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The office of Csek Creative, a web design company, is a tech worker’s paradise. The cubicle-free, open-space 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 start-ups 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, a resource 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 a technology 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.”
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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 a satellite 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 multi-storey 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 enviable office space and a variety 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 a full 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 Okanagan-made 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 a glimpse into the Okanagan’s Silicon Valley future.