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The New Kid On The Block - Part 2/2

This final segment of a two-part series digs deeper into the downtown core to discover what local business owners and operators are most anticipating following the opening of the Innovation Centre.

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Randy Zahara is no stranger to technology. As the manager of the Kelowna Community Theatre for well over a decade, Zahara has been an advocate of the significant upgrades the theatre has applied to its lighting, audio-visual, and technical services. Upon entering his new role, Zahara built relationships within the community to increase the number of shows the theatre hosted and partnered to develop. With attendance steadily rising, Zahara recalls that when he “first started, the average age was about 60-plus and now it’s closer to 45. We’ve added a lot more family friendly shows and shows for a younger crowd.” With annual attendance reaching 120,000 at its peak, he is optimistic about the future of the theatre. As a close neighbor of the Innovation Centre, Zahara notes that he “can envision working with the Innovation Centre to use social media and crowd-funding to bring new shows. You have a building full of entrepreneurial, gifted people that have a lot of skill and contacts... I would love to see us getting that kind of synergy going and I think it could do cool things for the performing arts in our community.”

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In the heart of Kelowna’s cultural district sits the Rotary Centre for the Arts (RCA). With over 230,000 annual visits to the RCA, it’s likely you have attended one of the hundreds of theatrical performances, classes, exhibits, or special events on offer each year. Nearing his fifth year as General Manager at the Rotary, Patrick LeBlanc has been at the forefront of the venue’s evolution. When LeBlanc accepted the position, he recalls, “there was still a concept of Kelowna being more of a retirement town and our general demographic was 55-plus. What we do here is a lot more multicultural and a lot more multigenerational than it was before.” Having played host to numerous tech conferences, large-scale Accelerate Okanagan events, and the SugarPlum Ball hosted by Mayor Basran, the RCA is already an active supporter of what the Innovation Centre hopes to achieve. Leblanc shares that he has “talked to some people at the Innovation Centre about merging technology and arts. There was talk of hooking ballerinas up to electrodes and videotaping that and getting movement… I love the fact that we’re at the center of all of this dynamic stuff happening.” Awaiting the opening of the Innovation Centre and flanked by the museum, art gallery, public library and a wealth of other vendors, it appears the RCA truly has one of the best seats in the house.

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When you’re an expert in your craft, clients will flock to you from regions near and far. Such is the case for Nicole Pidherny and her team of stylists at Pomme Salon. When founder Pidherny first opened the salon in 2015, she knew Ellis Street was the perfect place to make her mark: “I wanted to be centrally located with easy access from all over the Okanagan as we have clients come from Penticton through to Vernon. I also knew Ellis was the ‘next big area’. Pomme is a small business and I wanted to be surrounded by other local businesses that seek community growth.” Affectionately referred to as the Pomme Squad, Pidherny leads this young and creative group of professionals who have collectively amassed a style portfolio that their social media followers are quick to approve. With the Innovation Centre mere blocks from her storefront, Pidherny enthusiastically predicts that the new landmark is “going to bring our ideal client right to our doorstep. The Centre will help solidify Ellis as the cultural hub of the Okanagan. I'm looking forward to creating long-term relationships with these companies.” With its scissors sharpened and shampoo sinks shining, Pomme is poised to show off its skill on some fresh heads of hair.

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It’s been operating for less than 2 years, but BNA Brewing Co. has quickly become a weekly watering hole for students and professionals of all ages. A rustic yet modern two-level restaurant and bar, the eatery features a full-length bocce court, a restroom that was nominated for a national award, and an onsite craft beer brewery with a tasting room. Owner-operators Kyle and Carolyn Nixon are heavily invested in the downtown core. Partners in both business and in life, the pair knew that no other location would suffice for their new venture after setting their sights on the former tobacco sorting facility, originally built in 1919. With both of them born and raised in Kelowna, Kyle recalls that “when we were 19 and would go out, downtown wasn’t an option, very rarely would we go there.” With the city center now flourishing, and as hands-on business owners, downtown is where they now spend the bulk of their time.

 

Kyle and Carolyn have met many of the future tenants of the Innovation Centre who can often be found sampling a specialty brew at BNA after a long week of work. Kyle notes of this group, “it used to be that the moment you turned 22, you had to leave Kelowna. It’s cool seeing young people that are able to stay here now and work for companies that are inspiring and fun and innovative. That type of energy inspires us.”  BNA certainly has a loyal fan base of downtown dwellers but Carolyn believes the brewery has yet to reach its full potential, adding, “the more things there are downtown that attract people, the more activity, jobs, and excitement that’s created here, it will bring people in from other neighborhoods.” Admitting they may be biased, the entrepreneurial duo says they can’t imagine living outside of the Okanagan. Carolyn delves further and states, “it’s a privilege to be able to have a career that lets you live in Kelowna.” Nodding his head in agreement, Kyle adds “and it’s a privilege to be able to raise a family here.  We have always had that mindset. We’re lucky to be business owners and have a business we love, but also to be able to raise our kids here. 10 years ago, that wasn’t always normal.” Cheers to the new normal, with a BNA craft beer of course…

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With neighbouring businesses like these, the support for the Innovation Centre is tangible. The hundreds of shops, restaurants, services, and entertainment facilities scattered throughout the downtown core make this district unique, along with the engaged public sector who continues to sustain it. As the building prepares to welcome the public into its new space, this sense of community will undoubtedly grow with plenty of opportunities for collaboration, entrepreneurship, and innovation.

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The New Kid On The Block - Part 1/2

It may be the middle of winter, but Kelowna’s downtown core is far from hibernating. While all corners of our growing community hold an appeal, there is something special and unique about the city center. There is a buzz, energy, and a tangible zeitgeist that is no longer limited to the sunshine infused days of summer. There’s also construction, the obvious indicator of growth. As the new kid on the block, adjacent business owners have received the Innovation Centre as a welcome addition to Ellis Street. While the building moves toward spring completion, the community and neighbouring businesses share their thoughts about the growth of our city and predictions for the future impact of the Centre.  

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It’s hard to go hungry if you find yourself on Ellis Street, thanks in large part to Luigi Coccaro. A member of the family who founded La Bussola, Coccaro went on to open the neighboring Curious Café in November 2014. The Curious offers classic comfort food delivered to community-style tables scattered throughout the eatery. The opening of the Innovation Centre will mark a milestone for Coccaro – the opening of his family’s third restaurant. Housed in the southeast corner of the Innovation Centre, this new venture, aptly named Gather, will feature Korean and Italian influences, though Coccaro is quick to point out it’s not fusion. Delving further, he explains, “the whole restaurant gets built in Italy and shipped here. There will be a grab-and-go aspect. A little quicker than the sit down service at The Curious. It will be a little bit more tech savvy.  If we can, we’ll have people ordering on their phones.”

 

Born and raised in Kelowna, Coccaro has seen first-hand how the city has evolved: “When we graduated from high school before, we all left, similar to what older people do here in the winter. The tech companies that are moving into the Innovation Centre are all in this vicinity right now. You’re seeing them support the businesses year-round, which makes the tourist season not the biggest deal.” He foresaw years ago that Ellis was a developing corridor and notes his appreciation for the densification that has occurred there as diverse entrepreneurs made their mark. They say third time’s a charm, but with his family’s proven track record, Coccaro’s third restaurant venture need not rely on luck.

