A little of this, a little of that.
Vancouver’s economy has never really leaned too heavily on any one sector. The film business, tourism, the city’s busy port and, ahem, a certain cash crop have almost always ranked higher in the minds and pocketbooks of Vancouverites.
The closest Lotus Land has come to the equivalent of Ottawa’s prestigious Bell Northern Labs would probably be MPR Teltech, a BC Tel research lab on Burnaby Mountain that was dissolved in the late 1990’s and acquired, in pieces, by Nortel, IBM, NewBridge Networks and Applied Digital Access.
Today, however, tech is on a decided upswing in the area, most notably in cleantech where, as KPMG notes, there are now 202 companies in B.C. whose sole focus is the research, development or deployment of clean-technological innovations. More than two-thirds of these companies did not exist a decade ago. Vancouver is also showing strength in in social media startups, led by the will-they-or-won’t-they-sell-to-Facebook-story of Hootsuite. Now boasting two billion dollar companies, we count down the five largest innovation stocks in the Greater Vancouver area, ranked by market cap.
1. Westport Innovations (TSX:WPT)
The fall of cleantech leader Ballard Power was a swift as Wesport’s ascension to replace it as the area’s cleantech champion. In 1997, fuel cell pioneer Ballard soared to $82, as the company received investments from Daimler Chrysler and Ford. Every major car company was developing fuel cell vehicles, from Honda’s FCX to GM’s Sequel. But the inability of fuel cell developers to reduce costs, coupled with advances in battery technology began to sway momentum to electric vehicles, and momentum was gathering steam. By 2005, shares of Ballard had fallen south of $4. Westport, meanwhile was formed in 1995 after Professor Philip Hill, who was developing a concept called high pressure direct injection (HPDI) of natural gas, met current CEO David Demers. Today, the company does nearly $150 million in revenue, has attracted legendary investor George Soros as its largest shareholder, and has created valuable strategic alliances with some of the world’s largest engine and vehicle manufacturers, such as Volvo, Cummins, and Kenworth.
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2. Macdonald Dettwiler (TSX:MDA)
Since 1969, when John MacDonald and Werner Dettwiler formed their eponymous venture, MacDonald Dettwiler has been a part of the fabric of Canadian technology. The Richmond, BC based aerospace giant’s Canadarm, a robotic space arm developed in the 1970′s to repair and service NASA space shuttles, is iconic. With the Canadarm literally set to become history in the Canada Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa, however, MDA has, in more recent times, been forced on the rocky road of reinvention. 2010′s revenue of $688 million was barely half of 2007′s. But last year, 2011 MDA began to get back to its aerospace roots. The company sold its real-estate information business, which sold property information to insurance companies, lenders, and legal professionals to US private equity firm TGP Capital. The sale of the unit, which was once thought to be a key to the company’s growth gave MDA an $819 million shot in the arm it quickly put to use with dividends and share buybacks. 2011 revenue climbed back to $760 million, as the company’s stock rallied. Last year, Cantech Letter’s Nick Waddell spoke with MacDonald Dettwiler CFO Anil Wirasekara.
3. Glentel (TSX:GLN)
Glentel’s roots actually go all the way back to a New Westminster auto glass shop that was founded by the Skidmore family in 1946. In 1985, Glentel became the original service dealer to Rogers; a move that seems less unlikely when one recalls the mania and prestige that surrounded having an actual working phone in your car in those salad days of cellular. By 1989, the little glass shop was called TCG and it had just completed a purchase of a company called Glenayre Electronics, which it renamed Glentel. Glentel opened its first Wireless Wave store in Burnaby’s Metrotown in 1997, and has since opened more than 130 more. Glentel’s Retail Canada division, which operates under the brands Wireless Wave, tBooth Wireless and Wave Son Fils, saw sales increase 13%, to over $100 million in Q3 2011 versus the $88.9 the company posted in the same period in 2010. The improved numbers have sent shares of the company rocketing from (adjusted for a stock split last year) lows of $3.50 in early 2009 to recent highs near $23 midway through this past February.In early 2011, Cantech Letter’s Nick Waddell presented Glentel with the 2010 Canadian Tech Stock of the Year Award and sat down with CEO Tom Skidmore.
4. QLT (TSX:QLT)
Vancouver’s QLT has seen its share of highs and lows. Founded in 1981 as Quadra Logic Technologies, the company went public in 1986 at $2.50 per share. In 2000, the year QLT received FDA approval for Visudyne, a macular degeneration treatment, the company’s shares soared to over $100 a share. But things came crashing back to earth after Visudyne brought in less revenue than anticipated. Shares of QLT fell to just over the $2 mark in 2009, but have rebounded to more than triple that since. Today Visudyne, which is marketed by Swiss giant Novartis, has been used in more than two million treatments worldwide and is commercially available in more than 80 countries. But the treatment has has remained a disappointment, numbers-wise; sales for the fourth quarter of 2011 were $22.4-million, a decrease of 8.4 per cent from the fourth quarter of 2010.
5. Alterra Power (TSX:AXY)
The relative newcomer on the list, Alterra was called Magma Energy when it stumbled out of the gate. The company, which was founded by mining impresario Ross Beaty in 2008 and changed its name after a 2011 merger with Vancouver’s Plutonic Power, saw its market cap halved when pop singer Bjork, who is the largest celebrity in Iceland, presented Icelandic prime minister Johanna Sigurdardottir with a petition protesting foreign investment into Iceland’s natural resource sector. Tensions were running high during the Icelandic financial crisis and Magma’s HS Orka property in Iceland became a lightning rod. The situation was diffused somewhat when Alterra sold 25% of HS Orka to Icelandic pension funds. Today, Alterra generates 1,400 gigawatt hours of clean power annually and has interests in the US, England and Canada.