March 23, 2017
Back in November, I wrote about reaching beyond Silicon Valley (link to blog post) to encourage innovation in other cities and towns. The next industrial revolution will be all about technology, and cities who are not preparing for that may be left behind like we’ve seen in some of the regions who relied too long on outdated manufacturing and energy economies.
A couple of weeks ago, I visited Saskatoon, Canada to learn more about their burgeoning tech industry and how to support the start-ups in the area. I attended an event called “Flip the Switch,” which was about turning on the tech industry infrastructure needed to make Saskatoon entrepreneurs successful without having to move to Silicon Valley.
Canada is the fastest growing country in the G7, and Saskatoon is the 3rd fastest growing city in Canada. Saskatoon was also named one of three cities to watch for tech job growth in Canada. With travel bans and uncertainty in America this year, Canada has been trying to lure many tech companies to open offices there. Most tech companies find Vancouver most like Silicon Valley, but like Silicon Valley, it is very expensive. Toronto has attracted many companies with its proximity to top universities. But Saskatoon is making its mark, and I thought it was worth exploring how this city and the province of Saskatchewan is working to incentivize tech growth.
I met with several tech companies in Saskatoon and listened to their company pitches, their successes and their challenges. I also met with several government officials who were kind enough to provide some of the data and statistics I cited in the above paragraph.
The biggest difference between Silicon Valley and any other city or area that wants to grow its tech business is simply the infrastructure. Silicon Valley lives and breathes tech every day. We have universities, VCs, entrepreneurs, large tech enterprises, lawyers, marketing people, etc. who all understand the tech industry. That adds up to a large amount of resources that are completely devoted to helping technology companies grow and thrive and have unprecedented experience. Deals get done in coffee shops and at school drop-offs because everyone is in the business. That’s very hard to duplicate.
Therefore, what cities like Saskatoon need is more tech companies. That is why they had this event. They want to demonstrate that Saskatoon and Saskatchewan have the people and infrastructure to support growing tech companies.
That may or may not be true right now, but as more tech companies look to set up hubs in Canada, Saskatoon could be worth a look. There are solid universities in the area, growing investments, and the government is committed to making the area attractive to tech companies. Plus, the cost of living is very attractive. In the past, the region has mostly brought in oil and gas, agriculture, mining and ranching. These industries are ripe for innovation, but there’s also start-ups in enterprise and consumer software. Coconut Calendar is a good example. As you recall, Katherine Regnier, the CEO of Coconut Calendar, is one of the Neal’s Running Start entrepreneurs and she organized this event to get the tech companies organized. That’s a great start. Just getting the support systems talking to each other will go a long way to retaining and attracting new tech companies.
Since my return the potential investment opportunities have been encouraging. I have been contacted by a few Saskatoon based companies as well as two in Calgary. They all have early sales traction and in one case multiple millions in revenue all with minimum levels of Investment or no outside funding. That’s a nod to the hard work and dedication of small-town people who expect to succeed on their own merits. I’m continuing to investigate these companies and have been happy to receive several other referrals from the Saskatchewan government.
Saskatoon has a long way to go before it becomes a new technology hub. But this kind of commitment from the local community, businesses, universities and the government are exactly what I was talking about in my previous blog. Tech innovation is going to have to spread out, and Saskatoon is a great example of how a city can make a strategic plan to be well-positioned for the next economy. I look forward to my next visit.
For more information, have a look at a radio and TV interview Katherine and I did during my visit: