Victoria becoming the little tech town that could

When you think of Victoria, the capital city of British Columbia, a few things might come to mind. Windy weather. Historic buildings. Maybe even the throngs of retirees. But you probably don’t think of Victoria as a hub for technology.

Changing that thinking is the goal of Victoria Advanced Technology Council (VIATeC), the industry association for Victoria’s high-tech sector since 1989. Through advocacy, promotion, networking and mentoring, VIATeC has been working to address the collective and individual needs of Victoria’s approximately 800 technology companies in an effort to strengthen and grow Victoria’s tech sector.

But, in the words of VIATeC Executive Director Dan Gunn [pictured], “tech sector” might not be the best word. To Gunn, who has been with VIATeC since 2000, “tech community” is a more accurate word to describe what his organization is fostering in the capital city, and indeed, that sense of community is a source of strength for companies in Victoria.

“If you talk to people who are veterans of tech sectors, the one thing they say they all notice when they came here was how well tech companies here have a sense of community,” Gunn told Techvibes. “Their willingness to share information, to share experiences, to share mistakes, and to help each other grow. That’s something that you just don’t see in other cities.”

While Gunn acknowledges a sort of community-mindedness in Victoria that he hasn’t seen elsewhere, the nature of Victoria’s technology sector probably has far more to do with the sense of community than any hippy-dippy notions of peace and love. Gunn paints Victoria’s high-tech sector (sorry, community) as being less flashy than the ones found in Silicon Valley or Eastern Canada. There are no Apples, IBMs, Microsofts or Research in Motions here. Instead, tech companies represented by VIATeC tend to fly under the radar because they are focused on “micro-niches” with few competitors worldwide, and almost certainly none here. This means few companies are in direct competition with each other, and it’s easier for everyone to get along.

So, while tech companies in Victoria aren’t working on sexy consumer electronics or other big-name gadgets, they’re dominating in other markets — things like cleantech, aerospace and information technology.

“Your typical Victoria tech company is going to be doing somewhere in the range of $5–15 million a year, but they’re going to be competing in a marketplace that’s maybe $100 million worldwide, and they’re probably going to be number one,” he said. “Very few of the companies here are competing with each other and so helping a colleague or member of a peer group from another company is an easy thing to do because it won’t impact your day-to-day operations. The willingness of these companies to share their experiences, and their mistakes and help each other along and give advice really makes Victoria special.”

The under-the-radar nature of many of these companies may have helped build the great community in town, but it’s a double-edged sword. Anonymous companies in an anonymous technology hub have trouble attracting new talent and investment, and for Gunn and VIATeC, that’s an area to focus on.

The Greater Victoria region has a lot of strong selling points, and Gunn, like other technology evangelists from the area are quick to point these out. The high number of colleges and universities, the communications infrastructure, the mild weather, the recreational opportunities, two direct flights daily to San Francisco, and the list goes on.

“Going forward, I think some of the challenges we face is … for investors to know that there are lots of opportunities,” he said. “It’s a $2 billion a year industry with 800 technology companies doing business here, but they don’t really sell anything at the consumer level so the branding efforts aren’t the same. As a result it largely goes unnoticed by a lot of people. That’s started to change here in Victoria, but it’s still something that needs to be conveyed to people in other cities. I often let people know that if you can imagine San Francisco as full of Canadians, that’s Victoria.”

VIATeC is planning a multi-pronged campaign for 2011 to increase awareness of Victoria as a technology destination. They are planning to launch a new website, (which is not online, as of this writing), which will highlight Victoria’s many positive aspects for a place to live and work. Travel between San Francisco and Eastern Canada is on the docket, both to promote investment, attract employees and attend job fairs for students to let them know about Victoria.

Another project is a startup incubator plan in conjunction with the University of Victoria. If funding for this plan is approved by the government, 20–25 new start-ups can be housed at the Vancouver Island Technology Park, home to VIATeC’s head offices and less than 10 kilometres away from UVic.

Gunn says that VIATeC has its work cut out for them, but there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic.

“When I first came to Victoria in 2000 … I found that locally they thought technology wasn’t a story and nobody was interested,” he said. “I can tell you that 10 years later people who live here know that the number one industry is technology and it’s thriving.”