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For the past 2 years, Kate Morgan has held a front row seat to the construction of the Innovation Centre. As the owner and operator of Posh Jewelry, Morgan can view the building as she busies herself amongst glass cases filled with eye-catching stones and precious metals. Her childhood passion for collecting rocks may have been an early indicator of her future calling, one she has answered for the past 15 years. Having moved her store downtown in 2010, Morgan enthuses that she, “bought this retail space, that’s how invested I am in downtown and in this area. I knew it was going to be the place to be.” Having witnessed a number of changes to Ellis over the years, she gestures first to the left and then to the right, exclaiming, “that was a parking lot and this was grass…it’s changed ten-fold.” Eagerly anticipating the opening of the Innovation Centre and the increased traffic it could bring her way, Morgan expresses gratitude for her clients and community who “know it’s important to support small business. People understand that if they don’t, we won’t be able to stay here.”

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If you’re in a hurry, you might miss the narrow entry that leads to the Bike Shop Café & Catering Co.  Just a short walk from the Innovation Centre, spouses and co-owners Darren and Kim Ansley opened this downtown location almost 10 years ago. Since 2008, Darren can attest that Ellis has shifted from a “sleepy industrial area into a high density, business, residential, and cultural district. At the forefront of that evolution is the development of a vibrant tech sector that seems to bring a younger, knowledge-based group of people who really have brought a great energy to the area.” Serving up an award-winning menu and specialty drinks crafted from fresh local ingredients, the Bike Shop has established a loyal customer following. Reflecting on the impending opening of the Innovation Centre, Darren notes, “it’s a strong symbol that the knowledge-based industry is here to stay and thriving. Our café is strategically located nearby and we’re excited about nurturing our existing relationships with people who will be in the building and of course, welcoming new people who want to give us a try.”

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“It’s the idea of you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours,” Dr. Tater articulates as he explains his commitment to supporting his fellow business owners. As a chiropractor and operator of The Core Centre of Health just steps from the Innovation Centre, Dr. Tater is more likely to crack a back than scratch one, but the sentiment holds true. As he monitors the progress of construction at the Innovation Centre and anticipates the influx of people that will migrate to this area, Dr. Tater reflects on a conversation he had with a former City official who declared, “when (the Innovation Centre) is done, it’s going to be the busiest corner between Vancouver and Calgary.” Having lived all over North America, he is convinced that the Okanagan is the definition of paradise. He doesn’t plan to leave Kelowna and he is ecstatic that initiatives such as the Innovation Centre mean his children may not have to relocate either: “I have two kids and they’re both hugely into computers. I love the fact that when they get to be older, they don’t have to leave. Information technology is going to be the new drive and infrastructure. If we become the Silicon Valley of the north, that’s awesome.”

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The conversation on what lies ahead for downtown business owners will continue with the upcoming sequel to this two-part series, as the community looks ahead to the opening of the Innovation Centre.

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Okanagan Tech Community Rewind & Look Ahead – Part 2 / 2

It has been a tremendous privilege to have had a front row seat and witness the incredible growth in the Okanagan tech community over the past several years.  As a follow up to my last post and the importance of taking a long-term view, here is my take on a few key areas that will need to be addressed going forward.  A couple of these are daunting and will require commitment from key stakeholders while others are quite straightforward and can be actioned by all of us as community members.

Post Secondary Institutions Need To Be More Outward Facing

One of Steve Blanks top 3 keys to building a successful startup community is to have outward facing academic institutions - meaningful collaboration and engagement between academia and the startup community.  Some ideas that have been discussed locally include more short-term targeted tech education (not 4 year degree programs), aligning computer science curriculum with local tech community needs, coop terms for students to work in tech startups, involvement with industry research projects and more off campus community engagement initiatives. 

Some very positive steps have been taken recently with Okanagan College set to open a downtown location in the new Okanagan Centre For Innovation and their recently announced partnership with Lighthouse Labs to deliver short-term specialized tech training.   Hopefully these forward thinking initiatives will spur on others to generate more wide spread engagement and collaboration initiatives in the future.  If successful, this can make a huge impact on our growing tech talent needs and provide great careers and high paying jobs for graduates.

Access to Capital

Access to capital continues to be a big challenge for Okanagan based startups.  Over the years various angel groups have formed and there has been some investment activity but nothing formalized or consistent that entrepreneurs could depend on as a reliable source of funding.  Combine this with no venture capital in the region and this creates a real challenge for early stage technology companies looking for growth capital.  The recent announcement of Atrium Ventures will help with funding at the seed / pre seed stage and also provide access to external VC networks for follow on funding.   Ultimately though it would be a game changer to have a regular VC presence in the Okanagan, but it will take time for this to happen and more importantly it will take more quality investment opportunities.

Connecting Companies Outside The Okanagan

Primarily an economic development exercise but something we can all play a support role in is helping companies get connected to markets, partners, talent and capital outside the Okanagan.  Most Okanagan based tech companies are targeting markets and customers from outside the region.  Many of these companies are forced to source capital and talent externally as well.  These are big and costly challenges.  Metabridge is a great example of one organization that has made it their mission to connect Canadian startups to capital, markets and partners from the Silicon Valley and other leading tech hubs across North America.  Many companies that have participated in Metabridge have experienced tremendous outcomes including raising capital, finding advisors & board members, adding team members, connecting with markets & customers and even successful exits.  But we can all play a role.  Making warm introductions to your personal business networks can have a significant positive effect on a startups growth trajectory.  Metabridge, Accelerate Okanagan and the COEDC are leading in these efforts but having the power of the entire eco system behind these founders and CEO’s can make a tremendous difference.   If you willing to help out and believe in the #GiveFirst ethos, I recommend reaching out to one of these organizations and offering your support.

Celebrating Successes

It’s OK to celebrate your company success…. really!  Not only is it OK but it can also make a huge difference.  Don’t be shy to talk about the great things that are happening in your business as you reach major milestones or receive awards and recognition.  Getting the word out helps to create awareness that starting and growing successful tech companies is possible in the Okanagan.  Awareness brings more attention and attention will bring more talent, companies and capital to the region.  Much like the community volunteer group behind the “Make it Here” campaign, celebrating success and story telling through clever marketing can be very impactful – even award winning!

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Okanagan Tech Community Rewind & Look Ahead – Part 1 / 2

Prior to relocating to Kelowna in 2003, my wife and I had both visited and loved the Okanagan, but never considered it a viable place to live and work.  After eventually looking into it as a serious alternative, we had lots of questions.  What was the tech industry like and what employment opportunities existed there?  What was driving the economy? What were our options if it didn’t work out?  And to top it all off, we didn’t know a single person in Kelowna – how would we connect with the community?   I’m sure these are all similar questions and concerns that people have when considering relocating to Kelowna or any other new location.

