Vancouver has always been a bit of a mixed bag, economically. A little tourism here, a little shipping there, a little filming “The Littlest Hobo” and “The Beachcombers” for the debatable benefit of audiences everywhere.
For most of the nineties, residents were reminded that we were part of a province that wasn’t business friendly, if not by the media then by someone who was actually picking up and heading to Alberta. But those types of scenes don’t play out as much anymore, especially since a wave of Asian immigration began to redefine Lotusland. Today, more than 17% of the approximately 2.5 million people living in the Vancouver metropolitan area are ethnic Chinese.
But there’s another marked change to Vancouver’s landscape. The city is, increasingly, being paced by its technology sector. Most of the old names that people have associated with Vancouver tech are still here; Macdonald Dettwiler, Electronic Arts, cleantech holdover Ballard Power, but newer names are now driving the bus.
Ask someone under thirty to name a Vancouver tech company and they are as likely to mention Hootsuite, Vision Critical or Elastic Path, who collectively employ hundreds in the city. This sweeping change is not lost on the rest of the world and this fact was punctuated when earlier this year the world-famous TED Conferences announced they will move to Vancouver from California.
Still not convinced Vancouver is already a tech mecca? Check out these six reasons the city is Canada’s best for tech.
1. It starts at the top
Mayor Gregor Robertson, who once made his living by founding organic juice company Happy Planet, may be controversial in some circles, but he’s all about forward thinking solutions, such as implementing bike lanes in Vancouver’s downtown core. That progressivism extends to his view on tech.
“Technology is now a critical part of Vancouver’s economy,” he said in a popular YouTube video about the city’s tech scene. “We have more jobs in technology than we have in mining, oil and gas, and forestry combined. Over 80,000 technology jobs. We have amazing clusters of talent here and it is driving the economy of the city now.”
How important does Robertson think tech is? Consider that Hootsuite’s new office is a 33,000-squarefoot, two-story office building was formerly used by the Vancouver Police Department. The building is owned by the City of Vancouver, who felt it was best to help out the company rather than risk watching it leave.
Just a short drive from Seattle, home to tech heavyweights Amazon and Microsoft, and a short plane ride to Silicon Valley, Vancouver is the natural extension of the west coast tech scene.
Vancouver native Yen Lee, who worked in Silicon Valley for the better part of the last two decades returned home recently because he says Vancouver can now match the talent and experience of Silicon Valley. “When I start my next startup, I’m going to make sure I create a product and engineering team in Vancouver,” he told Canada.com’s Russ Martin recently. “In general the quality of talent is very, very good,” he added. “The passion is there.”
It seems the folks at Facebook think along the same longitudinal lines. In a statement accompanying the announcement of a new Vancouver office, the social media giant said Vancouver was a logical choice because the city is close to its engineering office in Seattle and corporate headquarters in Menlo Park.
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3. The “Maple Syrup Mafia”
Hootsuite CEO Ryan Holmes says a formidable group of young entrepreneurs might soon form in Vancouver mirroring the famed “PayPal Mafia”, the group of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, including Elon Musk and Peter Thiel, that spun off from PayPal to found or invest in companies such as Facebook, Tesla Motors, YouTube and Yelp.
Holmes says there are a few hurdles to overcome, such as universities that still aren’t producing grads with the requisite skills, but there are also benefits to being just left of the spotlight.
“While Silicon Valley may enjoy a formidable concentration of capital and talent, it hardly has a monopoly on ambitious ideas and capable entrepreneurs. Investors willing to bet on opportunities outside the Valley will discover it’s far easier to get in on the ground floor. Margins are considerably higher. There’s far less hype and spin to wade through, making it easier to identify real gems. Plus, local governments can be very helpful with tax breaks and other subsidies for companies committed to high-tech jobs.”
The Chinese investment into Canada hasn’t been all about driving home prices sky high, although that has been a side effect. The larger picture is that the city is growing by leaps and bounds, outpacing the national average considerably.
In 2011, Canadian exports to China reached $5.1-billion in 2011, five times their 2001 value. What has this meant to Vancouver? Two major airport upgrades in the past twenty years, and an economy that is much less susceptible to recession because of its exposure to multiple geographies and economies.
5. New Office Space
Despite the fact that not many new tenants are entering the market, there is about to be a ton of new office space on the Vancouver market, including the forthcoming $750 million Telus Garden, which will highlight the estimated 1.5 million square feet of new office space set to enter the market by 2015.
Sandy McNair, the president of market data firm Altus InSite, says U.S.-based firms are unlikely to scoff at the $40 to $50 per square foot price tag that top office space commands here, because the prices in San Francisco can be as much as double that.
“They are coming to Vancouver and looking to replicate what they’re already doing elsewhere. They’re not looking for a deal,” he told the Globe and Mail recently.
6. It’s, um, kind of nice here…
Constantly named one of the world’s most beautiful and most livable cities, Vancouver is such as knockout on a warm summer day that it almost makes you forget about all that rain. But a lifestyle that famously enables one to golf and ski on the same day also allows companies to get a leg up in attracting talent.
For comment on this we go back to the presumed Don of the Maple Syrup Mafia, Hootsuite Founder Holmes, who recently compared his adopted city to other options.
“With all respect to Palo Alto, life in a semi-arid industrial park isn’t for everyone (even if you can get some really good tacos). I have a feeling that my hometown — which just so happens to be one of the world’s most liveable cities, chock full of mountains, ocean, progressive politics, and some exceptional street food of its own — might make an attractive alternative.”