Growth plans include attracting entrepreneurs and other talent from the U.S. and elsewhere in Canada, says the region’s head of economic development

Corie Griffiths took an unconventional route to her current role as director of economic development for the Regional District of Central Okanagan. The California native, who has a BSc in recreation administration, started out by working for her home state’s parks system. “I met my now-husband in my last year, moved to Canada for love, did some work on the non-for-profit sector and parks and recreation,” Kelowna-based Griffiths recalls.

Since joining the Regional District 15 years ago as a research and marketing assistant in economic development, the self-described “local-government geek” has risen through the ranks. Besides serving as chair of technology startup incubator Accelerate Okanagan, she’s an executive board member of the Victoria-based Local Government Management Association and the Economic Development Association of Canada.

As part of her day job with the Central Okanagan Economic Development Commission, Griffiths helps support the region’s diverse tech sector—which is growing rapidly, even if Vancouver and Victoria get most of the attention here in B.C. We chatted with her about the local industry’s strengths and prospects, as well as Kelowna’s pitch to host the federal government’s proposed regional economic development agency.

For the complete interview, check out the BCBusiness Podcast.

Why do you think some people are surprised to hear that the Okanagan is an entrepreneurial hotbed with a thriving tech sector?

I think it’s a few things. One is that as Canadians, we don’t tend to boast about our geography or our success. And maybe now as a dual citizen, that’s something I can see or observe. I think the other piece is when you are here in the Kelowna region or in the Central Okanagan, you’re hit first by its world-class beauty. So those typical things that you probably could find in other places—mountains, lakes, clean air—until you’re here, you don’t understand the magnitude.

And it’s the rate of speed that we’ve grown. By population—the Kelowna region is the fastest-growing population in B.C., and has been year-over-year for many years. And also the growth of the tech industry, whether that be by proof point with the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, which has named Kelowna a top spot for entrepreneurs for many years. So it’s that beauty, Canadian humility, and the rate of growth has just been exponential in this region.

What are a few key numbers? How is the Okanagan tech sector growing, and what is its economic impact?

Since 2013, the tech sector has grown 15 percent year-over-year. We have over 700 tech companies with an economic impact of over $2 billion, employing well over 12,000 people.

 As far as companies go, what are some of the big success stories?

We’re home to five of Canada’s fastest-growing companies, such as Bananatag, Vitalis Extraction Technology, Jupiter Avionics, CoreHealth Technologies and Highstreet Ventures. We’re also home to Pela Case and Yeti Farm Creative, an animation firm that continues to grow. Pela just received a $5-million investment from Jay-Z. They make recyclable phone cases and other products right here in the Central Okanagan.

Credit: Courtesy of Regional District of Central Okanagan

Kelowna-based Pela Case, a maker of compostable phone cases, is one of the 700-plus tech companies that call the Okanagan home

How has the pandemic affected the Okanagan tech industry?

A couple of ways. We talk about the K-shaped recovery. The high part of the K, if you will, relates to impact and recovery. We’ve seen significant growth in the tech sector for companies that don’t require face-to-face work, industries that can work remote.

The other piece that’s contributing to the growth of the tech industry in the pandemic is the need for more of what would be called traditional industries—storefront retailers, for example, or those that provide some level of service or product face-to-face—to quickly adapt over the last six to 12 months to digitizing or e-commerce.

Equally, Kelowna’s really interesting in the percentage of jobs that were lost as a result of the pandemic that have now rehired. To say that we’re outpacing the region is an understatement. In Canada, 80 percent of the jobs lost as a result of the pandemic have been rehired. In British Columbia, that number is 92 percent, and in the Kelowna region, it’s 132 percent. We have the lowest or second-lowest, depending on your source, unemployment rate in the country.

Your group recently teamed up with Tourism Kelowna and Accelerate Okanagan to launch OKGo, a campaign highlighting Okanagan innovation, entrepreneurship and infrastructure. What kinds of people and organizations are you hoping to reach with that message?

The target market is executives and talent in the United States, specifically the Pacific Northwest, as well as major Canadian cities. The first phase of the multiyear campaign showcases stories of local companies in manufacturing, agriculture, viticulture, aerospace and digital tech as it relates to innovation and entrepreneurship.

Each organization in the partnership has some aligned priorities but very specific markets. For instances, Tourism Kelowna really target-markets, as a destination marketing organization, other places in Canada. Whereas from an economic development perspective, we’re looking at places throughout the Pacific Northwest to entice entrepreneurs.

The federal government has announced that it will open a regional economic development agency devoted to B.C. Why do you think that office should be in Kelowna?

Those in the economic development space and those who work in organizations that support business growth are really excited that B.C. is finally recognized by the federal government as having a unique economic ecosystem with very specific needs. But why Kelowna? It’s because of access. The Central Okanagan has 15 or more organizations that support startup scale-up, business development growth—organizations like the Economic Development Commission or Accelerate Okanagan, Women’s Enterprise Centre and so on.

And so part of the messaging that we’re hearing from the federal government is that this regional development agency coming to B.C. will help to connect industry to the federal government better. And we have, in the Kelowna region, such an established and mature ecosystem of those types of organizations that can accelerate the connection between industry and the federal government.

How much potential does the Okanagan tech sector have? Where is there room for improvement, and what will it take to move things to the next level?

What we in the industry specifically is access to capital, for sure—and not only directly injected to industry but also to those support organizations. And that’s growing. We have the Angel Summit, which is powered by Accelerate Okanagan. It’s a 10-week program designed to educate investors and startup companies, and in the first year, it resulted in over $5 million in investment.

And specifically, local governments can be providing data. We don’t have much around labour market data in British Columbia, and when we drill down to the community level, it becomes very challenging to identify what are the occupations under pressure, and how can postsecondary or those training institutions plan their curriculum or programs to train the next generation of talent.

The other piece that government can be doing to help tech businesses throughout B.C., and in Kelowna and the Okanagan specifically, is capital or support to organizations that support business, as well as directly to business for startup and scale-up.

For the local tech sector, what are you most excited about when you look at 2021?

It’s a bit self-serving. Being in the field of economic development and [seeing] how the Okanagan tech sector is in this position to grow in the recovery phase as we move forward, I’m appreciative that I’ll have some of that recipe or infrastructure for economic growth.

But a lot of what I’m most excited about is probably more of a personal nature. I’m very proud of this region. This feels like home. One of the value propositions is that access—we talk about access to North American markets, access to R&D, access to talent. I feel like I’m part of that, and I’ve got young kids. My kids will hopefully— because of organizations or postsecondary like Okanagan College and UBCO and the growth of the tech sector—have really exciting career options to stay close to their mom.