In 2003, the Okanagan tech industry was comprised of a handful of companies with the majority of those being small firms (less that 40 employees).  The employment opportunities in the tech industry were scarce and there wasn’t the startup and entrepreneurial activity required to drive new company and job creation.  And other than a few ad hoc business-networking events hosted by the Okanagan Science and Technology Council or the Chamber of Commerce, there was no recognizable tech community or supporting eco system. It would be a risky move but we decided that the pros of lifestyle, cost of living and great place to raise our kids out weighed the cons and we made the move to Kelowna. 

Fast-forward to today and many of those risks have been mitigated or eliminated all together. The industry boasts hundreds of technology companies, employing thousands of people and generating over $1.3B in annual economic impact - pretty impressive for a community of about 130,000 people, that’s $10,000 per capita – more impact per capita than Greater Vancouver @ approx.. $9,500 and Victoria @ $8,700.  There is a thriving startup tech community with a well-defined and supportive eco system.  There have been several companies start, grow, and exit to the tune of nearly $1B in the past few years.  This growth and activity has lead to many young families and entrepreneurs deciding that the Okanagan is the place they want to raise their kids, start businesses and build their careers.   Also, more and more post secondary graduates are deciding to stay in the Okanagan after graduation.  These are both big factors in over half of the local tech work force being under the age of 35.  This is having a tremendous impact on the regions younger demographic shift over a relatively short period of time.

So how did we get here and what do we need to do to ensure future growth and success of the Okanagan tech community?  Here is my take on some of the most positive influential factors:

Club Penguin (CP)

CP was created by three visionary Kelowna entrepreneurs, Dave Krysko, Lane Merrifield and Lance Priebe.  Their meteoric trajectory from a three founder company in 2006 to 350+ employees less than two years later lead to a successful exit to The Walt Disney Company for $350M.  CP’s success was tremendous validation that you could start and grow a successful technology business in the Okanagan.  CP played a huge role in shining a bright light on the emerging Okanagan tech community and attracting extremely talented peopled to the region; many of whom have cycled back into the eco system, starting businesses of their own or filling the talent needs of other growing companies.  CP celebrated its 10th anniversary last year and remains one of the Okanagan’s key anchor companies employing hundreds of people and generating incredible economic benefit.  Although they have all moved on from Disney, Lane, Dave, and Lance have all remained local to Kelowna and have started several new businesses.  They all continue to invest their time and resources to the benefit of the greater community.

Accelerate Okanagan (AO)

Since it’s inception in 2010, AO has been the galvanizing force behind the Okanagan tech community.  Through relentless focus on program and service excellence, AO has earned the respect and engagement from the entire tech eco system.  In its brief history, AO’s program client numbers continue to impress having supported over 160 early stage tech companies.  These companies have created 500 new local jobs and have gone on to secure $35M of investment capital.  Several program alumni and tenant companies are now operating profitable business and adding tremendous benefit to the local economy.  In addition to this, AO has delivered entrepreneurial development and education services to an additional 300 early stage companies and hosted events and activities attracting over 16,000 attendees.   Under the leadership of Raghwa Gopal and the incredible team at AO team, the stewardship of the Okanagan tech community is in great hands for the foreseeable future.

Post Secondary Institutions

It’s hard to believe that UBC Okanagan is 11 years old.  It seems like just yesterday that some members of the local community were concerned about the demise of Okanagan University College, which would pave the way for a UBC presence in the Okanagan, and the formation of Okanagan College.  Safe to say that looking back today it has been an incredible victory for all involved and in particular for post secondary students in our community.  Today, UBC O is at capacity at just over 8,300 full-time students and Okanagan College has experienced double digit growth each year since the split educating over 20,000 people a year between it’s various full time, part time, and continuing education programming.   At both institutions, a large number of enrollments each year come from international students who bring even more talent and more awareness to the region.  Many of the international students choose to stay in the Okanagan after graduation; this is a tremendous benefit to the local economy, the tech industry and all businesses throughout the region.  With the recent announcements of significant government investments at OC and UBC O, both institutions are poised to make significant positive impact in our community for many years to come.

Grassroots Leadership

An often overlooked but equally important factor in the growth of the Okanagan tech community is the grassroots leadership that has emerged over the years to drive community-building efforts.   Today there are multiple co-working spaces, several entrepreneur led meet up groups, Startup Weekends, hack-a-thons, pitch competitions, developer groups, marketing and design meet ups and TEDx events just to name a few.  There is also a growing social impact movement that supports and encourages entrepreneurs who are building companies focused on improving human and environmental well being.  Many social entrepreneurs are engaging with the tech community to find solutions that support growth and improve operational efficiency of their enterprises.   Much of this community-building and social impact activity is being lead by volunteers who continue to invest significant time and energy for the greater good of the community. None of the above would be possible or sustainable without committed grassroots leadership, something we are very fortunate to have an abundance of in the Okanagan.

As discussed above, there has been tremendous growth in the Okanagan tech industry over the past decade or so including the development of a true startup & entrepreneurial community.  There have also been many factors that have lead to this growth.  The positive impact on our community has been significant as many companies, thousands of jobs and significant positive economic benefit have been created along way.  There’s more good news…. we are just getting started!

As with any emerging startup and entrepreneurial eco system, we need to take a long-term view to ensure continued growth, health, and success.  I will follow up with another post and share some thoughts on a few areas that could have a significant impact on our future success. 


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The OCI: Designed with intention

Early conceptual drawings from Meiklejohn Architects - 2013

Early conceptual drawings from Meiklejohn Architects - 2013

The countdown is on and all hands are on deck for the completion of the much anticipated Okanagan Centre for Innovation (OCI). The building is filled to the atrium with tenants who are enthusiastically planning their office spaces, all looking forward to moving in over the upcoming months. We recently had the opportunity to speak with the lead architect on the project, Stoke Tonne of Meiklejohn Architects, on the vision behind the design of the building. Tonne comments, “Some of the hopes and dreams for this building are that it will set a precedent for what buildings in Kelowna will look and function like in the future. It offers several features that are unique, not only in the Kelowna region, but across Canada as well.”

Along with the firm owner Jim Meiklejohn, and the team at Meiklejohn Architects Inc., Tonne has built his reputation through the design of notable buildings throughout the Okanagan such as the Kelowna Yacht Club. The firm’s vast portfolio boasts other local gems such as the Laurel Packinghouse, the South Okanagan Performing Arts Centre and the Landmark VI Centre. Tonne states, “the Meiklejohn firm jumped at the opportunity to apply their expertise and vision to the creation of the OCI as we knew it would positively change the architectural landscape of Kelowna and its cultural district.”

Jim and Stoke approached the design of the OCI with the goal of paying homage to the existing downtown culture and community, particularly the neighbouring regional library. Elements of the library’s aesthetics were incorporated into the architecture of the OCI to honor its long history and to bolster its future with the construction of a pedway that will connect the two buildings. This initiative underscores the desire to bring people together and build partnerships, a key component of the OCI’s mission. Tonne clarifies that “It’s a subtle, subconscious design where similarities between the two buildings appear when you think of the buildings as brothers. There’s a balance of being the same, but different, all the while being respectful.”

