07/23/2013 08:31 EDT | Updated 09/22/2013 05:12 EDT

Canada Needs A Silicon Valley -- And Fast

Canada has been America's farm team for centuries, providing brawn, brainpower and talent to feed its mighty industries. But the contest for talent has never been greater, notably for those technology entrepreneurs who are capable of invention, innovation and single-handedly replicating the GNP of small states.

So it was with pride and admiration that I heard about a unique initiative instituted by Canada's immigration minister, Jason Kenney, in Silicon Valley recently. He's trying to reverse the brain drain.

Under his instructions this May, the Government of Canada erected a giant, uncharacteristically cheeky, billboard along the highway linking San Francisco Airport and Silicon Valley aimed at poaching tech immigrants in the U.S. who are having troubles with their complicated visa system.

Blazoned across the highway was a headline: "H-1B [visa] problems? Pivot to Canada. New Start-Up Visa. Low taxes."

The messaging was short and pointed, an unusual in-your-face move backed by Kenney's highly competitive program called "Start Up Visa". This is designed to entice talent by offering foreign investor tax breaks if they relocate north of the border. Kenney backed up his messaging with a recruitment stump speech delivered at a few important venues in the "Valley".

It's a good idea but much more is needed to keep, and create, a vibrant technology sector in sleepy old Canada. And while this campaign is aimed at foreigners living there and have to relocate because of immigration hassles, how about another aimed at snaring Americans willing to relocate to Canada. After all, Canada has several cities with clusters of technological excellence which are, by international standards, really nice urban areas to live in.

The window for Kenney's immigration drive to work may be very narrow. The biggest tech magnates in America are fiercely lobbying Washington to retain and recruit foreign tech entrepreneurs from prime areas such as Canada, India, Russia, Britain, China, you name it.

The Americans won't be far behind. The enticement of tech talent from around the world has not been given the priority in all of the current wrangling in Congress concerning immigration reform. But the likes of Marissa Mayer of Yahoo and John Chambers of Cisco have been actively petitioning and lobbying leaders along with other notables from that world.

They are pitching what they call a STEM fund, dedicated to improving U.S. education in science, tech, math and engineering. The fund would be paid for by higher fees that companies would pay to obtain visas for highly skilled foreign workers.

It's interesting that these companies are offering to pay for the type of education that their local governments should already be providing in return for getting foreign talent in the short run.

By contrast, and not surprising, is the Canadian approach which is harnessing the government to lead the effort through marketing, tax breaks and incentives to investors and innovators alike. The Tories in Ottawa have set aside $500 million in a Venture Capital Action Plan to boost the creation of investors in order to create incubators or accelerators to grow innovation.

But subsidies and government funds won't do the trick. Canada lacks a technology venture capitalist marketplace. Tax breaks will encourage some to invest in Canada, and the new "Start Up Visa" has attracted attention. In May, the CEO of the Silicon Valley Bank told the Montreal Conference, at a panel on innovation, that he was scouting for a Canadian location to finance tech deals in Canada.

Potentially, Canada's "Start Up Visa" will lure foreign-born American residents, who cannot renew their visas. If successful, this will provide a steady stream of educated prospects for Canada if they can get financing as well as enjoy tax breaks and help retain and build the sector.

Interested parties must know English or French, be able to support themselves financially and have secured at least $75,000 from a Canadian angel investor or $200,000 from a venture capital fund in order to gain entry.

Canada's enterprising "Start Up Visa" program has broken the mold and become a template for nations concerned about losing their brainpower and most enterprising people. If initial operations work, then Canada should seriously consider ramping up the program and remaining ahead of the pack. The Americans won't be far behind which, ironically, has benefited Canada by providing opportunities to so many Canadians to learn, work and get rich there.

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An Immigrant's Story