Canada’s innovation sector may be less developed than other tech ecosystems but we’re better positioned now than ever before, says Barbara Dirks, Head of Canada for Silicon Valley Bank, who senses a newfound assertiveness to Canadian tech that’s getting noticed around the world.
“Are we still a little behind in terms of maturity? We think we are but it’s actually a good thing,” says Dirks, in conversation with Cantech Letter this week at the SaaS North conference in Ottawa. “If you look at the percentage of angel-based, seed-based companies versus other markets in Germany, Israel, the United States, we’ve got a higher proportion of our companies in that earlier stage.”
“That’s sort of the quantitative view, but the qualitative view, which for me is actually more important, is about the confidence of Canadian CEOs in building and scaling a company here, of having gone to the Valley or Boston or New York and been part of a big pillar company and now being ready to come back to Canada and be part of that executive team for a growth-stage company or to come back and found a company,” Dirks says.
Santa Clara, California-based Silicon Valley Bank or SVB has been a fixture of the US tech sector for decades, and while the bank already has hundreds of Canadian clients through cross-border banking, the time was right (SVB applied to Canada’s banking regulator in 2017 and are currently in the midst of clearing final regulatory hurdles) to pursue a commercial banking business in Canada, says Dirks, who joined SVB earlier this year from a career in Canadian banking with RBC and Bank of Montreal.
“We’ve been serving the Canadian market for a dozen years but what we’d really like to do is become part of the ecosystem and have people in market, with very much more fluid relationships. We’ve got great connections with investors into Europe and, obviously, the Valley, so, there’s a lot of our value proposition that we’re not yet able to deliver in Canada,” Dirks says.
Dirks argues that SVB’s depth in tech makes it unique, saying, “When you think of only banking tech and life sciences companies for 35 years, you’re naturally good at it. You understand the founders better, how the investors work and what funding looks like in all the cycles. And you actually understand the technology,” she says.
“For me, it’s a pretty rare opportunity in Canada to start up a bank, especially a commercial bank, and commercial banking has always been my favourite segment. And combined with the tech, life sciences investor space, what other space would you want to be a part of? It’s the most dynamic, there’s the most interesting things happening that you get to learn about,” Dirks says.
“Plus, there’s this momentum in Canada now that maybe wasn’t there previously. There are always challenges in scaling a company but Canada is now seen as an attractive place to attract talent,” she says.
“One of the things that we often say is that in Canada we sell too early, but now we see that there’s more growth capital and that really reshapes things,” she says.