The team at Meiklejohn also set out to create a distinctive design for the OCI that would not compromise the existing streetscape. The team says, “It’s been a challenging exercise as an architect to figure out how to make 90 ft. of building with a series of hard right angles feel relatable and sympathetic to the streetscape. That’s where the fun of the design process lives.” By creating a multi-dimensional exterior that incorporates natural materials, the expansive building size was deconstructed from a pedestrian perspective, making it feel more approachable and welcoming to the public. The retail shops on the ground level feature transparent walls meant to encourage pedestrians walking by to go in and experience the inclusive nature of the building. From the interior perspective, Tonne wanted tenants to feel at ease within the OCI, so he integrated environmental components such as a living plant wall, operable windows that allow for the flow of fresh air and a full-height atrium that distributes natural light throughout the interior column of the building.

The Okanagan Centre for Innovation - 2016

The Okanagan Centre for Innovation - 2016

From concept to construction, the OCI aims to be a catalyst for the expansion of the entrepreneurial, technological, and startup sectors of the Okanagan. Stoke remarks that “We have a great natural setting, but the urban setting is one attraction offer that we felt created an opportunity to make a kind of recruitment tool out of a building. Not often are you asked to build a new building type, but that’s what the OCI project presented, an exciting challenge for our entire team.”  Kelowna is rapidly evolving from a retirement destination to an active metropolis. The OCI will no doubt contribute to this shift, bringing an influx of students and young professionals, along with increased employment opportunities and a boost to the local economy. The project partners envision that the centre will emerge as the pulse of Canada’s most innovative, creative technology community, bringing both international attention and talent to the region.

“I hope people get excited about exploring the building and it’s amenities,” Stoke enthusiastically states, “as I think the OCI is going to be a real draw for community members and people visiting Kelowna.  It offers so much to the downtown experience, and when the big reveal happens, I hope people are as excited as I am.”  With each day bringing us closer to the completion of the Okanagan Centre for Innovation, all eyes are on Kelowna’s evolving architectural skyline and rapidly growing technology community.

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The New Home of WTFast

From operating out of a basement in 2009, to employing over 30 people today, WTFast Gamers Private Network has come a long way. As the recent winner of the Kelowna Chamber’s Technology and Innovation award, and soon to be Okanagan Innovation Centre tenant, WTFast’s future is bright. We sat down to chat with the CEO and co-founder Rob Bartlett to find out exactly what their plan is and what makes Kelowna the perfect landscape for it. 

In his own words, Rob describes WTFast as “a rapidly growing technology company that optimizes online game connections. If you enjoy online gaming, you already know that having a fast and smooth online connection can make or break your game. Gamers can go to WTFast’s website and try out the software for free. Gamers can then see connection stats that highlight how WTFast can improve their game speed and benefit their overall connection for a better gaming experience (yes, WTFast will help you land those penta-kills)! If gamers like what they see, they can pay a small monthly fee to receive benefits of the WTFast Global Production Network”.

Rob avidly believes that the Okanagan lifestyle makes for healthier, happier, and more productive team members and that being based in Kelowna has had a direct impact on their corporate culture. The location allows WTFast to employ people who live and breathe the motto “work hard, play hard.” Team members are quick to cite their affinity for water skiing on Okanagan Lake and snowboarding up at Big White is a huge perk and incentive to make the Okanagan home.

When asked if it’s been difficult to attract or retain team talent, Rob states that they haven’t had any issues. “Having a great work-life balance in the Okanagan is a great hiring incentive. If you have the choice to live in multiple locations, why not live in Kelowna, one of the nicest places in Canada and work at the coolest place in the city - the Okanagan Centre for Innovation”

The 4 seasons playground and the close proximity of potential activities situated in the Okanagan made the decision for Rob to run the company out of Kelowna, and specifically the Okanagan Centre for Innovation, an easy one to make. The quick drive to the office and the affordable housing market (in comparison to larger cities like Vancouver) more than makes up for the occasional need to fly to larger cities for work. The opportunity to work in the heart of the Kelowna cultural district makes it even better. Rob states, “staff are thrilled that we’re moving, yet staying within the downtown core. We’re looking forward to having larger common areas where staff can work and play; our living room set up and games room are going to be popular hangouts. Being in the OCI is going to allow us to feel more like a family in so many ways”.

The opportunity to work with other like-minded companies is another aspect that appeals to WTFast and contributed to their decision to move into the OCI. With the numerous events and innovation encouraging spaces the OCI offers, tenants will naturally come together and have the ability to collaborate on projects. Rob highlights another key benefit of being a tenant in the OCI as the opportunity to further develop pre-existing relationships, saying “we’ve been involved with Accelerate Okanagan since before they even became AO. They’ve helped us from inception to the fast growing company we are today. Being neighbours in the OCI will allow our relationship to continue to grow.”

It’s clear that the Okanagan Centre for Innovation will be the perfect new home for WTFast with their shared importance placed on collaboration within the tech community, and their dedication to creating and maintaining an ideal work-life balance. WTFast is once again leading the way by laying the groundwork for what an Okanagan based company should look like, one quality (game) connection at a time. 

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The Okanagan Tech Ecosystem - A Sleeping Giant

As the CEO of Accelerate Okanagan, Raghwa Gopal is responsible for ensuring new and growing businesses in the technology industry are provided with competence, connections and community. Born and raised in Fiji, Raghwa has been calling the Okanagan home since 1979. Following his brother’s move, he came to Canada and by some stroke of luck, found himself in Kelowna.   Upon arrival, Raghwa immediately starting looking for jobs within the tech sector. Although the sector is booming in Kelowna today, there were far less opportunities available 30 years ago. At that time, there was only one tech-based company, Vadim Software. Raghwa facilitated a conversation with owner Mike Schleppe and the rest as they say, is history.

While he achieved his initial goal of working for a tech company, not even Raghwa himself could have predicted the tremendous success and growth that the entire industry has experienced since then.

Looking back, Raghwa notes the path to success for a tech business was very challenging. “Unless you have a cluster, it becomes difficult for companies to grow. Attracting talent becomes a huge thing. If you’re the only game in town and trying to hire, it becomes really difficult to convince people to move to a new city, because if it doesn’t work out they’ll have to make another move.  In addition, having one or two companies in town can create a competitive atmosphere, something that used to happen quite frequently.  The great thing about the sector now is the vast amount of companies we have. There are over 633 tech companies in the Okanagan, an increase of 75 over the past two years and the number continues to grow. With the size and growth of the industry, we don’t have the same small town thinking and issues we used to have.  Everyone’s open to sharing and genuinely wants each other to succeed.”

“At the end of the day, people are stunned by the amount of collaboration that occurs here. People don’t expect to see companies so intertwined and genuinely trying to help each other. It’s a small community where everyone knows everyone, where people will go above and beyond to help you find the resources required to be successful.”

