At Is­sue

With ris­ing rents driv­ing even big-money tech firms out of Van­cou­ver, Kelowna might just be­come our very own ver­sion of Sil­i­con Val­ley.

Vancouver Magazine - - Contents - by Kathryn Hel­more

The tech in­dus­try is mov­ing into Kelowna —could this be the start of our very own Sil­i­con Val­ley?

the of­fice of Csek Cre­ative, a web de­sign com­pany, is a tech worker’s par­adise. The cu­bi­cle-free, openspace of­fice fea­tures board­rooms kit­ted out with state-of-the-art au­dio­vi­sual equip­ment, a re­lax­ation room with mas­sage chairs and a record­ing studio and jam space. In the kitchen, a fridge is fully stocked with soda, a per­fect com­ple­ment to un­lim­ited pop­corn and Wed­nes­day-morn­ing pan­cakes. The of­fice has all the trap­pings of a clas­sic start-up, save for one de­tail: Csek Cre­ative isn’t lo­cated in an in­ter­na­tion­ally rec­og­nized tech­nop­o­lis. Rather, it’s in the heart of B.C. wine coun­try.

And it’s not alone. There are cur­rently 558 tech com­pa­nies op­er­at­ing out of Kelowna, a boom of sorts that traces its ori­gins to 2007, when Dis­ney In­ter­ac­tive pur­chased lo­cal fledg­ling Club Pen­guin for $700 mil­lion and started at­tract­ing some se­ri­ous at­ten­tion to the re­gion. Since then, growth in the in­dus­try has been im­pres­sive; over the past two years, Dis­ney In­ter­ac­tive has been joined by Bardel En­ter­tain­ment (pro­duc­ers of the new Teenage Mu­tant Ninja Tur­tles and Veg­gieTales) and a va­ri­ety of star­tups and other tech gi­ants have grown the sec­tor by 30 per­cent. In 2016, the Fi­nan­cial Post rated Kelowna the most en­tre­pre­neur­ial city in Canada.

Ac­cel­er­ate Okana­gan, are­source hub pro­vid­ing men­tor­ship and fund­ing to Okana­gan-based tech com­pa­nies, re­ports that the tech sec­tor has a whop­ping $1.3-bil­lion im­pact on the lo­cal econ­omy. “Kelowna’s tech boom is partly the re­sult of at­e­ch­nol­ogy evo­lu­tion. The evo­lu­tion of web-en­abled soft­ware means that be­ing cen­trally lo­cated in a large city is no longer manda­tory,” says Judy Bishop, cor­po­rate di­rec­tor and man­ag­ing part­ner at BC In­novex and for­mer ex­ec­u­tive-in-res­i­dence at Ac­cel­er­ate Okana­gan. “Af­ter all, two key el­e­ments that have no coun­try are money and the web.”

As a se­nior pro­gram­mer at Club Pen­guin from 2006 to 2009, Chris Priebe was on the front lines of Kelowna’s tech­nol­ogy surge. Priebe is now CEO of Com­mu­nity Sift, a start-up that uses al­go­rithms to fil­ter through on­line chats, pro­tect­ing plat­forms from trolls, cy­ber­bul­ly­ing and abuse. Two years ago, Priebe set up asatel­lite branch in Van­cou­ver in the hopes of at­tain­ing tal­ent; it was promptly shut down due to high op­er­at­ing costs.

Rather than hunt for a more af­ford­able of­fice in ever-ex­pen­sive Van­cou­ver, “it was eas­ier to re­lo­cate our tal­ent back to Kelowna,” says Priebe. “Who wouldn’t want to trade their one-bed­room apart­ment in Van­cou­ver for a lake­side man­sion?”

Kelowna’s mayor, Colin Bas­ran, points out that it isn’t just en­ter­pris­ing en­trepreneurs who are trans­form­ing the Okana­gan Val­ley: civic in­vest­ment and pol­icy also have helped cu­rate the city’s tech ecosys­tem. Note­wor­thy moves in­clude in­creased ser­vice to the Kelowna In­ter­na­tional Air­port (non-stop flights to 60 des­ti­na­tions have made the Val­ley much more at­trac­tive to vis­it­ing in­vestors) and the cre­ation of the Okana­gan Centre for In­no­va­tion, a mul­ti­storey build­ing des­ig­nated for start-ups, in­vestors and re­search fa­cil­i­ties. In­vest­ment in life­style has also boosted the tech sec­tor: the trans­for­ma­tion of Kelowna’s fruit-pack­ing district into a space for cul­ture and art is in­tended to make even the most ur­bane coder feel right at home. Fri­day nights in Kelowna can be spent en­joy­ing live mu­sic at the Lau­rel Pack­ing­house, a venue ow­ing its vaulted ceil­ings and red-brick walls to a his­tory as B.C.’s old­est and largest pack­ing plant.

How­ever, it’s not all sun­shine in the Okana­gan. Per AO’s im­pact as­sess­ment, Kelowna’s tech in­dus­try ranked “lack of tal­ent” as the largest con­straint to growth. De­spite

Who wouldn’t want to trade their onebed­room apart­ment in Van­cou­ver for a lake­side man­sion?”

en­vi­able of­fice space and ava­ri­ety of em­ployee perks, for the pre­vi­ous two years Csek Cre­ative has been look­ing for em­ploy­ees in mul­ti­ple fields, from app de­vel­op­ment to web de­sign to con­tent strat­egy.

Okana­gan-based post-sec­ondary in­sti­tu­tions are cu­rat­ing adap­tive pro­gram­ming to meet the chal­lenge. Okana­gan Col­lege is work­ing to pro­vide a two-year course in an­i­ma­tion and cod­ing fun­da­men­tals, and, in Septem­ber, UBC Okana­gan will launch a bach­e­lor of me­dia stud­ies pro­gram to train stu­dents in game de­vel­op­ment, web de­sign and in­ter­ac­tive me­dia.

But even with­out afull work­force in place, Kelowna has al­ready changed. On week­ends, tech pro­fes­sion­als join stu­dents, air­line bag­gage han­dlers and fruit pick­ers in venues that were once sou­venir shops to drink pints of Okana­gan­made cider and lis­ten to alt-rock. Lit­tle trace of Kelowna’s for­mer rep­u­ta­tion as a city for the newly wed and nearly dead sur­vives— in­stead, it’s now aglimpse into the Okana­gan’s Sil­i­con Val­ley fu­ture.

UBC’s Okana­gan Cam­pus

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