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Vancouver economics

World-class talent and environmental activist roots continue to fuel Vancouver’s tech industry growth

One of the drivers of Vancouver’s clean tech sector can be traced back to an unlikely source: Greenpeace.

In 1975, the environmental organization launched its ‘Save the Whales’ campaign in Vancouver, the city where the group was founded four years before. The campaign ignited a worldwide movement and led to an international agreement that ended commercial whaling.

It also anointed Vancouver as a global centre for environmental activism.

And these environmental roots have paid dividends for the city’s technology sector, even 50 years later.

“Environmentalism has been a central part of our cultural ethos for decades,” says Bryan Buggey, Director of Economic Transformation and Climate Action at Vancouver Economic Commission (VEC).

“Who knew this would be a competitive advantage for our city?” Buggey asks rhetorically. “But it is. We have 30% of Canada’s cleantech investment in Vancouver, about 30% of cleantech employment – and only 7% of the population. We’re punching way above our weight.”

A broader trend toward sustainable, purpose-driven businesses, amid the increasingly global battle for talent has primed Vancouver for more general tech sector growth as well.

There are a variety of homegrown unicorns like Hootsuite, Clio, and Dapper Labs, (to name a few), but large international companies such as Intel, Amazon, Salesforce, and Microsoft have also set up shop in Vancouver, dramatically altering the tech landscape.

It’s little wonder that Business Insider ranks Vancouver among the top-15 high-tech cities in the world.

“We have a robust startup ecosystem with a lot of funding available from the angel level, to later stages of investment,” says Hashir Safi, Vancouver Economic Commission’s Manager, Economic Transformation, Innovation and Capital.

“We’ve built programs with industry to address funding challenges: whether it’s a new founder looking to build an MVP or an established organization ready for international scale, Vancouver is an ideal location,” Safi says.

Vancouver has become a premier global centre for tech talent

Vancouver’s tech growth over the last decade has only been possible because of the growing talent pool that calls the city home.

“We’re attracting talent from all over the world because of Vancouver’s appealing lifestyle,” says Buggey. “Global companies are recognizing they can easily set up here. With the immigration policies and caps in the United States, companies are finding that it’s much, much easier to tap into a global technology workforce in Vancouver than in Silicon Valley.”

But it’s not just the size of the talent pool. Buggey stresses that the quality of Vancouver’s tech workers is fueling the growth of the sector.

“We’ve got two advantages. One of them is our post-secondary institutions. SFU (Simon Fraser University) and UBC (University of British Columbia) are really highly ranked globally, and of course nationally I think SFU is a top software development school in Canada.”

“We’ve got one of the most progressive immigration policies in the Global Skills Strategy,” he continues, “it’s been a huge competitive advantage for our companies to get the right kind of talent and the high-quality talent they need.”

So while Vancouver is still faced with a complex, competitive hiring environment — with workers shopping around for flexible and often hybrid working arrangements — Buggey feels confident about the city’s position as an expanding global tech talent hotspot.

“CEOs stay up at night worrying about talent,” he says. “Our entire ecosystem – from our startups to the large multinationals that have set up shop here, to our desirable lifestyle, to the programs we’re driving at the Vancouver Economic Commission – it’s all working together to make Vancouver one of the single best places on the planet to find great tech talent.”

Vancouver’s tech industry is fuelling innovation and growth in other sectors

There’s a cross-pollination happening between Vancouver’s tech industry and other key economic sectors, which will only accelerate in the future, as new economic opportunities arise for companies who are living through digital transformation.

Take the mining sector for instance; along with Perth in Australia and Johannesburg, South Africa, Vancouver houses one of the world’s highest number and concentration of mining company headquarters.

With plenty of available capital, mining companies are investing in tech solutions to reduce their environmental impact and increase the precision of mineral deposit identification.

In mining, there has also been growing enterprise use of digital twins and virtual reality. MineLifeVR, for example, was created by LlamaZOO to fuse complex geospatial and mine planning data into an interactive digital replica of a planned, current, or future mine site.

“Vancouver’s institutional strength in data science, natural language processing, machine learning, computer vision and spatial computing has a deep and reciprocal relationship with the innovation and growth of Vancouver-founded companies,” says Safi.

Outside of mining, other sectors such as visual effects, post-production, and game design, are also transforming with the help of technology.

“Just as championing environmental causes is woven into Vancouver’s cultural fabric, Vancouver’s 50-year history of storytelling has led to artificial intelligence and VR/AR applications in the creation of technical and pipeline tools for the games, visual effects and animation industries,” says Geoff Teoli, acting Vancouver film commissioner.

Virtual, augmented, mixed and extended reality technologies now provide an alternative to building physical sets for film and television, and Vancouver-based Canadian Motion Picture Park is currently home to the world’s largest LED stage.

“The once separate activities of physical production and post-production are now converging into the same space, and same time,” says Teoli. “It’s no longer good enough to have a great film production ecosystem or a great post-production ecosystem — you need both. It is almost like a return to classic filmmaking where all the technologies and the people must be intertwined so everything comes together ‘in-camera’ on the same day. This is where Vancouver really has the advantage.”

Overall, Vancouver has specific characteristics as a tech and creative centre that make it fertile ground for businesses looking to grow and thrive:

A variety of supportive institutions, from academic to government, to economic development

  • Business and professional associations
  • Entrepreneurial culture
  • Mature physical production hub
  • Animation and post-production industries
  • Representation of homegrown headquarters and international offices
  • Robust innovation ecosystem

“Our industry and professional associations… frequently advance policy advocacy, training and sector development,” says Teoli. “These kinds of industry collaborations are usually seen in advanced industry clusters, and don’t get enough credit.”

A global economic engine on Canada’s West coast

Around Vancouver, cranes and work crews are seemingly everywhere as the city adds new commercial and residential buildings and prepares for its next few years of growth.

Beyond the city’s skyline, the mountains and ocean beckon, promising a world-class lifestyle for software engineers and other highly skilled tech workers.
In the tech sector, capital continues to flow into companies of all sizes. For example, LayerZero Labs, a Vancouver-based blockchain technology company, raised $169 million in early-stage capital in the first quarter of 2022. It’s just one of many companies building momentum this year.

South of Vancouver sits Seattle, Portland, and Silicon Valley, creating a natural cluster of vibrant tech-driven cities, all in the same time zone.
Meanwhile, at the Vancouver Economic Commission offices, teams are focused on making the city an ideal location for companies and founders to set up or expand tech businesses.

They’re building out programs like Project Greenlight, which helps accelerate sustainable tech-driven transformation by uniting the region’s public and private companies, and Angels for Climate Solutions, a training program for startups and investors.

“We are incredibly fortunate as a city,” says Buggey. “We have abundant sources of clean drinking water, clean air, and agricultural land reserves. As economic developers we spend considerable time in cities around the world. But every time I come home I have the same thought.

“I challenge anyone to compete with Vancouver.”

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