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How tech trumped tourism in the Okanagan

Kelowna will always rely on visitors from afar - but increasingly, another industry is driving the region.

Not so long ago, tourism was king of the economic hill in Kelowna. Beaches, peaches and wine tours bring about two million visitors to the Central Okanagan every year, resulting in an annual economic impact of approximately $1.25 billion.

In the past couple of years, a new economic engine has roared to life with what appears to be a limitless potential.

“We’re seeing more and more growth stage companies that are scaling up their investment here in Kelowna” says Brea Lake, who was recently named the new CEO of Accelerate Okanagan, a non-profit organization that provides new and growing technology-driven businesses with mentorship and connections to help them succeed.

Brea Lake (L)

With well over 700 technology companies now operating in the region, Kelowna is among the fastest-growing tech hubs in British Columbia with an annual economic impact of $1.7 billion.

“Our goal by 2025 is to increase that annual economic impact to $5 billion,” says Brea.

As the sector develops in a mid-sized Interior city, there are predictable headwinds to overcome. Compared to a large urban center like Vancouver, Kelowna faces a limited talent pool:

“One of the biggest gaps we are hearing about from entrepreneurs is about a shortage of mid- to senior- level talent,” laments Lake.

To help attract more tech-savvy workers to the Okanagan, Lake’s organization recently teamed up with Victoria’s Viatec to help spread the news that help is wanted in the sunny Interior. At present, there are approximately 12,500 people employed in Kelowna’s tech sector; Lake’s goal is to see that number eclipse 20,000 over the next five years.

Accelerate Okanagan is also keenly aware of another daunting challenge for Kelowna’s tech sector vision: money.

“One of the other big gaps that we hear related to a hindrance of growth is having the funds available to take a business to the next level,” says Lake. She notes that over the next two years, one of her top priorities will be to expand a so called “angel investor group” which aims to connect tech investors to up and coming companies in need of capital.

While Kelowna is still in the early stages of a tech boom, the city has already become a hotbed with several companies such as Bardel Entertainment, the animation studio behind Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles).

Lake also points to several other success stories including Pela, a company that moved to Kelowna 18 months ago while developing a sustainable plastic alternative called “flastic” made out of flaxseed. Pela recently grabbed the attention of rapper and investor Jay-Z, who was intrigued by the company’s cell phone cases and sunglasses. It is also fitting that a new app for wine drinkers was recently developed in Kelowna. TasteAdvisor matches a wine drinker’s desired characteristics with a list of recommendations.

Currently employing 11 full time staff and 8 contract workers, Accelerate Okanagan is poised for further growth, with Lake hoping to expand her team to at least 25 in the near future.

With a recent study identifying lifestyle as the No. 1 advantage of operating a tech or tech-enabled business in the Okanagan, industry promoters are confident that ambitious goals for the burgeoning sector are more than realistic.

As always, I welcome your comments and criticism on Twitter @kammornanchor and email [email protected].

Bob Price is a veteran B.C. broadcaster who anchored the morning news on CHNL radio in Kamloops for the past 30 years. Bob is also a past Webster Award winner whose previous stops included Vancouver and Calgary.