High-tech booster VIATEC turns 25, its outlook bright

Source: Times Colonist
Author: Andrew Duffy

The organization charged with promoting and advocating on behalf of the Victoria high-tech sector turns 25 today.

And age seems to suit the Victoria Innovation, Advanced Technology and Entrepreneurship Council, the oldest tech association in the province, which may look more vibrant now than when it was first formed in 1989.

These days the organization boasts more than 400 members and speaks on behalf of a sector that has seen incredible growth -- when last measured in 2014 it had an economic impact on Victoria of more than $4 billion.

According to current chief executive officer Dan Gunn, who has been with VIATEC for 15 years, in the early days the Vancouver Island Advanced Technology Centre, as it was then known, worked more closely with government delivering programs to the industry.

“It did have memberships and there was a mandate to be an industry association but a lot of the budget came from program funding from the province and that shaped priorities for the organization,” he said.

That has evolved over time into the current model, which prides itself on both getting the word out about what is now Victoria’s largest and fastest growing private industry -- helping it attract new companies, investment, and potential employees to the city -- while establishing programs to help small and medium-sized companies grow.

Those new incubator programs were built on some of the early mentorship programs VIATEC established in the 1990s under Bob Skene, Bill Cook and Colin Lennox.

Eric Jordan, currently the chief executive officer at video game developer Codename Entertainment, agreed, noting VIATEC’s work with young companies over the entire 25 years has been a huge boon to the industry.

He recalls plenty of support from both Lennox and Cook when he was starting software firm PureEdge Solutions in 1993.

“Now they are building on it, now they do so much more for the whole spectrum of companies,” he said.

VIATEC evolved again when government funding for programs all but dried up around the same time of the dot-com bubble around 2000-01.

Gunn said the organization took some time to find its feet and determine what it was going to look like In 2005 it decided to dedicate itself to the industry, making the priorities and interests of the tech sector its sole purpose.

“We spent five years re-establishing our connection with industry, and then in 2010 we got more ambitious and I think came into our own,” he said.

In the last five years, on top of its programming and advocacy work, VIATEC has significantly expanded its footprint with its own physical downtown base at Fort Tectoria (777 Fort St.), has reached out into the arts and hospitality communities and other groups to partner in festivals, conferences and building the community.

All the while it has sung the praises of the companies growing in the city and beyond.

The result has meant there are few decision makers that don’t realize tech is the region’s largest industry -- 900 companies, employing 22,000 people with revenue of $3.2 billion and an economic impact of more than $4 billion.

“VIATEC has played an important role in the community by bringing together programs that facilitate and encourage technology, entrepreneurship and innovation,” said Alex Mendelev, co-founder of design studio Tiny Mob Games. “With VIATEC, every technology venture in Victoria not only has access to resources, but an opportunity to engage and connect with a rich network of professionals.”

Gunn said VIATEC’s growth and that of the local tech sector is a product of timing as much as anything else.

“I’m confident in saying VIATEC has played a key role in raising awareness of the importance, impact and vibrancy of the sector and that has led to more investors looking at the region, more employers and potential employees looking at the region,” he said.

The change is pretty incredible since the early days.

The Times Colonist in 1994 quoted Skene as saying there were 125 tech companies in the region, with as many as 300 on the Island. The Island tech industry’s combined revenue at the time was estimated to be about $200 million.

“It’s been such a transition,” said Jordan, noting he grew up in Victoria and for years all anyone ever heard about was the impact of tourism on the region. “Now the unquestioned statement is that tech is our largest industry.”

Jordan said that messaging is due in large part to VIATEC’s work to promote the sector and unite the various groups within it.

Gunn believes the city has also played a big role.

“I feel in the last eight to 10 years Victoria itself has become more entrepreneurial, exciting and innovative,” he said. “That’s partly because of demographic shift and definitely due to industry shift, and that plays into the hands of a growing innovation sector.”

Gunn said VIATEC’s next strategic plan includes some new wrinkles, including more focus on established companies, helping to bring together investors and growing firms and perhaps establishing a foundation to connect tech companies with the local community’s needs.

Elton Pereira, co-founder of ParetoLogic, said VIATEC has been a strong supporting partner that has “engaged the local and international communities promoting technology, innovation, job opportunities and diversity in the workplace.

“It has been a big year for VIATEC, in particular, they have had success as an incubator for young tech startups and ambitious entrepreneurs. They have some great momentum and I look forward to hearing more success stories coming out of their program.”