Want tech talent to stay in Canada? Don’t underestimate culture

By Mark Mann

Managing Editor, RE$EARCH MONEY

At the recent annual meeting of the Pan-Canadian AI Strategy (AICan) in Montreal, where CIFAR announced its first cohort of artificial intelligence chairs, I met an AI researcher from the local ecosystem, and we fell to talking about the main subtext of the event: the problem of talent retention.

Given the expected impact of AI on innovation, productivity and growth in many industries, top AI talent is a vital resource—one that Canada has a proven record of generating, and that foreign multinationals are eager to hire. Which is why bringing AI researchers to Canada and keeping them here is a driving impetus for the $125-million AICan program.

Government funding can’t do all the heavy lifting, however. Canada sorely needs to raise more homegrown multinationals that can keep up with R&D investment by large foreign-owned firms. (See Mark Lowey’s article on the recent StatCan report for more analysis.) No sector is more promising in this regard than AI, where basic research and commercialization go hand in glove—a trend that’s much in evidence at the fast-scaling Montreal firm Element AI.

But even though financial incentives obviously go a long way, they’re not the whole story. The researcher I met at the AICan event described an atmosphere of subtle encouragement in Montreal’s AI community to work for Canadian companies. The pressure to support homegrown firms isn’t overt or heavy-handed, she said, but it’s nonetheless meaningful.

AI researchers may be more comfortable than most living on both sides of the cultural divide between universities and industry, but this fact speaks to a deeper truth: their real allegiance is to the AI community and pushing the limits of AI research. Make Canada a place where they can do that safely and comfortably, and they’ll surely want to stay.