Raghwa’s quick to note that one of the most significant changes when comparing 1979’s tech industry to today, is the demographics of people involved. “30 years ago, the trend was for students to move away from the Okanagan after graduating high school. Nowadays, more and more students are getting their post-secondary education within the Okanagan and staying for the lifestyle after graduation. A large percentage of students now stay and get local jobs, which is great. It’s so cost-effective and creates a positive work environment when you’re bringing someone on at the beginning of their career and having them grow within the organization”.

The age and education of people in the industry isn’t the only thing that’s evolved, the average tech participant’s general outlook on work and life balance has changed as well.  “You’re getting this age group of 22-35 year olds, who are just geared differently. They’re socially conscious. They don’t want to drive everywhere, they want to live in their apartment and work downstairs. They love arts and culture. They’re creating a very vibrant community, which in turn, is drawing more young professionals to the Okanagan. From an outsiders vantage point, the Okanagan holds tremendous opportunity compared to other regions across the country”.

Overall, Raghwa’s optimistic about the future of the tech industry, especially in the Okanagan.   “I really feel like the industry itself is a sleeping giant. People are starting to notice and I believe it will be the number one sector in the next five to ten years. Ten years from now I truly believe the tech industry’s reach will double or triple to become the number one driver in the regional economy. “

With the growth and success of the Okanagan tech industry, the timing for the development of the OCI couldn’t be more perfect.  Located in the heart of downtown Kelowna, the OCI will be a place for the tech community to gather, share, and collaborate, a melting pot for entrepreneurship and innovation.

When asked what impact the OCI will have on the local community and region, Raghwa breaks it down this way, “the OCI will be a massive catalyst that will fuel the continued growth in the tech sector. All the start-ups and different agencies in the building will create a perfect mix of innovation, resulting in exponential growth.  The impact will be astronomical”.

Raghwa believes that the OCI will help create a tech industry in the Okanagan unlike anything that’s been seen here before. Simply put, “people will find that if they need any help, they’ll be able to come to AO for programs and resources, then they’ll be able to work out of the OCI, it’s really going to be one of the best places in the world to start and grow a technology based business. Whether it’s having a place where they’re happy working, finding mentorship and guidance, or obtaining access to capital, I believe entrepreneurs won’t find these opportunities elsewhere like they will in the OCI”.

Finally, Raghwa summarizes what the OCI will mean to Accelerate Okanagan. “The OCI will put AO’s impact on innovation and the tech ecosystem at a different level. The community that it’s going to create will be invaluable and from my vantage point, the growth that we’re going to see over the next 3-5 years will be unprecedented. The OCI is the catalyst, which is why we can’t wait for it to be finished and move into our new space”.

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Opportunity Knocks for New Kelowna Resident

Leah Mazur, a CRO Specialist,  has been working within the tech industry the majority of her career. She recently relocated to Kelowna for a new opportunity and is excited to be a part of the thriving local tech community and for the connections she is making here.

Born and raised in Regina, Saskatchewan, Kelowna wasn’t always on Leah’s radar. In fact, she only heard about Kelowna’s booming tech industry a few years ago from a fellow freelancer who recommended Kelowna to anyone looking to get into tech. In her own words, “my path into tech hasn’t always been perfectly laid out. Both my parents are developers, so I’ve been doing website development since I was 13. I made a lot of websites as a teenager, but when it came time to go to University, I couldn’t picture myself as a developer. I enrolled in Psychology and eventually graduated with a Psych degree. During University I took on a position as a graphic designer and continued to do that until I moved on to marketing, more specifically management and communications. I found that I really loved digital marketing so I began work for an agency  doing their social media marketing prior to freelancing and moving to Kelowna. I assumed I’d continue to freelance in Kelowna, but then an opportunity with Straw House Labs came up and I couldn’t say no”.

Straw House Labs, a media buying, conversion optimization, and marketing powerhouse, is located in downtown Kelowna. Leah’s role in the company as a CRO (Conversion Rate Optimization) Specialist means that she’s in charge of ensuring that the websites people are sent to from Straw House produced ads, are fully functioning to ensure users are able to purchase products with no lag time or issues.

Like most great connections, Leah’s introduction to Straw House Labs was a case of “right place, right time”. Upon moving to Kelowna, Leah stayed in an Airbnb while she was looking for somewhere to rent. It was through Airbnb that she met Isaac, Straw House Labs Director of Media. His mom was renting Leah the room and had invited Isaac over for brunch. The rest, as they say, was history. “Isaac and I got talking about tech and development, so I mentioned what I do and he thought I’d be a good fit. I came in the next day to meet the team and the day after that I started my job”. 

“The best part about working at Straw House is the culture. It’s really laid back, but at the same time everyone’s passionate about what they do and are hardworking. It’s cool to be surrounded by other people, especially after having freelanced for 2 years. It’s really nice to have a team behind you”. Like most people who work in tech, Leah emphasizes the benefits of being surrounded by like-minded individuals. “I get to work with people who are excited about what they do and are good at it. There’s so much to learn from my co-workers”.

There’s a stereotype about women in tech, that it can be hard to make connections but Leah disagrees, saying “all my co-workers are great. I get along with them so well. It helps to get out and about in the community too. I recently attended a Women in Tech event and met two girls with a similar position to mine from Data Nerds. I think there are lots of events and things going on in the Okanagan, especially with Accelerate Okanagan. I think it’s great that there are so many ways to create connections. Even though I’m new to the city and the tech community here, I already see people that I know walking around downtown all the time”.

When asked about what advice she would give to people looking to break into the tech industry, Leah keeps it simple. “Get involved in extracurricular events and create your own projects. Do things and experiment. With tech, you can always be reading and learning. The industry changes so quickly, so continual education is key. I would also suggest keeping up to date on industry certifications, like Google Analytics”.

Come this winter, Straw House Labs is moving into the new Okanagan Centre for Innovation. When asked about what benefits she expects to see, Leah mentioned “I’m excited about it. There’s going to be tons of space and a new lounge area. It’ll be so great to be in the same area and building as other tech companies and meet like-minded colleagues that way”. We asked Leah to describe what OCI means to her in two sentences, but she was able to summarize in two words “connections and collaboration”.

We can’t wait to see where Leah and the Straw House Labs team grows, but if Leah’s recent move and quick success in Kelowna is any indication, the possibilities are endless. 

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Mayor Colin Basran talks tech, the OCI and the future of Kelowna

Chances are, starting the viral “One Bag” challenge to give back to Food Banks and dressing in drag aren’t what come to mind when you think of your average Mayor. Then again, neither do the words “Top 40 Under 40”. As the youngest elected Mayor of Kelowna’s history at age 37, Colin Basran’s job and responsibilities change daily, a challenge he embraces in order to help keep Kelowna moving forward. We recently had the opportunity to sit down with him and discuss what he believes the Okanagan Centre for Innovation, otherwise known as the OCI, will mean for the city and it’s future.

 

As a born and raised Kelowna local, Colin appreciates the importance of deep relational ties that can be created within a community. When asked why he ran for Mayor he was quick to say “I chose to get involved and do what I’m doing because I thought that Kelowna had a lot more potential than was being realized at the time”. Since being elected, he’s taken extraordinary steps to achieve that potential. As exhibited with the Sugarplum Ball, gone are the days of a small town atmosphere. Thanks to Colin, Kelowna’s now at the forefront of relevant social topics and with that, is also experiencing growth in relevant sectors like tech.

 

With fast industry growth comes the need to facilitate and ensure longevity. Colin’s involvement in the Okanagan Centre for Innovation started before his run for Mayor, when he was on the city council. One of their initial goals at that time was to have a technology centre downtown. Although firm plans weren’t set, Colin says the idea for the OCI came about through a number of key community stakeholders getting together to say “how can we make this a reality?”. The ability to work alongside community members who cared about making a difference sparked his passion for helping to create a tech community home base. Said Basran, “the best part about city council and their goals for a tech hub was being able to share my thoughts in terms of city input, based on my connections with people in tech”.

 

The ability to create connections has also stimulated a large dialogue in Colin’s term as Mayor. “Just the fact that this building is meant to be open and accessible to not only everybody who’s going to be housed in it, but the community at large, is going to force people to run into each other and create connections. I don’t think it will feel forced, because everyone there is there for the right reasons and wanting to work on new ideas and be creative. This might sound naïve, but I think the OCI is really providing a place for the type of community connections that people desperately want. It’s creating a place where relationships can happen on a much larger scale”.

 

In terms of political impact, Colin anticipates two major benefits that will stem from the OCI. “One, the economic impact. You’re going to have people making a good wage and spending it on local businesses, which leads to the bigger point. A lot of people in tech today are socially conscious. They care about where they spend their money and they care about social issues. They’re the kind of people who want to get involved in local, charitable organizations. Overall, the OCI’s attracting the type of people who care about things like riding their bikes, walking to work, and living close to where they work, something the city is trying to heavily promote. The types of people drawn to OCI are the people who are going to help us find solutions to problems not only here, but across the world”. Beyond political impact, Basran also sees tech having a large impact economically. “Tech touches absolutely everything because it’s weaved into everything we do. One could make the case that it’s our top industry. What Kelowna needs to do now is help our small businesses grow to the place where they’re able to hire the next 2-3 people and so on. Things will grow that way, our economy will grow when small businesses in our community become successful, and they’ll expand. We need to grow our own locally run businesses, as opposed to this romantic notion of trying to attract large scale manufacturers. This is done by looking after our own and the entrepreneurs in our city who have made an investment to make Kelowna as business friendly as possible to allow that internal growth because that’s where the real opportunities are”.

 

As Kelowna’s youngest Mayor, Colin recognizes the challenges and hurdles so many youth entering the tech sector are facing. His advice? “Don’t care what those people think. At the end of the day, you know you have the education, skills, training, and confidence to be doing what you’re doing. There will always be people who will doubt you, but you can’t pay any mind to that. When you think about any great achievement, there were always doubters. Kudos to the people behind the OCI because there were people saying it would never happen, but guess what, it’s going to open to predicted full occupancy, something that’s unheard of in our community. So to anybody, whether they’re starting a business or doing something crazy like run for Mayor, life’s too short. You have to do what you’re passionate about, and you can’t live with regret. Just go for it. You’ll find people that are there to support you, and are there for the right reasons. I think that’s what’s so great about the OCI, it’ll create those connections and people will find the support that they need to be successful”.


When asked to describe what the OCI means to him in two sentences, Colin says he sees the OCI as “a place of prosperity for people in tech and the community as a whole. It will be a place where the positive spin-offs will touch every facet of our community, economically and socially”. Now, that’s a great Kelowna. 

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Entrepreneurial Density and the Startup Ecosystem

It is widely recognized that great innovation happens when bright minds connect and share information in what are often referred to as collaborative collisions; intellectually diverse people often meeting through coincidence and sharing ideas, knowledge, connections and learning’s.  These types of collisions can have unexpected positive outcomes such as new innovative product ideas, research projects, accelerated learning, meaningful introductions and even new company creation.    If this is true, then for communities looking to build a healthy, vibrant startup ecosystem, high importance must be placed on encouraging these collisions to occur as often as possible.

One way to accomplish this is by increasing what is referred to as entrepreneurial density (ED).  ED in a startup community can be roughly calculated by (entrepreneurs + people working in startups / the communities population).  Using this formula then, one could assume the only way to increase ED is to attract more entrepreneurs to the region.  Increasing the number of entrepreneurs should be a focus, but if encouraging collaborative collisions is the ultimate goal, then a much more meaningful influence is where these startups and entrepreneurs are located in relation to each other geographically.  Regardless of the overall number, if entrepreneurs and startups are wide spread throughout the community the chance of collisions taking place is very limited.  On the other hand, the closer they are in proximity to each other the odds get increased dramatically.   There are other ways to help encourage ED and facilitate collisions like a healthy calendar of startup community events and activities.  Although events are a key ingredient for a healthy startup ecosystem, they often times don’t provide the necessary frequency or a quality sharing environment.

For companies that are located in the same neighbourhood, on the same street, or ideally in the same building – collisions would be a daily occurrence; opportunities to share, learn and grow are maximized.  This provides immeasurable value to early stage high growth startups looking for ways to accelerate time, learn more and do more faster.  Later stage companies also receive incredible value as these collisions provide tremendous insight and access to new innovative products, services and talent necessary to maintain competitive advantage and grow their market share.

One of the goals for the OCI is to bring together all the key ingredients of the startup ecosystem under one roof, maximize the ED and create an environment where daily collisions are the norm.  The OCI will provide tenants and community members’ unprecedented access to other entrepreneurs, business training and education services, flexible/scalable office space, government programs & services, mentorship and investment capital.

Of course none of this would be possible if the OCI were just another commercial office building where the only time you see other tenants is in the parking lot or on the elevator.  The OCI has been designed with unique elements that will encourage collaborative collisions such as public gathering spaces, an arts and cultural atrium, presentation theatre and business incubation space.  Other amenities include a coffee shop, restaurant, and roof top café, all designed with intention to maximize ED and create an environment that fosters innovation.

Entrepreneurial density, a key ingredient for a healthy, vibrant startup ecosystem and what we hope will grow exponentially with the completion of the OCI.

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"The OCI Means Opportunity" - Stephen Fuhr, CD MP

Kelowna-Lake Country MP Stephen Fuhr might be one of the only people able to list military experience, aviation technology and business,  and politics on his resume. We had a chance to sit down with him recently to talk about what the Okanagan Centre for Innovation (OCI) will mean to his community.

As the recently elected MP of Kelowna-Lake Country, Stephen’s primary job is advocating for the community and ensuring their needs are met. In addition to being MP, he is the Chair of the Standing Committee on National Defence.

After spending some time with Stephen, it’s clear his passion lies in community building and diversifying the Okanagan’s economy, something he strongly believes the Okanagan Centre for Innovation will help to spearhead. As someone who’s travelled the world, he cites world class skiing, golf, wineries, distinct seasons and community spirit as being a large benefit to calling the Okanagan home. These are all things he believes will draw in potential OCI tenants and grow the industry. Listing “academia, tech, agriculture and tourism” as Kelowna’s major industries, Stephen believes the increased focus on tech will “see the community accelerate”.

When asked directly about his initial impression of the OCI, Stephen said “I think it’s a great idea. You know, when you’re trying to attract smart people to come to a place to innovate and create, you’ve got to have the right mix of things. You have to have a community that people are going to want to come to. I think the OCI is going to be a place where people want to work”. At the end of the day, he believes people are creative and will be driven towards an atmosphere that both breeds and inspires creativity.

As someone who’s had his fair share of working in diverse business environments, Stephen agrees that creating mutually beneficial partnerships is a must when considering an ideal working space, something that he believes the OCI will offer. "I think that whatever business you’re in, or whatever you do, you’ve got to make sure that everyone can win. It’s a function of continuing to make sure that everybody gets something that they want out of the deal. As long as you’re generous with that thought, those relationships will last”.

From the politically positive perspective of diversifying the community, Stephen sees the OCI acting as assurance that the tech industry will continue to grow in the Okanagan. “I believe it will stimulate the economy. Like the old adage says, if you build it they will come. I’ve seen the drawings, I’ve visited the website and I’ve talked to people about what the plan is. The whole one stop shop idea encourages creative collaboration. It’s something that I think will attract people to the OCI and Kelowna in general”.

Having successfully grown a company during the recession, Stephen also believes that the OCI will offer long lasting benefits to the community regardless of economic ups and downs. “It’s like your own investments. If you invest, you want to diversify in case something goes down, you could come out stronger by having something else come back up”. Ever the optimist, he believes Canada hasn’t reached its full potential and there’s room for Canada to grow in tech and innovation.

Moving forward, Stephen views the OCI’s biggest offering as the ability to grow the Okanagan community. “The country’s developing a digital-knowledge based economy, which is right in OCI’s wheelhouse. I think focusing our efforts on something that’s going to be beneficial to us in the future, commercializing knowledge if you will, speaks directly to that”.

Finally, when asked to describe what OCI means to him in two sentences, Stephen doesn’t miss a beat when saying “opportunity”. One word captures it all. “I’m a big fan of diversification. Even the way this came together, the team behind the OCI is a really great example of a bunch of innovative minds coming together. Those are the types of people you want running the OCI. I have a lot of high hopes, this place is a marvel for how we can do things differently and do them better”. 

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The OCI - Not Your Typical Office Building

One of the most frequent questions we are asked is how is the Okanagan Centre for Innovation different than a standard office building. The answer lies in research from successful startup communities such as Austin Tx., Las Vegas Nv. & Boulder Co. and is validated through OCI tenants who have firsthand experience with tech ecosystems outside of Kelowna.
 
For years, Austin was looked at as the younger, inexperienced brother of Dallas. Austin community leaders didn’t want that. Looking internally, they asked the question, “How do we help build the types of companies necessary to create jobs & economic independence, and build a vibrant community at the same time?”
 
Out of that question, came a wealth of research, whose essence was:
 
The modem technopolis is one that interactively links technology commercialization with the public and private sectors to spur economic development and promote technology diversification. Linking technology and economic development in a new type of city-state is an emerging worldwide phenomenon (0th 1985; Tatsuno 1986; Glasmeier 1987; Smilor, Kozmetsky, and Gibson, 1988).
 
In simpler terms, Austin community leaders determined that there is a magic sauce, that if brought together, can be a serious catalyst to growth of the tech ecosystem, and in turn the local culture & economy. If one is able to bring closer together in physical proximity entrepreneurs, universities, colleges, arts & culture, support services, government programs and private industry, the whole community can thrive.

Almost 30 years later, Austin is a thriving, vibrant community that hosts internationally acclaimed technology & culture events such as South by Southwest (SXSW) that generates over $300M in economic impact each year. They’d lived, and built partnerships in line with research and are now bearing the fruits of it.  Since then, other communities have emulated this path to growth, and are now seeing similar successes. (Waterloo, Las Vegas, Seattle, Boulder)
 
Lead by a group of community leaders and supported by technology entrepreneurs, the goal is for the OCI to be the activator for similar growth of the Okanagan technology ecosystem. Many in this group have traveled to and experienced other thriving ecosystems and understand the impact a collaborative community can have on the growth and success of a company:
 
"Being part of the OCI goes beyond just space. It's the heart of innovation, collaboration, technology, learning, and a big part of Okanagan's future. I can't imagine not having a front row seat." ~ Peter Matejcek CEO of InHouse Media (OCI Tenant)
 
Further, from their experience working in these existing technology ecosystems, they know the impact the magic sauce will have on their business:
 
“We are very excited to move into our new home at the OCI.  The innovative culture that will permeate throughout the building will foster increased collaboration and idea sharing for the FreshGrade team, helping us build a world class technology business.” ~ Chris Besse COO of Freshgrade (OCI Tenant)
 
And finally, even those businesses that do not directly participate in the technology industry understand the impact a combination of these elements will bring to the Kelowna culture and economy:
 
“As a B.C. coffee entrepreneur, I am delighted to be a part of the Okanagan Centre for Innovation. I and our team of skilled Blenz baristas will bring people together to collaborate over their favourite beverages as they innovate, create tech jobs, drive economic growth, and strengthen the community.” ~ David McDougall, Founder and Principal of Blenz Coffee, Interior Region BC
 
The Okanagan Centre for Innovation is not just an office building, instead it is a living hive from which innovation, culture, companies and opportunities will arise for the residents of Kelowna, and the Okanagan. I am so excited to be a part of a vibrant, driven tech industry whose success story will make economists question’ “How’d they do that?”

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The Link Between Economic Development and Entrepreneurial Startups

Communities that have long been economically dependent on traditional industries such as manufacturing and resources are being forced to look for alternative economic development initiatives to remain economically vibrant.   Diversification is also a critical component for stable and continued economic growth.  One would have to look no further than Alberta’s dependence on the Oil & Gas industries and the massive fluctuations in their economy due to unpredictable changes in the oil markets.

Many believe that entrepreneurial startups should be the focus of future economic development initiatives and are the key drivers of economic diversification, job creation and will have significant positive influence on long-term sustainable growth. 

In a 2010 report published by Tim Kane from the Kauffman Foundation, he states that 100% of net job growth in the U.S. comes from entrepreneurial startups and that if you took startups out of the picture and looked only at large or incumbent businesses, job growth over the last 35 years would actually be negative. In the words of Kauffman's Tim Kane, "When it comes to job growth, startup companies aren't everything.... They’re the only thing."

Tim Mallet, Vice President and Chief Economist at the CFIB, supports this thinking stating that, “Independent businesses and startups are the vital sources of energy on which communities grow and flourish.”

Granted that not all of the startups referenced by Kane and Mallet are technology based, it is undeniable that technology based companies are some of the most valuable in the world, they build products and services we all use everyday and they will continue to be a major force in the global economy for the foreseeable future.

For forward thinking communities committed to economic diversification through technology, innovation and entrepreneurship, it is essential that they create an environment for success by providing entrepreneurs and startups the necessary services & support to start and grow companies; right from the earliest stages of development through to market validation and commercialization.

