Kelowna’s mayor is nothing if not a champion of this city’s burgeoning tech sector.
Whether it’s advocating for the construction of an innovation hub for tech start-ups, backing city plans to build the dark fibre network or simply being a presence at tech networking events like Metabridge, Colin Basran is making efforts to ensure this city isn’t missed when it comes to being the next big thing in tech.
He even joined a delegation of Kelowna tech employees on a fact finding mission to up-and-coming tech region, Boulder, Colorado, last year to see if he could glean any information on best practices for industry development.
“We are trying to do whatever we can to promote tech in Kelowna,” Basran said.
“It creates jobs for young people in our community, because the people attracted to tech jobs are younger. They’re also well paying jobs.”
And those well-paying jobs have a cascading effect.
“Tech is attracting well-educated people who are environmentally conscious, socially conscious, donate to charities, and develop social industries,” he said.
“They want to live where they want to work, ride bikes and eliminate traffic and are promoters of arts and culture.”
In short, the tech industry and the men and women it employs are the gold standard.
It’s not a secret.
The “next Silicon Valley” is an oft’ referred to title for which there are many contestants.
Seemingly every city is vying to be the next big tech hub. Orlando, Chicago, Utah and Las Vegas are just a few spots south of the border wrangling for the designation.
Closer to home, there’s Vancouver, which has seen some major successes. Social media company HootSuite, which was started by a Vernon-transplant, is most notable in that city’s offerings.
But Basran isn’t worried about who’s doing what, he said. “I don’t give one single thought to what Vancouver is doing…we are just trying to grow Kelowna.”
The trouble is, there is a finite resource that all these places are drawing from the same pool—skilled employees.
“That’s the one ingredient we’re missing,” said Basran.
Corie Griffiths, manager of the Central Okanagan Economic Development Commission, spoke earlier in the year about that issue, noting that her organization’s annual outreach program, Business Walks, highlighted what could be an economic stumbling block if it’s not addressed.
“For the entire Okanagan, the workforce needed in the next five years is somewhere in between 28,000 and 48,000,” said Griffiths, citing both the conservative and bullish estimates available to her.
Those figures include both migration data and population growth.
“It’s a tough thing to overcome, and an issue the province and the coutntry is facing,” Griffiths said.
“There’s a race for human capital throughout the world. One advantage we have is the types of careers available matched with our unparalleled lifestyle.”
Lifestyle, said Basran, is something that the Okanagan has no shortage of. While the region’s often lamented high cost of real estate and low rate of rental vacancies act as a barrier in lower paying industries, Basran said those who are employed in tech may find Kelowna to be the affordable option.
“We could attract Vancouver workers who can’t afford a $1 million home,” he said.
“We can play on our strengths.”
Another strength he’s been eyeing is the educational facilities nestled within city borders.
Okanagan College president Jim Hamilton joined Basran on that fact finding trip to Colorado last year. As a result, the college is now looking at tailoring its programs so graduates can fill vacant tech jobs. In particular they’re looking at coding and animation.
“OC is trying to take a proactive role in trying to make all of this grow,” Hamilton said.
The infrastructure to support industry growth is also falling into place.
The City of Kelowna recently installed approximately 13 kilometres of fibre optic cable to provide high bandwidth data services to a number of city facilities. The fibre optic cable implementation has provided significant operational cost savings, faster data response time and innovative new ways of providing service.
The city also intentionally over-built the network to include extra optic fibre to accommodate future city needs and be available for lease to businesses and institutions that have significant amounts of data to move.
“(The city) is able to make money and attract businesses, and it’s already paying off,” said Basran.
Cloud storage company Rackforce was the city’s first customer on the network in early 2014 and late last year animation company Bardell signed on.
They were attracted to the option to tap into the network, bringing with them 50 full-time positions. They’re now slated for expansion.
Also fitting into the puzzle is the Innovation Centre, which should be completed in November.
Accelerate Okanagan, a business support system for tech companies in the startup or growing phases, will move into the building.
Community manager Brea Retzlaff, sees that as a major force in growing the local industry. “There are few places in Canada that have a dedicated Innovation Centre.”
In addition to providing support to up and comers, she said, it will shine a light on how many tech companies there are here in the region.
“A lot of people don’t know where these companies are or that they’re even here. (Seeing that) will help recruit more talent to the community,” she said, adding that it could also prompt a well established tech company to create a satellite space in the region.
As is, the industry is already a bigger force than it was anticipated to be even a few years ago.
In a study released last year, Accelerate Okanagan said there were 558 companies, 6,551 employees, 1,920 self-employed workers and innumerable software, applications, data processing, engineering and graphic design, game, website, e-commerce and e-learning ventures.
At that time, they said the Okanagan technology industry added about
$1 billion to the economy annually.
Retzlaff said Accelerate Okanagan is about to launch another study, the results she says are likely to reflect further growth in the local tech industry.
The Kelowna Capital News looked at tech from a variety of angles this week. Here are a few more stories in our Tech Talk package: