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.
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!