Vancouver tech’s uncertain future
Tech Journal founder William Johnson explores critical questions looming over the city’s innovation community.
I’m at the intersection of West Georgia and Richards, and there are giants in sight. I spot the offices of Telus and Unbounce. It’s easy to pick out Deloitte Summit, a 24-storey stack of glass and metal cubes; the new home of the accounting firm that bears its name. Its co-tenants include Northeastern University, Accenture, and Apple: the most valuable company in the world. Across the street is The Post, the future home of thousands of Amazon workers. And if I want to walk south for three minutes, I’ll find myself outside of Avigilon, the video analytics firm acquired in 2017 by Chicago-based Motorola for $1.2 billion.
This area is one of many tech clusters in the city. You might even say it's some sort of indication that, in the global innovation space, Vancouver matters. At the very least, it makes you consider that idea, even if the rest of the country won’t.
Ontario-based media and institutions have a longstanding tradition of labelling things “Canadian,” even when referring only to people or companies in their own province.
Local leaders tell me that their city, and BC more broadly, is often slighted. They say the province doesn’t get the attention it deserves on a national level. They point to articles that claim to include key people from across the country, yet omit BC entirely (itbusiness.ca’s Canada’s 2021 Top Women in FinTech and Blockchain is just one example). They criticize whatever methodology LinkedIn has used for its annual top startups ranking, which frequently omits Vancouver firms altogether. They send me events called The Canadian Tech Moment, which feature four Ontario speakers, including three based in Toronto.
But things are changing. The tide is turning, in a way. Because cumulatively, the past two years have made overlooking Vancouver impossible, even for people in the centre of the universe.
So far, the impact of 604 innovators in the third decade of the 21st century has been far too immense to ignore. Here are some highlights.
Pieter Cullis and the life sciences firm he co-founded, Acuitas Therapeutics, laid the foundation for the effectiveness of COVID-19 mRNA vaccines.
Biotech giant AbCellera has earned more than CAD $1 billion in royalties from the COVID-19 antibodies it helped develop. Another marker of its success is the 380,000-square-foot global headquarters it’s building in Mount Pleasant (another tech hub—it’s often referred to as Mount Pixel).
Clio became the world’s first legaltech unicorn (a private company valued at more than $1 billion) and has since become what’s called a centaur (a rare private company that does USD $100 million in annual recurring revenue).
Auto sales marketplace Mintlist was named the top startup in an international business awards program.
NBA Top Shot, the Dapper Labs-created NFT marketplace, passed $1 billion in sales amid an NFT market downturn.
Twenty-one of Canada’s most promising cleantech ventures are based in BC according to Foresight, a national cleantech innovation catalyst.
And just last month, General Fusion CEO Greg Twinney said that his company will demonstrate clean fusion energy technology “at the power plant level” within four years. If successful, this would not only be an energy game-changer, but a world-changer.
But the spotlight can be illuminating—and sometimes what it allows us to focus on are fissures. Chasms between ideas and execution. Between effort and outcomes. Between aspirations and reality.
In Vancouver, what this means is that despite recent accolades, questions remain surrounding the strength and resilience of its innovation economy. They can be categorized into three buckets, starting with talent.
‘We have to stop chasing’
When it comes to the number of people required to fuel the industry, there simply is not enough—even when recent layoffs are taken into consideration. There is a potential gap of 150,000-plus unfilled tech industry positions over the next 10 years, according to data compiled by the BC Tech Association.
It feels like an impossible challenge to overcome because it kind of is. Sheldon Levy, the president of University Canada West, described the issue to me using the analogy of a greyhound chasing a fake rabbit around a race track. The greyhound represents government and institutions, and the hare represents the needs of the economy and the industry, he says.
“We are chasing it, and in some sense, you can say we're successful,” he explained, “because tech is continuing to evolve and grow.” But in a greyhound race, the hare is never caught: “I think the new way of thinking is that we have to stop chasing,” Levy argued. “We have to get ahead of it.”
How do you do that? Is it training a more diverse slate of students? Is it upskilling people from other industries? Is it stealing executives from other sectors? Is it bringing talent from other countries and removing barriers to immigration? It all may not be enough.
