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Six Reasons Vancouver is now Canada’s Tech Capital

Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson: “Technology is now a critical part of Vancouver’s economy. We have more jobs in technology than we have in mining, oil and gas, and forestry combined.
Vancouver tech
Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson: “Technology is now a critical part of Vancouver’s economy. We have more jobs in technology than we have in mining, oil and gas, and forestry combined.”

Is Vancouver a tech capital?

The city 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.

2. Proximity

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.

 

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.”

4. China

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.”

 

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About The Author /

Cantech Letter founder and editor Nick Waddell has lived in five Canadian provinces and is proud of his country's often overlooked contributions to the world of science and technology. Waddell takes a regular shift on the Canadian media circuit, making appearances on CTV, CBC and BNN, and contributing to publications such as Canadian Business and Business Insider.

Comment

  1. Great points Nick and love the way you weave together several of the trends we have seen lately!

  2. One thing casually mentioned but not is explicitly is why these are advantages in the industry. The tech sector is young and has high demands on a work / play balance. Vancouver offers this balance in spades. Also, a younger workforce that generally votes for more social governments will find the classic left leaning roots and current right leaning governments complementary. It could have better weather mind you.

  3. Mayor Robertson is going to make $1 million in his first year out of office making 200 public appearances/speaches at $5k a pop on the theme he’s a tech-friendly David standing up to multinational Goliaths. Yet The City of Vancouver can’t tell me of a single tech startup that they’ve adopted or field-tested and have only a vague Proof of Concept program in their revised Digital Strategy. Until they can demonstrate that they’re willing to get their hands dirty actively engaging with startup technologies and services they are using this sector for self promotion. So removed from the reality of the situation they think their resources are best spent building yet another accelerator rather than realizing that they are exactly an accelerator if they’d only adopt and field test existing startup technologies and services. Patrick Malone iTendr CEO

  4. I moved to Vancouver after earning my grad degree in Asia business in the late 1990’s. I knocked on doors for almost 2 years to get an entry level position, no luck. I hope it’s better now.

  5. I notice you’re the CEO of a company oriented towards selling stuff to governments. I also noticed that your post is basically a rant that they won’t buy your app. It does undercut the credibility of your complaint with the obvious conflict of interest.

  6. I could have posted anonymously and eliminated any risk of becoming persona non grata at City Hall but I want the City to gut check whether their laudatory words are fashionable or functional. My hope is that the city stands me corrected with a long list of tech startups they’re adopting early and field-testing. And if I continue to draw focus to their incongruent position that becomes more likely. That my tech startup may never make that list is perfectly fine, private sector adoption of iTendr is robust here and in TO and the view from my place in the British Properties in West Van provides me the indifference of the digital dilettante. Patrick Malone

  7. From my SFU undergrad days in the early 1990’s to recent Vancouverites who moved to Asia, we heard that things have pretty much remained the way it was back in the 1990’s, like a quiet region that’s nice to live and retire. It will be good if Vancouver’s economic development policies can successfully pull it off to attract more local and foreign tech firms to locate there to greater boost the BC economy.

  8. Hometown? Wait a sec, Ryan is from Vernon. Oh well… honourary status extended.

  9. Without access and availability of risk-taking VCs you can’t be a tech capital. Frankly, from my limited experience raising capital in Vancouver, that isn’t changing anytime soon.

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