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.
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.