4 Years in Vancouver: The Rise of a Tech Giant

By BrainStation June 13, 2018

It feels like yesterday, but it’s now been four years since BrainStation started offering digital skills training in Vancouver.

In that time, we’ve seen the city blossom into a tech giant on the rise: B.C. now has more than 100,000 people working in the tech sector, representing roughly five percent of its workforce. That’s more than the mining, oil, gas, and forestry industries — combined.  

How did it get there? To celebrate our city (and our anniversary), we decided to take a look back.  Here are some of the most important Vancouver tech industry stories from the last four years.  

2015 – A Maple Syrup Mafia?

BrainStation first started offering part-time courses in Vancouver in 2015. At the time, we operated out of Suite Genius, a co-working space in Mount Pleasant. Dubbed “Mount Pixel,” the area was starting to see a glut of tech companies setting up shop, including Evolve Digital Media, Gener8, Switch United, The Capital, Odyssey Media Inc., and more. In fact, right around that time, Hootsuite announced plans to build a massive tech hub in the area.

Hootsuite tech hub
Credit: urbanYVR

The BC Technology Industry Association (BCTIA) had also just announced the launch of HyperGrowth, B.C.’s only second-stage revenue accelerator. The HyperGrowth program provides a residency in the BCTIA Innovation Hub, as well as mentorship from Vancouver tech companies like ACL, BuildDirect, and Alacrity Foundation.

Not long after, Sony Pictures Imageworks unveiled a new 74,000 square-foot headquarters in the Pacific Centre mall, downtown.

Sony Picture Imageworks Vancouver
Credit: Sony Pictures Imageworks

Sony Pictures Imageworks had first opened a production office in the city in 2010, with a staff of 80. With their new office space, though, this number increased to 700 employees in B.C., and they were looking to fill 100 more positions.

By the time the summer rolled around, a wave of acquisitions hit the local tech scene. First, Intel announced they were acquiring Recon, the local makers of Recon Jet™ smart eyewear. Soon after, UrtheCast Corp., a public, Vancouver-based earth observation company, announced that it had acquired Deimos Imaging, a Spanish company that operates a remote sensing system.

Just a few weeks later, The Match Group, the global operator of digital dating sites like Tinder and OkCupid, among others, announced it had acquired PlentyOfFish (POF) for a whopping $575 million in cash.

In many ways, the sale of POF was a signal that something in the city had changed. 

In 2013, Ryan Holmes, the founder of Vancouver-based Hootsuite, had talked about creating a “maple syrup mafia.” Holmes was referencing the so-called PayPal Mafia — PayPal employees who emerged from that company’s sale to Ebay to fund startups like Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, and Yelp (among others).

Hootsuite founder Ryan Holmes
Credit: Ryan Holmes, LinkedIn

“The PayPal buyout gave some very young, very ambitious people the confidence to try for another big win and an experienced network to fund them,” Holmes wrote in Fortune. He planned to grow “an amazing, billion-dollar-plus company in Vancouver,” so that “when (and if) a liquidation event happens, the HootSuite team will be left with financial resources, network, and a lot of expertise — key ingredients for a Maple Syrup Mafia.”

The sale of POF validated Holmes’ instincts. After all, if Markus Frind, POF’s famously work-averse founder could develop a business worth $575 million, why couldn’t you build a billion-dollar company in Vancouver?

“We’ve got tech entrepreneurs. We’ve got tech incubators. We’ve got world-class universities.” — Ryan Holmes, Founder, Hootsuite.

Frind clearly believed in the local scene: following the sale of his company, he invested $9 million in Grouplend, an online lender, and $18 million in online furniture retailer Cymax Stores Inc. He wasn’t alone. According to the BC Technology Report Card released by the BC Tech Association (and KPMG), early-stage venture capital financing deals increased from just over 100 deals in 2013 to 230 in 2015.

Leading the way was Trulioo, global identity verification service, which raised $15 million in financing from American Express Ventures. This was the first investment by Amex in a Canadian startup, and the largest technology financing deal of 2015 in Canada.

Not far off was PHEMI, a software provider for the healthcare industry, which announced it had raised a $12.2 million round of venture financing. The financing was co-led by CTI Life Sciences Fund (CTI) and British Columbia Discovery Fund (Discovery Capital). It also included participation from BDC Capital Healthcare Venture Fund and Yaletown Venture Partners (who we will hear from again). Meanwhile, Wiivv, a wearables company that creates custom 3D-printed footwear, closed $3.5 million in seed funding.

