Despite the challenges of a small-market size and soaring real estate prices, Vancouver’s tech industry shows no signs of slowing down. The city is fertile ground for startups to set up shop and we have grown a reputation as an incubator for innovative new businesses.
Yet despite receiving top scores for economic performance, Vancouver’s tech market faces a scale-up deficit, with many startups never reaching later stage growth. A shortage of talent and lack of large anchor companies means that we remain a far cry from a globally ranking tech market. While Vancouver is host to satellite offices for tech giants like Amazon and Facebook, we lack a large concentration of corporate headquarters, with only 10.4 per cent of Canada’s top 500 corporations.
While there is no quick fix to scaling Vancouver’s tech industry, building a strong tech community through close collaboration between talent, tech companies and education can attract the anchor companies needed to create a prospering tech ecosystem, as well as scale our homegrown startups.
Build the right kind of talent
In every tech hub there is a universal rule: where big talent lives, big companies will follow. Currently, Vancouver doesn’t have the talent supply to meet a growing demand. The 2016 B.C. Tech Association Talent Report forecast a demand for 47,000 tech workers by 2021, but an available workforce of only 16,500.
By creating a strong foundation of talent, we can attract outside investment in R&D and startups, as well as the presence of international companies who look to take advantage of skilled talent. Vancouver can strengthen its talent pool by providing the right type of education material needed to produce top talent, and quickly. Private companies can assist with this by providing educational institutions with guidance into the types of talent they need, and identifying where the gaps are.
Being able to adapt to the demands of a quickly evolving tech industry is vital to producing top talent. In traditional post-secondary programs, curriculum changes can face a lengthy review process from board members and faculty, making them less likely to keep up with emerging trends in a fast-paced tech landscape. Shorter, immersive education programs can compliment university STEM education by providing highly specialized training in a shorter time frame.
Coding boot camps are becoming increasingly popular for this reason. And no, coding boot camps aren’t a bunch of developers doing pushups. These are shorter-format, immersive models of education that have the ability to adapt their curricula quickly, while allowing employed tech workers to upgrade their skill sets.
Create a close community
In every tech cluster there exists a strong, collaborative relationship in the tech community. Close collaboration between research institutes, schools, talent and companies can create a hub of bright ideas that attract the attention of outside investors, as well as grow local startups. As examples, RIM’s partnership with Ontario’s University of Waterloo and University of Toronto contributed significantly to the creation of the Toronto-Waterloo tech corridor. In Montreal, there is a strong link between the academic research of the city’s top universities, and the innovation of its tech companies. Yoshua Bengio, one of the pioneers of deep learning, attributes the city’s success in AI research and development to this collaborative relationship.
There are small steps we can take toward boosting collaboration in Vancouver’s tech community that can have a huge industry impact. Growing innovation hubs and co-working spaces, for one thing, will provide a platform for the spreading of great ideas. This benefits students by giving them access to mentors and big-industry players, while giving companies access to fresh talent and new ideas needed to grow. Co-working spaces have already gained popularity in Vancouver, with some even tailored to attract specific communities. As an example, our team at Lighthouse Labs runs DevHub, two co-working spaces for developers in Toronto and Vancouver.
Gov’t investment key
Government plays a necessary role in growing Vancouver’s tech industry. Policies and regulations that are conducive to early stage growth can support local startups, while tax breaks for later-stage companies provide incentive to scale. There has been wavering government support for B.C.’s technology sector to date, with investment in a digital technology supercluster in March and pulled support for a local tech business incubator in April.
Government investment in accelerators and incubators to provide financial assistance and mentorship is crucial to achieving high growth, period. Look no further than Tel Aviv, globally renowned as the startup city. They have the highest number of startups per capita in the world, many of which have been acquired by U.S. giants like Walmart and PepsiCo, and the highest investment of GDP in research and development. There, startups are helped by significant tax breaks, along with over 50 accelerators and incubators that provide mentorship and financial assistance.
Vancouver’s tech industry is prospering. With expertise in clean tech, artificial intelligence and game development, a strong talent pool, influx of small businesses and solid educational infrastructure, we have the foundation to scale our industry to compete on a global stage. To get there will require heavy government investment in innovation hubs and business accelerators to grow small businesses, as well as tax incentives to encourage small- and medium-sized enterprises to scale. In the meantime, it’s up to established local businesses to level up tech education by providing insight into labour demand and emerging industry trends and to provide mentorship, expertise and guidance to the city’s existing talent pool.
Jeremy Shaki is co-founder and CEO of Canadian Coding Bootcamp Lighthouse Labs.
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