Working in partnership with government agencies, entrepreneurs, industry, academia, civic leaders and the private sector, the Okanagan Centre for Innovation (OCI) will provide these services & support and serve the entire Okanagan community as the hub of technology, innovation and entrepreneurship in the region.

How will we do this?  At the heart of the OCI is business incubation space that will encourage the development of new innovative products and services by creating an effective link between startup entrepreneurs and the talent, research, technology, funding, mentorship, education and know-how that is essential to their growth and success.

The OCI is a true public private partnership that has received financial support from the Provincial and Federal governments for the development of the business incubation space, the city of Kelowna and the Federal government for the development of a presentation theatre, community partner support from Accelerate Okanagan and Okanagan College to provide entrepreneurial development, training and education services and Telus who will provide wireless technology infrastructure & services throughout all the public areas of the OCI.

Commercial space in the OCI will be leased out to companies at all stages of maturity that are involved in or support the local tech community.  Many of these company executives have committed to spending time with startup entrepreneurs; sharing their knowledge, connections and lessons learned.  They are excited to do so because they understand the importance of the #GiveFirst ethos (see previous post) and want to help accelerate the growth of our tech community. They are also continually looking for competitive advantage and believe that technology-based startups provide a tremendous source of innovation.

Through intelligent economic development initiatives like the OCI, and with the incredible support of our public and private partners, its our mission for the Okanagan to become the best place in Canada for entrepreneurs to start and grow innovative, creative, technology-based companies, diversify the local economy and create a solid foundation for long-term economic success.

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#GIVEFIRST – A KEY INGREDIENT FOR A HEALTHY STARTUP COMMUNITY

If you have been fortunate enough to spend time in a thriving startup community, the #Givefirst ethos is probably something you have experienced firsthand and would agree is incredibly powerful.  Startup community leaders like Brad Feld and David Cohen from Boulder Colorado have been huge advocates of the #Givefirst philosophy for several years, and the benefits continue to pay incredible dividends throughout the entire Boulder Startup Ecosystem.
 
One of the main objectives with the Okanagan Centre for Innovation (OCI) is to support the Okanagan Startup community with a #GiveFirst philosophy as the underlying principle.  Together with our tenants, partners and investors, our goal is for the OCI to foster an environment where information sharing, collaboration and meaningful introductions are a daily occurrence – all done freely with no expectation of a return.  Success for one is success for all with the greater Okanagan community being the ultimate benefactor. 
 
If you want to learn more about the #GiveFirst philosophy and help take the Okanagan Startup Community to the next level, here a few helpful hints to get you started.
 
Do’s
Share your time

  • Engage in the community.  Set aside time on a weekly or monthly basis to take impromptu meetings and hold open office hours.  This time can be used for people who are new to town and looking to get connected, or for existing community members that are looking for help.
  • Participate in startup community events and activities; volunteer your time and be accessible.

Share your knowledge

  • Everybody has something to offer, whether you are a first time entrepreneur, service provider or a long time tech industry veteran.  Share your technical expertise, business experience or industry knowledge. Become a volunteer mentor and pay it forward.
  • Leave your ego at the door.   Give freely, be authentic and transparent; put up your hand and ask how you can help – be a great listener, not a great teller.

Share your network

  • Help make meaningful connections to people in your network. This does not need to be more complicated than a simple email introduction – let them take it from there.  Be an open connector, not a filter.  Let the people in your network decide whom they want to engage with.  If people aren’t buying into the #GiveFirst philosophy or are causing other issues, they will quickly identify themselves and typically self-select out of the community.

Don’ts
Don’t make it transactional

  • Don’t expect anything in return for your involvement - EVER.  Just #GiveFirst and we’re sure you will enjoy the experience immensely.  Everyone that shares the #GiveFirst ethos, whether its through participating in their startup community or volunteering their time in charitable organizations will tell you that they get much more out of their involvement than they give.  The key is to just get involved and share openly with no expectation of return.

Don’t overthink it

  • You don’t need to ask permission.  There is no governing body of the startup community.  Just show up, get involved and #GiveFirst – it’s that easy. 

Don’t think short-term

  • Building a healthy, vibrant startup community takes long-term thinking and a lasting #GiveFirst commitment from community leaders to make it happen.  We also believe that a startup community has an inherent network effect.  That being, the larger the community gets, the more people will want to be a part of it and the more successful it will become – but it takes a long-term commitment.

With the continued growth and momentum throughout the Okanagan startup community we have a tremendous opportunity to make a significant difference with lasting positive impact.  Let’s all work together and build a startup community we’re all proud to be part of, a community with a long-term vision built on a #GiveFirst foundation.

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OKANAGAN INNOVATION - THINKING OUTSIDE THE BOX

From the beginning, the plan for the Okanagan Centre for Innovation was to be as innovative as possible, to think and operate differently, from the initial stages through to when the doors open in November 2016. 

Through the promotion of technology, innovation and entrepreneurship, the goal is for the OCI is to provide maximum community benefit from both an economic growth & social impact perspective.

Consistent with broad trends toward community level social innovation, as well as the BC Provincial Social Impact Purchasing Guidelines, we have a large interest in measuring social impact by exploring the role that vendors play in our community outside the professional services they provide.

It was through this lens that we had several discussions about the construction process and what we could implement that would allow us to measure the community impact efforts being made by the vendors involved with the OCI project.

The decision we made was to modify the standard tendering process to include a section requesting information about each vendor’s social impact commitment to the community.  We would not select vendors based on the level of their commitment but would appreciate it if they could include a description with their submission.

We did not want this process to be overly onerous, and decided on the following three questions.

1.     Do you have a charitable giving plan?

2.     Outside of the services you offer, what role do you have in the community?

3.     Do you have policies in place that consider any of the following:

a)    Environmental considerations;

b)    Economic considerations

c)     Social considerations

Based on the submissions we received, it is evident that companies all over the Okanagan are doing some pretty amazing things that are having a tremendous impact on our local community. 

Contributions are wide ranging and include things like:

  • the establishment of corporate foundations
  • comprehensive charitable giving plans
  • a commitment to sourcing local equipment & supplies
  • hiring local skilled workers
  • sustainable construction practices
  • sponsorship of local sporting teams, and
  • community volunteerism. 

We are thrilled to be aligning with some of these great companies and ultimately contributing to positive, social impact for our community throughout the development of the OCI.

So, this got us thinking.  If a relatively small sample size could return this amount of encouraging information, we are sure there is much much more going on in the community that goes uncelebrated.  Wouldn’t it be cool if there were a way to track social impact across an entire community, not just through one development project?

After a bit of digging, we found out that there is in fact a system available to do this and it is being developed right here in Kelowna by a local startup technology company, Volinspire.  Volinspire is a community engagement platform that connects all citizens and businesses with important causes in our community. Their mission is “to maximize volunteer capacity and support a growing movement of citizen-led change by empowering all community members, organizations and businesses to engage in causes they care about.”  Pretty cool stuff! 

For more information on Volinspire, you can check them out online at https://volinspire.com.

We are delighted by what was found in our small efforts towards change, and are excited by the focus others in the community and in government are putting towards necessary social focus in business operation.

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