And finally, after nearly six years of development and construction, TELUS and Westbank Projects Corp. opened TELUS Garden, a million-square-foot, $750-million complex, which the Global and Mail said “perfectly encapsulates Vancouver urbanism in 2016: designed for sustainability, touched by progressive politics, engineered for profit.”

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson at Telus Garden
Credit: Vancouver Mayor’s Office

2016 – The Province Steps Up

2016 picked up where 2015 left off, with a wave of financing deals and the unveiling of new office spaces, but additional provincial resources and support kicked things up a notch. 

It all started with Bench, an online bookkeeping service for small businesses and independent contractors, announced that it closed a $20 million Series B up-round funding. This brought total capital raised by the company to $33 million.

Right around the same time, BrainStation set up shop at 1110 Hamilton Street, in a space previously occupied by Electronic Arts. We were in good company, sharing the block with United Games, Slack, and SAP, who would, later that year, unveil an 11-million renovation of a 200,000-square-foot office in the same neighborhood.

“Vancouver is a hotbed for tech talent.” — Kirsten Sutton, Managing Director, SAP Labs Canada.

Two months later, Microsoft opened a 142,000-square-foot office in the top two floors of the Pacific Centre mall, in the process doubling their workforce in the city (to 750 employees).

“As a global company we are always assessing where we should be in the world, where’s the talent, where’s the opportunity, where the right combination of factors is to consider growing our business and our workforce,” Karen Jones, then Microsoft’s Deputy General Counsel, told the Vancouver Sun. “A year-and-a-half, two years ago we started looking at that and we looked at various locations around the world and Vancouver rose to the top.”

Microsoft Vancouver Justin Trudeau
Credit: Microsoft

This wasn’t just lip service: Microsoft had made a large investment in Vancouver, spending $100 million designing and building the state-of-the-art office space, which shortly after, would be the setting for the inaugural Microsoft Vancouver TechFoos Challenge (not to be confused with TechPong, the charity ping pong tournament between Vancouver tech companies). Dubbed “the biggest foosball tournament in Canada,” the competition featured 33 Vancouver tech companies, including Hootsuite, Quietly, Bench, ACL, Trulioo, and more.

Credit: Microsoft

Not to be outdone, Slack would also complete a renovation of its 21,000 square-foot office; a space so dynamic and inviting, Co-Founder and CEO Stewart Butterfield now splits his time between Vancouver and San Francisco.

“Being at Slack, especially now, will be similar to having worked at Google, Facebook, or Apple in the mid 2000s,“ he said at the office’s official unveiling.

Stewart Butterfield, Slack Vancouver
Credit: Business in Vancouver

To build on all this momentum, the Government of British Columbia launched the BC Tech Fund, a $100 million venture capital fund to help local tech companies scale and grow.

“B.C.’s technology sector is consistently growing faster than the overall economy, making this the perfect time to catch the wave and help smaller companies join in the ranks of economy builders,” said then-Premier Christy Clark.

Christy Clark BC Tech Fund
Credit: Business in Vancouver

The BC Tech Fund has $25 million earmarked for direct investment in early-stage companies, with the remaining $75 million allocated to venture capital funds, which are required to invest in B.C.-based startups. That first year, the Fund invested in Mojio, a fast-growing, Vancouver-based open platform for connecting cars. Just two months later, Mojio would announce the closing of a $15 Million Series A round of financing.

Injecting capital into the market was only part of the province’s strategy for the local tech sector. They also introduced a plan to add basic digital skills to child education.

“Part of the goal of including coding is creating that confidence in students who feel like they can control technology, rather than just be users of it at a young age,” John Jacobson, Deputy Minister of Technology, Innovation and Citizens’ Services told Betakit.

Working with the BC Innovation Council, the province then launched the now annual #BCTECH Summit. The event’s goal was to showcase made-in-B.C. innovations, provide networking opportunities, and host keynotes on topics like fintech, big data, and more. This was the first time an event like this had been organized in Vancouver, and it has since become a key meeting point for all things digital, with more than 2,000 people attending every year.