Silicon Valley layoffs may drive some Canadian talent to come home. But then the question becomes: Where exactly will people end up living?
Whatever the solutions, the government has a role to play—and there are many more questions about what exactly that is.
Policymakers and business-makers
Ken Sim was elected mayor in October. David Eby was sworn in as premier in November. And although little is known about Eby’s views on tech, his December announcement that Brenda Bailey would be his sector point person has the industry optimistic.
Since I’ve called BC my home, seven different people have led a rotating slate of ministries responsible for tech. In 2013, premier Christy Clark made former BC Liberal Party Leader Andrew Wilkinson the minister of technology, innovation, and citizens’ services, known as MTICS. (It was a weirdly-named ministry, to be sure. The apocryphal story is that this odd-sounding department was created for Wilkinson because “citizen services” alone was not sexy enough. I digress.) After Wilkinson, the government’s primary face of innovation has transitioned through the following politicians: Amrik Virk, Jas Johal, Bruce Ralston, Michelle Mungall, Ravi Kahlon, and now Bailey.
One of the biggest criticisms this government has faced over its time in power is that it “doesn’t do enough for tech.” I actually think the claim is unfair. What can be criticized is its ability to communicate effectively with the industry. But Bailey, an entrepreneur herself, has a good shot at finally putting policymakers and business-makers on the same wavelength.
Nobody will doubt Bailey’s abilities. However, another question is: how much will she be allowed to follow her entrepreneurial instincts and get things done? And to what degree will she crash up against the rugged internal walls of bureaucracy that is every government’s calling card?
Speaking of walls. If there’s one thing that’s holding Vancouver’s tech ecosystem back, figuratively, walls may be it.
Hiring the tech sector’s great convener
I’ve heard a narrative that Vancouver ecosystem actors—associations, incubators, advocacy groups—are all competing for who gets the biggest slice of a fixed funding pie. But I’m not sure that’s true. I don’t think the expansive collection of organizations including DigiBC, VR/AR Association, Life Sciences BC, BC Tech, Venture Labs, Frontier Collective, Invest Vancouver—and so many more—feel like rivals. There’s no strong argument that they’re in direct conflict because it’s not obvious that these organizations pay much attention to each other. Put simply, despite how small Vancouver is, people still don’t talk enough.
That’s not just my opinion: it’s the ecosystem’s. Vancouver Entrepreneurs’ Forum—a rare organization that does actually bring the community together—asked attendees at one of its social events what the city’s most pressing issue is. The top response was “silos.”
I’m sure leaders and organizations are having meetings and talking about things. But whatever is happening right now, whatever roundtables and committees and taskforces are in motion, they may not be going anywhere. We may be missing out on the types of collaborations where the sum of the parts ends up greater than the whole. More directly, we may be missing out on making life easier for Bailey. As it stands, if her team wants to engage the innovation community, it has to have at least two-to-three dozen conversations. Who or what is aggregating data and ideas? Is there a role waiting to be filled there? It feels like the job of “Vancouver (and BC) tech sector convenor” has been vacant for some time. Who’s up to the job?
A shooting tech star
The last Vancouver Tech Journal event of 2022 asked speakers and attendees to score the year in tech out of 10. The highest mark was seven; the lowest was four. And afterwards, Ilya Brotzky, CEO of VanHack, tweeted: “Optimistic about Vancouver's tech ecosystem, but we still have a long, long way to go,” to which one attendee replied, “Unfortunately, I left that panel feeling anything but optimistic.”
For people like that guest, there is a brooding sense of uncertainty in the air. Perhaps it’s just the remnants of the pandemic, a (hopefully) once-in-a-lifetime social and economic event. It could be the recent layoffs that have people uneasy. It could be the sight of former tech darlings that appear to be barely holding on. It could be confusion. Vancouver firms are laying off workers, but Vancouver Tech Journal reporting indicates that others are still raising vast sums of money.
It’s a strange time. Vancouver can feel like a shooting star—at once soaring, heating up, but always on the verge of burning out.
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I’m more worried that if I’m not in tech, will I even be able to afford living in Vancouver at all