When Kelowna was named the most entrepreneurial city in Canada by the Financial Post in 2016, many Canadians expressed surprise. When the Canadian Federation of Small Business called it the best city in B.C. to open a small business two years later, the same thing happened. Whenever I share the fact that the Okanagan region is home to one of Canada’s fastest-growing tech sectors, with year-over-year revenue growth of 15 percent since 2013, comparisons to a 1970s version of Silicon Valley inevitably emerge.
It’s true that the Okanagan remains an orchard- and winery-strewn playground of watersports and ski resorts. But these days, it’s also home to 693 tech companies employing more than 12,500 people and contributing nearly $2 billion in regional economic impact. So if and when a Kelowna office is established for the hotly anticipated B.C. Regional Development Agency (RDA) proposed in the federal government’s 2020 Fall Economic Statement, I sincerely hope that excitement, not surprise, is the prevailing reaction.
I know it would be across the Okanagan. Led by the Central Okanagan Economic Recovery Task Force and backed by thousands of business and social leaders, academics and government officials, the push for an RDA office aims to make the thriving tech sector even more dynamic. As Task Force co-chair and Kelowna Mayor Colin Basran puts it, “We want it here. We’ve got all the pieces in place. The region’s industry and academia have the track record to prove we can make it successful. The Task Force is actively advocating to Minister of Economic Development and Official Languages Mélanie Joly that there is no other place in B.C. that is a better fit.”
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Supported by more than $2-billion in annual federal funding, RDAs uniquely apply place-based lenses to federal programs and policies that recognize the distinct assets and needs of local economies. At present, B.C. is covered by Western Economic Diversification Canada – one of six RDAs across the country – which for decades has been working to diversify the western economy while improving the quality of life of western Canadians by focusing on innovation, infrastructure, and business and community development. Now, the Government of Canada has proposed adding a seventh RDA, specifically for B.C., to better tailor support for businesses and in recognition of diverse regional economies.
Building on the January 21st launch of “OKGo,” a campaign highlighting Okanagan innovation, entrepreneurship and infrastructure, the Task Force’s RDA pitch is very much focused on our not-so-surprising tech momentum. There are myriad local tech success stories, including Bananatag, which earned a spot on three prominent “Fastest Growing Company” lists in 2020; Vitalis Extraction, one of Canada’s Top 3 Growing Companies; and Pela, which has secured a $5 million investment from Jay-Z’s investment firm, Marcy Venture Partners.
Companies like these are also benefiting from much lower commercial lease rates than in major cities – I’m looking at you, Vancouver – along with uncomplicated access to world-class research and innovation resources ranging from Canada’s Agriculture & Agri-Food Research and Development to UBCO’s Innovation Precinct.
At the same time, tech talent is drawn to the leisure-rich lifestyle of the Okanagan, which offers everything from world-class skiing, mountain biking and water sports to a thriving wine industry and flourishing cultural scene. And with less traffic and a lower cost of living than in major cities – not to mention some of Canada’s best weather – tech workers and executives get more enjoyment out of their spare time and money.
Top talent is also being produced by UBC’s Okanagan campus and Okanagan College, with Kelowna and Vernon home to multimillion-dollar Innovation Centres that unite startups, entrepreneurs, academics, service providers, and investors under one roof to support the growth and diversification of the region’s economy. The not-for-profit Accelerate Okanagan, meanwhile, gives entrepreneurs the mentorship, connections, and community they need to build tech-driven ventures. No wonder Techstars, one of the world’s leading tech accelerators, reported that the Okanagan is “punching way above its playing weight,” and made it the only Canadian location in its Community Pilot Project.
Combine all this with an international airport and world-class healthcare facilities, and I’m a passionate believer that nowhere in North America has more potential for tech growth than the Okanagan does.
Still surprised? Don’t be. Because if you are, you might just miss out on the next big thing – a new RDA office – in Okanagan tech.
Corie Griffiths is the Director of Economic Development for the Regional District of the Central Okanagan.
Photo by Jeffrey Eisen on Unsplash