BC Tech Summit
Credit: The Ubyssey

The province also benefited from federal government policies in 2016. Canada’s Startup Visa program, for example, helped bring Huzza Media to Vancouver. South African founders Justin Womersley and Nick Smit moved their company from Silicon Valley to Vancouver in 2016 with the help of the program, which gives permanent residency to entrepreneurs interested in starting  a company in Canada. Although no one would know it at the time, the move would soon help lure Kickstarter to Vancouver, but more on that later.

In October, Quark Venture Inc., a Canadian venture capital company, and GF Securities Company Limited, an investment bank in China, announced a $500 (USD) million health sciences venture fund based in Vancouver. The fund, which is the largest of its kind in Canada, will invest globally in a diversified portfolio of biotechnology and health sciences companies.

That same month, Vancouver-based venture capital firm Campfire Capital closed a new $41.1 million venture capital fund focused on technology-driven consumer products and retail companies. Campfire Capital is backed by over 50 consumer and retail veterans with experience at brands like lululemon athletica, Starbucks, Nike, Aldo, Zara, DAVIDsTEA and Nasty Gal.

Right around the same time, Mio Global, creator of a wrist-based heart rate monitoring technology, announced $15M (USD) in funding, led by Hydra Ventures.

In November, Vancouver-based Bit Stew Systems Inc. was purchased by General Electric Co. in a deal valued at $153-million (USD). Yaletown Partners Inc., the firm that led Bit Stew’s Series A venture-capital round in 2013, reportedly made $22.5-million from the sale.  This was turning out to be a banner year for Yaletown Partners, as in April they had announced a new $135 million venture capital fund to invest in emerging growth companies.

That same month, BDC Capital announced the launch of a $135-million venture capital fund to support Canadian energy and cleantech start-up businesses. The goal of the fund is to invest in 15 to 20 new, high-impact Canadian startups.

Finally, in December, Netmarble Games Corp., the fastest-growing mobile game company in Asia, announced an agreement to acquire the Vancouver studio of Kabam, the creator of  “Marvel: Contest of Champions.”

Kabam Vancouver studio
Credit: Techvibes

The Wall Street Journal reported that Kabam had received several offers for the studio in the range of $700 to $800 million, and that the sale price was in that range.

2017 – Amazon and Beyond

2017 continued the frenzied pace of financing and acquisition activity, with over $1.3 billion in capital raised. Kickstarter kicked it all off, announcing that it had acquired the aforementioned Huzza Media, which would become a Vancouver division of the crowdfunding giant, with a newly opened space in Gastown.

Kickstarter Vancouver office
Credit: Kickstarter

Soon after, Article, an e-commerce furniture and home decor company, announced it would be relocating its headquarters to Strathcona, with a 115,000 square-foot, restored historic building at 1010 Raymur Avenue.

On the financing front, Vision Critical, a provider of customer intelligence software, led the way, pulling down the third largest venture capital deal in all of Canada with a $76 million VC financing.

Visier, a cloud-based analytics platform for HR professionals, was not far behind, closing Canada’s fourth largest venture capital financing with a $61 million financing. This brought Visier’s total funding to $94.5 million.

In April, Tasktop, a value stream management solution for software organizations, raised $15 million in a round led by AVX Partners, and joined by Austin Ventures and Yaletown Partners. The latter also invested in the company’s $11 million Series A round in 2014.

In the fall, 1QB Information Technologies Inc., a software company that uses advanced quantum theory to solve computational challenges, announced the close of a $45 million Series B round comprising equity and revenue contracts.

And in December, ACL, a SaaS provider helping governments and companies fight fraud, announced that it had accepted a $50 million minority investment by Norwest.

To help keep track of all the activity in the sector, the BC Tech Association launched the BCTechBase, a database that provides information on more than 3,000 of the province’s technology companies, including recent financing and acquisition activity, growth stage, and workforce size.

“The BCTechBase is really intended to be a resource that can track companies as they progress over time, and provide the kind of dataset that we need to measure our progress as an ecosystem,” Bill Tam, president and CEO of the BC Tech Association, told BetaKit.

Fittingly, in October, the Vancouver Economic Commission (VEC) submitted the Vancouver region’s proposal for Amazon HQ2, which highlights the city’s unbeatable quality of life, the presence of world-class companies (like Slack, Microsoft, Boeing, Tableau and Electronic Arts), and the fact that six out of the 10 largest global tech companies currently operate in B.C.

