter the Canadian ecosystem. Do you think it’s going to start getting crowded? And how will these US-based incubators and accelerators impact our ecosystem?

It doesn’t matter what the idea is so long as the entrepreneur is passionate about it, that seems to be a really good indicator of success.

500 Startups runs an accelerator in the area. So I don’t think of it as being crowded, I think of it as being additive. Startups that go through our accelerator need more funding than we’re able to provide, and anybody who’s going to provide funding, whether it’s Real Ventures, 500 Startups, VCs, angels — anybody is additive to the ecosystem because it helps the startups thrive and grow, and it helps mature the ecosystem. It helps others observe what’s going on and figure out how they want to get involved, and the cycle helps grow the ecosystem.

What’s the Techstars approach to building startups?

Let me do it from the entrepreneur angle and the Techstars angle. The Techstars angle is that we’re investing in people, that’s our philosophy. We want really incredibly smart people because we believe that smart people with a mediocre idea can change their idea, but mediocre people with a great idea sort of are going to have a tougher time. So our philosophy is that at this stage, in the early stage, we’re investing in people.

From the entrepreneurial angle, we’re looking for people that are passionate about solving a problem. To be successful, it’s a lot of hard work, and if you’re not excited about the problem that you’re solving, you’re probably not going to put in as much effort. So it doesn’t matter what the idea is so long as the entrepreneur is passionate about it, that seems to be a really good indicator of success.

Did you always have the plan to launch in Canada, or were you waiting for a partner to get it started?

I think it’s probably more the latter. We’ve talked about coming to the Toronto area for years. It’s not that there was some event that happened recently that sort of caused us to say okay, today’s the day. I think as I said earlier, Real Ventures was great at sort of helping us understand the hows and the detail to make it happen and so it made it easy for us.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Photo via Techstars