The Okanagan Valley - A Tech Commercialization Primer

Posted by Scott Valentine

Major Players

The Okanagan Science and Technology Council (OSTEC) is the region's lead not-for-profit tech boster. According to OSTEC's most recent financial statements, that organization spent a little less than $500,000 last year - up about a third from 2007 - with 40% of that going direct to marketing and promotions. OSTEC likes to talk-up the GigaCenter (note goofy American spelling), which has the reputation of being one of the safest and greenest data centre locations in the world.

Tween social network Club Penguin became the local tech diva after being acquired by Disney in 2007. CP still advertises a few jobs out of Kelowna but has been described to me by several local players as "A closed shop." That's a damn shame, in my opinion. Kitchener Waterloo is-what-it-is because RIM and the people who built that company have heavily re-invested in the KW region, both financially and by personally reaching out to the emerging tech community. Great tech communities grow from the inside out.

Schools, Research Facilities and Transfer Agents

UBC Okanagan offers an undergrad degree in Computer Sciences and has a good reputation for its various Engineering and Environmental Sciences offerings, but there's nary an MBA in sight, though Okanagan College is trying to pick up the slack with a BBA degree. The local UBC University Industry Liasion Office (UILO) shares resources with the Vancouver campus, with a claimed output of 7 new spin-off companies and $5.8 million in royalties and liquidated equity for the 2007/2008 period. 

The privately-run Centre for Arts and Technology in Kelowna offers progams in Digital Media Design and 3D Game Animation, but instructs mostly on PC-based software, thereby earning my regional nomination for the WTF Were You Thinking? award. 

Incubators and Skills Development

The Okanagan Research and Innovation Centre (ORIC) manages high-tech business incubators aimed primarily at nurturing start-ups and sustaining existing high-growth technology companies. ORIC has a good rep in the area among area entrepreneurs for the organization's strong online resource library, reasonable rates, involvement in the budding OkanaganMentors.com effort, and it's close associations with the NRC in Penticton and Centre of Excellence in Kelowna. On first blush, I'd put ORIC's capabilities after just four years of operation on-par with, or better than, several other regional incubators of longer tenure and much greater funding. Kudos to Peter Haubrich and his team.

People With Money

The Okanagan Innovation Fund (OIF) uses a Private Equity Fund as its investment vehicle of choice. Preferred investments are post beta, showing evidence of commercialization and in the early private equity stages. OIF has made about 16-plus investments, each in the $100,000 to $250,000 range, since 2005. Some of the companies in OIF's portfolio include SignaLink Technologies, Wear Air Oxygen and Waveteq. Last year, OIF announced a partnership with the Southern Interior Development Initiative Trust (SIDIT) but it's been pretty quiet since then - no news releases on the site, anyway.

The Okanagan Partnership looks at the bigger economic development and sustainability picture for the region but has information technologies in its vision. The usual provincial players, such as WINBC and New Media BC, have some footprint, as well.

There's Angel money around - often dripping with Alberta oil - but access seems to work on a who-you-know model. The local Angel network, OKAngels.org, requires sponsorship to get in the door. They hold events once a month, or so, claiming 20 or 30 Angels in attendance at each session. I've sent a request off to attend the next session in the hope of sourcing some up-and-coming Okanagan emerging techs to profile for you.

Community Events

OSTEC runs a series of pay-for-play education and networking events you can find on their calendar. There's also a nice looking South Okanagan High-Tech Roundtable Event at the Penticton Chamber of Commerce Board Room on Wednesday, October 7th, from 16:00-18:00 that I'm going to check out. 

Unfortunately, there's a complete lack of demo/bar camps in the area. To me, these type of informal gatherings are the front lobby and public market of of any great tech community. Maybe there's a local entrepreneur who wants to take the bull by the horns and organize something similar to a TechWing event like Reg Cheramay runs in Edmonton, or the very hip Tech Lounge event out of CTI in Calgary -- it needs doing. I'll volunteer to MC the first event and cover it for TechVibes.

Who's Next?

Element Four has a gizmo that makes fresh, potable water out of thin air, which is wicked cool and hits a sweet, timely spot in the market. Quantech Software makes top-of-the-line dealership management software and draws rave reviews for it's customer support. Vineyard Networks' online network monitoring and management solutions have drawn Health Canada's business and maybe some dough from New Ventures BC as one of the province's 10 Best New Business Ideas -- we'll find out September 24th.

Summary

  • The Silicon Vineyard is a nascent but quite promising tech community. It'd be nice to see an MBA program in the region and Club Penguin needs to become a more visible and proactive corporate citizen for the area to truly blossom. ORIC is on track to becoming a world-class tech incubator;
  • The VC scene is smallish, reserved and a bit long in the tooth. An iNovia or any other outfit of that ilk could swoop in here and take over the whole scene pretty easily, but who's courting them?;
  • Local tech entrepreneurs will be well-served to organize their own, informal events to meet and explore opportunities outside of the mold of traditional, institutionally-driven tutelage;
  • Oh, and an area surrounded by so many beautiful lakes needs a few more waterfront patios :)
Company:
Okanagan Science & Technology Council
Website:
http://www.ostec.ca
Location:
Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada

The Okanagan Science & Technology Council (OSTEC), a membership driven organization, fosters an environment that supports science and technology initiatives by acting as a representative and advocate for the interests of members and the business community as a whole. We are a conduit that brings people together, partnering with industry, agencies and government. OSTEC's Mission Statement is to foster the... more

In March of 2005, New Horizon Interactive set out to create an online world for kids where they could safely play games, have fun and interact. As parents and Internet specialists, New Horizon''s owners wanted to develop a place they’d be comfortable letting their own kids visit. The Club Penguin team got to work, consulting with educators, law enforcement representatives and other parents, doing extensive... more

Company:
Vineyard Networks
Website:
http://www.vineyardnetworks.com
Location:
Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada

Vineyard Networks provides you with the tools to maximize the performance of your applications over your MPLS network. The products and services from Vineyard Networks provides you with the industry's first solution set designed specifically for MPLS Networks: MPLS Best Practices MPLS Reporting MPLS Monitoring Class of Service (CoS) Management MPLS and Network Security With Vineyard Networks you can ensure the... more

Company:
Element Four
Website:
http://www.elementfour.com
Location:
Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada

Element Four is a marketing and Research and Development company focused on the development of atmospheric water generators, or what we prefer to call WaterMills. While the vast majority of our planet is covered with water, only 2.5% is fresh, and less than 1% is readily accessible to humans. One in five people lack safe drinking water. The water wars will only intensify in the next ten years, as places like the... more


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Scott Valentine

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