It's like TIFF for tech: Why the Collision conference is moving to Toronto

Paddy Cosgrave is moving North America’s fastest growing tech conference to Toronto. Can it put the city’s booming high tech sector on the international map?

North America's fastest growing tech conference is expected to draw 30,000 attendees - and lots of celebrities

Paddy Cosgrave, the founder and CEO of the Collision tech conference, says he shocked many in Silicon Valley when he decided to hold it in Toronto instead of San Francisco. (Submitted by Collision conference organizers)

The list of attendees reads more like a movie festival, than a gathering of tech elites.

Seth Rogen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Timbaland are some of the celebrities who will be taking the stage alongside the heads of some of the world's largest tech companies at the Collision conference in Toronto.

Organizers call it North America's fastest growing technology conference. It is expected to attract almost 25,000 delegates to the GTA next week.

The comparison to the Toronto International Film Festival isn't lost on founder Paddy Cosgrave.

"TIFF has grown into a phenomenon over the last number of years, and if we could even match that by half or a quarter over the coming three years it would be a remarkable achievement."

'Right now in Toronto, something's clicking'

The conference, which will be held in the Enercare Centre at Exhibition Place from Monday through Thursday next week, will call Toronto home for the next three years. 

Cosgrave says he shocked many in Silicon Valley when he decided to hold it in Toronto instead of San Francisco.

"It was a bit out of left field, especially for a lot of Americans. But I strongly believe Toronto has arrived."

The high-tech field is booming in the Greater Toronto Area, led by research and investment in artificial intelligence, financial technology, biotech and software development. 

Last year saw 29,000 jobs created in the GTA, which is more than San Francisco, Washington DC, New York and Seattle combined.

"It's hard to know why certain cities click over the long arc of history, but right now in Toronto something's clicking," said Cosgrave.

"And that's why we're here."

'This is like business development on steroids'

Toby Lennox, the CEO of Toronto Global, says despite the area's recent growth, its successes aren't widely known.

"The Toronto region does not have an international profile as a place to go and do business and to grow."

His agency's mission is to attract businesses to the Greater Toronto Area. He says the conference will keep his colleagues busy.

"Collision provides that incredibly concentrated opportunity to showcase how vibrant and how exciting the Toronto region tech scene is. This is like business development on steroids."

Bryan Uyanwune and Dickson Nsofor decided to locate their startup company in Toronto because of its booming tech sector. (Mike Wise/CBC)

Bryan Uyanwune and Dickson Nsofor are speaking at the conference next week. The two entrepreneurs want to tell others about their company and their experience doing business in Toronto.

"I would say for anyone looking to come to Toronto: take the leap. Everybody's welcoming and very friendly here."

Their company, Korapay, is developing a mobile banking service aimed at users in West Africa. The firm's software developers are based in Nigeria, but Uyanwune says he and his partner chose to set up their head office in Toronto.

"I think it was it was really smart move," says Uyanwune . "A great play on our part."

He says his company found investors in Toronto and a supportive network of other start-up companies that routinely share ideas and services. 

The City of Toronto hopes stories like that will resonate with attendees from around the world. The city is working with the federal and provincial governments to bring 77 trade missions from around the world to the conference.

"It provides a great opportunity for us to look at how we attract new investment," said Chris Rickett, manager of Special Projects for the City of Toronto.

"Global Affairs Canada said that is the most missions they've ever organized to one place at the same time."

He says Toronto's diversity is also a big draw, as is Canada's approach to immigration. Rickett says some attendees to last year's conference, held in New Orleans, had trouble getting visas to visit the United States.

"When you're growing a global conference and people can't get to it, that becomes a problem."

Cosgrave thinks many first-time visitors will be surprised with what they find when they get here.

"I think perceptually, perhaps, the world doesn't really realize that Canada's got a whole other side to its economy, which is driven by lots of very interesting innovative companies, backed up by incredible research institutions."