If you were looking for me at Mobile World Congress, MIT Sloan Sports Analytics or any of the other big tech conferences in the last couple of weeks, you’ll notice I wasn’t there. Instead, I was at the Prairie Investment Forum in Saskatoon, Canada. Sometimes, to find the treasure, you need to dig where others aren’t. Being where others aren’t has been driving my investment strategy as of late, and Saskatoon didn’t disappoint.
The conference was hosted by Saskatoon’s first tech incubator, Co.Labs. Successful companies like Coconut Corporation, which has expanded into Toronto and the US, and Skip the Dishes, which was acquired by UberEats, and Seven Shifts, which received Silicon Valley funding, helped fuel the interest in a local accelerator in Saskatoon. Co.Labs stepped up to fill the need. The conference highlighted tech start-ups from the Canadian prairie cities and was attended by over 400 people, which set a national record for the largest turnout at any incubator event in Canada.
The beauty of looking at tech companies from a different region is that they’re solving problems we wouldn’t encounter in Silicon Valley. For example, there were two companies offering workplace safety products. One of them helps companies manage and improve employee safety, while the other provides a wearable for lone, remote workers and can automatically call 911 if they are injured or in trouble. These are products born out of the oil and agriculture industry that thrives in the plains region.
The event kicked off with a mentoring session, where I was happy to participate and speak to local entrepreneurs. Other mentors included local industry representatives as well as executives and VCs from Toronto and Vancouver. The second day, we heard pitches from several of the companies, and notably, the session was held at the newly-opened Remai Art Gallery in Saskatoon, which houses the largest collection of Picasso linocuts in the world. Saskatoon is emerging as a tech and cultural center in Canada.
Finally, the Mayor of Saskatoon, Charlie Clark, provided the opening remarks to kick off the official conference. I spoke on a panel with other VCs from Vancouver, Toronto and Silicon Valley, which was moderated by Katherine Regnier, CEO of Coconut Corporation, one of Saskatoon’s fast-growing technology companies. The conference also included ExPat sessions for those who are wishing to relocate to Canada.
I’d like to see more of this kind of opportunistic transition in other cities. Saskatoon realized its main industries could be improved by a thriving technological community. Therefore, they proactively took the initiative to grow their tech ecosystem, and in the process, nurtured a valuable new industry. I didn’t have to go to MIT Sloan to see a sports tech company helping athletes improve their movements. Or go to Mobile World Congress to see new mobile companies in consumer, healthcare and other types of industries. Saskatoon and the prairie region of Canada is a diamond and its no longer a diamond in the rough, but one that is starting to shine. I was thrilled to participate and hope to find other cities who are interested in the same kind of transformation.