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[Tvt News]‘Everyone is at Collision’: Toronto’s tech scene set for coming out party as host of major conference

When Paddy Cosgrave first arrived in Toronto for a scouting trip in 2017, he was somewhat surprised to find a bustling metropolis with a thriving startup scene.

Cosgrave is the CEO of Web Summit, tech mega-conference that plays host to 70,000 attendees in Lisbon every year, but it was Collision, Web Summit’s upstart North American sibling that was in need of a new home.

Collision had enjoyed rapid growth in New Orleans, but Cosgrave said a lack of international flights, and a rising reticence among global travellers to visit the United States, meant they had to start shopping for new digs.

Toronto won Cosgrave over, and next week the city will play host to the conference’s more than 25,000 attendees, an event that is shaping up to be something of a coming-out party for the Canadian tech sector.

“(There were) many doomsayers, especially in San Francisco who said this is ridiculous, we’d end up like BlackBerry if we moved to Canada,” Cosgrave said in his lilting Irish accent. Sticking it to the Silicon Valley types, and their ignorance of Canada’s tech scene, only added to the appeal of moving Collision North.

“Canadian humility is a great trait. The underbelly of it is that Canada sometimes does a bad job of pumping itself up and selling itself to the world. I arrived in Toronto going, ‘Wow, how big is Toronto? This seems like a big city.’”

Already, people in the Toronto tech community are getting ready, especially investors.

“If someone emails you to book a meeting that week, you’d just (reply with) a question mark,” said Kim Furlong, CEO of the Canadian Venture Capital and Private Equity Association.

“Everyone is at Collision. Everything that’s coming to me is related to Collision.”

The conference is already big enough that it pulls in a lot of different communities — auto tech, financial tech, environmental startups, and something called “Panda Conf” about marketing innovation, among many others.

Celebrities such as Seth Rogen and Joseph Gordon Levitt will be speaking, along with executives from huge companies like Microsoft, Samsung and IBM.

Seth Rogen is scheduled to appear at Collision. Jack Plunkett/Invision/AP

But Cosgrave said at its heart, Collision is a gathering for startups and their investors. Facilitating connections between small, innovative companies and the venture capitalists who fund them is at the core of it all.

“At the centre, all the gravity is created by all these incredibly fast-growing companies, and the gravitational pull started to layer on these other planets,” he said.

It’s the venture capitalists that got the attention of Jay Giraud, serial entrepreneur and CEO of Vancouver-based automotive startup Damon Motors Inc.

“I’ve been doing this for 12 years. I’ve raised $25 million. I’ve built three automotive tech companies. I’ve never lost a shareholder dollar, I’ve only made people 20 times their money or more. And I’ve learned to become incredibly selective about these things,” Giraud said.

“There’s big name celebrities that are supposed to be attracting naive founders to attend, because it’s definitely not the VCs that care to see Seth Rogen, y’know?

“Most founders, 90 per cent of them, are first-time founders, just young and eager.”

But despite his general skepticism, Giraud said he’ll be in Toronto next week for Collision.

“Collision seems to be a bit different, because they have a really high calibre list of VCs that are attending, that are very hard to get in front of,” he told the Financial Post.

“I mean, you can live in Silicon Valley and go knocking on their doors every day, or you can live in Vancouver and try to do everything by email because VC firms don’t advertise their phone numbers. The best way is to have them approach you.”

It isn’t all about scouting companies to make investment deals though.

Collision seems to be a bit different, because they have a really high calibre list of VCs that are attending, that are very hard to get in front of

Jay Giraud, serial entrepreneur, CEO Damon Motors

One venture capitalist who spoke to the Financial Post said that writing cheques is a tiny part of the job, and in fact scouting the market, gathering intelligence, and making connections is far more important — understanding the competitive landscape in an emerging tech market before making an investment, or connecting a startup with a talented executive to help them grow, for example.

That’s why Toronto’s tech boosters are hopeful that the conference will be something of a showcase for the city, and demonstrate to global players that there’s a lot going on in Canada.

“There’s all these elements that, when you connect it with the globe coming together under the banner of Collision for a week, when we’re going to talk about the future, we’re going to see some amazing companies, we’re going to see capital come into Canada,” Furlong said.

We’re going to see some amazing companies, we’re going to see capital come into Canada

Kim Furlong, CEO of the Canadian Venture Capital and Private Equity Association

“If we have this conversation in three years, I’m sure we’ll have tangible outcomes of that conference being hosted here.”

Cosgrave makes no bones about the fact that he aspires to grow Collision into something on the same scale as Web Summit, with 70,000 people or more attending every year.

Next year the conference will move to the third week in June and add more exhibition space.

“I think if we can scale an event like Web Summit in Lisbon, I think Toronto’s got all the ingredients to turn it into something hopefully much larger,” he said.

“I hope that 2019 is just the start.”

• Email: jmcleod@nationalpost.com | Twitter: jamespmcleod

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