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Innovation turns brain drain into brain gain

Excerpt from The Waterloo Region Record, Technology Spotlight 2011

By Chuck Howitt, The Record

Two years ago Tony Sarris was living the American dream. He was an engineering director for Unisys, a large U.S. information technology company with 37,000 employees worldwide. He lived in the west coast paradise of Laguna Beach, California. He made a comfortable salary.

Today, he works for a small Waterloo internet search company with 35 employees that few people have heard of. Goodbye surf, sand and sun. Hello grey skies, snow and cold winters. Has he lost his mind?

Sarris admits that at first he was hugely skeptical about moving to this area to work for Primal, which specializes in semantic technology to make web searching more personal. Now he has no doubt it was the right decision. “For the opportunity to work for this company, I would go to the Arctic, I think. Well, maybe I shouldn’t say that,” he says with a laugh.

For years, educators and leaders in Waterloo Region’s tech community have worried about a brain drain to the U.S. — losing the best and brightest to the lure of Silicon Valley or other tech clusters like those in Seattle and Boston. To be sure, that kind of exodus is still going on. Grads and co-op students are realizing the Canadian dream by moving to San Jose to work for technology companies. But a brain gain in reverse is also starting to awaken.

Companies in Waterloo Region are developing their own game-changing technology, and big league talent from south of the border is moving north to catch the wave. “A-players want to be challenged,” says Yvan Couture, chief executive officer and co-president of Primal. “We have an office full of top notch people who could work anywhere. They could make more money somewhere else. They work here because the project is hard and that’s fun.”

Sarris’s odyssey to Canada began two years ago when he was asked to be a guest speaker at a conference on semantic technology in San Francisco. Sharing the bill with him was Peter Sweeney, founder and co-president of Primal. Sarris had submitted an abstract on where semantic technology was going and what was needed to make it happen. He considered himself an expert in the field and had studied it since the concept first surfaced about 20 years ago. When he took a look at Sweeney’s abstract, his jaw nearly dropped to the floor. The little Canadian company was already working on much of what he was suggesting. “I was just amazed that some company was out there doing a lot of the most challenging pieces,” he says. “There were people working on the edge pieces, starting to nibble at it, but very few were working on the core of the next generation of semantic technology.”

The pair started communicating back and forth. One day Sweeney asked Sarris if he would consider working for Primal. “I said, ‘Canada? You want me to move from Southern California to Canada? It’s a beautiful place to visit, but I’m not living there’.” Nonetheless, Sarris came up for an interview and started looking around. He had heard of the University of Waterloo, but knew nothing about the community itself. He was surprised at how similar it was to some of the tech pockets in the U.S.

At the same time, he was bored at Unisys. He says that like a lot of large corporations, it was focusing on advancing the current state of the art, not breaking new ground. He missed the excitement of working for a small, innovative company. In June 2010, he moved north and hasn’t looked back since.

Sarris isn’t the only American with impressive credentials working at Primal. Nikhil Sriraman was employed as a patent attorney at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in Washington, DC, when a friend decided to leave the patent office to do some work for Primal in Washington. Sriraman was curious. What was it about this small Canadian company that would lure his colleague away from the patent office? He went to Primal’s website and started doing some research.

At the same time, he looked at its patent applications. “I thought, this is some really, really good stuff,” says Sriraman, who specialized in patents in robotics and artificial intelligence, an element of semantic technology.

He was so impressed that he offered to work for Primal for free in his spare time. He also came for a few visits. “The more and more I got exposed to the culture and people and technology, the more and more I kind of got drawn in,” says Sriraman. He moved to Waterloo last November to work as Primal’s full-time U.S. patent attorney.

In both cases, Couture says Primal set out to find the best people it could get, regardless of where they lived. “Tony probably has more depth in semantic technology than anyone in this company. On the patent side, the core patent market-place is in the U.S. so having a patent attorney from the U.S. made a lot of sense to us.”

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