The same month the VEC submitted the Amazon bid, BrainStation unveiled a state-of-the-art, 20,000 square-foot campus.

BrainStation Vancouver Campus

Converted from a yoga studio, BrainStation Vancouver might be our best campus yet (apologies to New York and Toronto), with bright, comfortable classrooms, event spaces and lounges, and our very own coffeehouse — Quantum Coffee.

BrainStation Vancouver

2018 – On the Shoulders of Giants

2018 kicked off with a bang, with PCI Developments and Low Tide Properties announcing a new, seven-storey office development at 565 Great Northern Way. Designed for what they called “the emerging digital media and creative sectors,” the development will offer 160,000 square feet of office space.

If you’re losing track of all the square footage mentioned so far, this is the equivalent of adding almost a tenth of the current office space in downtown Vancouver to the False Creek area.

“This is big news for a city that now has the second lowest downtown office vacancy rate in North America and limited new supply coming to market,” said Blair Quinn, Executive Vice President at CBRE Canada. “This adds significant supply to an emerging neighborhood that has been endorsed by the global and local creative and tech companies, including the first tenants into this new building.”

So far, Blackbird Interactive Game Studio, Spaces (a provider of co-working spaces), and Samsung have all signed pre-leases.

PCI Developments Vancouver
Credit:  PCI Developments Corp.

In February, the Government of Canada announced that the B.C.-led Digital Technology Supercluster was one of the funding recipients for its Innovation Supercluster Initiative. The Supercluster has more than 350 member organizations, and is expected to create 50,000 new jobs and pump $15 billion in GDP into B.C.’s economy over the next decade.

“Vancouver is home to an incredibly talented and diverse workforce.” — Alexandre Gagnon, Vice President of Amazon Canada and Mexico.

In April, Amazon announced plans to expand its Vancouver Tech Hub, creating an additional 3,000 jobs (in e-commerce technology, cloud computing, and machine learning). The company is also planning to expand into a new location in QuadReal’s The Post redevelopment.  

Trudeau at Amazon announcement
Credit: Justin Trudeau/Twitter

Facebook will also be opening a new office at 200 Burrard Street, on the southeast corner of Canada Place Way. However, a spokesperson for the company told the DailyHive that this may not happen until late 2018.

Microsoft, meanwhile, pledged to invest in the study of a high-speed transportation system between Vancouver and Seattle. “Shorter travel times between Vancouver and Seattle would support new tech partnerships and investment opportunities between our neighbors to the south and our growing tech sector here in B.C.,” said Bruce Ralston, Minister of Jobs, Trade and Technology.

On the homefront, BrainStation Vancouver continued to develop into a unique tech community hub. Our challenge with the new campus was to meet increasing demand (with bigger classes and full-time programs), while still replicating the dynamic ecosystems we’ve created in markets like New York and Toronto.

“We wanted to do our part to support the exponential growth in the local tech sector, and we’ve succeeded,” said Kyle Treleaven, Brainstation Vancouver’s General Manager. “Our campus has evolved into a really unique tech community hub, which we’re very proud of,” he said.

Since the campus’ opening, BrainStation has worked with instructors from some of the most innovative companies, including Slack, Amazon, Microsoft, Hootsuite, and more. We’ve also been fortunate to host keynotes and panel discussions with leading industry experts, including:

  • Igor Faletski, CEO of Mobify
  • Daniel Eberhard, CEO of Koho
  • Justin Bones, Director of Global Ecommerce at Herschel Supply Company
  • Ian Crosby, Co-Founder and CEO of Bench
  • Farhan Mohamed, Editor-in-Chief and Partner at Daily Hive
  • Penny Wilson, Chief Marketing Officer of Hootsuite
  • Dr. Gerri Sinclar
  • Michael Gorkturk, former CEO of Payfirma and current CEO of Einstein Exchange
  • Natalie Cartwright, Co-Founder and COO of Finn.ai
  • Sean Clark, former CEO of Shoes.com and current CEO of First Block Capital

BrainStation eCommerce Panel

Most importantly, graduates from our full-time programs in Vancouver are now working at companies like Deloitte, Invoke, lululemon, Shopify, PwC, Bench, and Canucks Sports and Entertainment, among many others.

So, as you can see, a lot has happened since 2015, but just like the city of Vancouver itself, we’re only getting started…and the best is yet to come.

Inspired? Find out more about our courses and programs in Vancouver