Startup Week confirms Vancouver’s startup hub status

But low wages, high cost of living threaten to erode city’s ability to retain talent pool

Saber Miresmailli, CEO of Ecoation Innovative Solutions Inc.: “if anything, I wish I had a big pot of money to hire everybody who comes and knocks on our door” | Rob Kruyt

Vancouver is expensive, yes – but it’s not keeping talent away from local start-ups, says Saber Miresmailli.

“If anything, I wish I had a big pot of money to hire everybody who comes and knocks on our door,” said the CEO and founder of Ecoation Innovative Solutions Inc.

His North Vancouver-based company predicts crop stress using plant signals and sends that information to growers via smartphones.

Miresmailli has 15 full-time workers and about a half-dozen co-op students on the roster. The plan is to expand the team to nearly 40 people by mid-2019.

It’s a growth trajectory that would be the envy of many early-stage companies hitting Vancouver Startup Week (VSW) September 21-28.

But the region’s talent gap is still an issue for many of the 3,000 attendees expected to drop in on programming throughout the week, according to VSW co-chairwoman Vivian Chan.

“We are losing talent to other cities,” Chan said, adding other ecosystems have had no trouble scooping up talent as Vancouverites depart a city where the cost of living is high and wages are relatively low.

Chan said feelings are mixed in the tech community about what the stream of tech giants coming into the city signals for the startup ecosystem. Inc. (Nas-daq: AMZN) announced in April it would move into the old Canada Post building on 349 West Georgia Street and add 3,000 jobs by 2022.

“No big company’s going to come to a city if they know there’s no one here for them,” Chan said.

It’s unclear, however, if this will translate into higher wages for tech workers and make it tougher for cash-strapped startups to recruit workers.

One of the selling points made in Vancouver’s bid to host Amazon’s second headquarters, known as HQ2, was that it had “the lowest wages of all North American tech hubs.”

The bid documents, which the Vancouver Economic Commission released in February, also acknowledged the city’s housing affordability crisis, noting all three levels of government have been introducing measures to cool the region’s white-hot market. The bid also claimed Vancouver has three times the number of homes for sale under US$500,000 compared with Seattle.

While Amazon passed on Vancouver’s bid for HQ2, the city still ranks as the No. 1 startup ecosystem in Canada and 15th overall in the world, according to Startup Genome’s 2017 global rankings.

“The city’s growing reputation is underpinned by the highest concentration of visual effects and animation studios, two of the top six video game franchises, and its ranking as one of the world’s top 20 global financial centres,” the report said.

It estimated Vancouver’s start-up ecosystem was composed of 800 to 1,100 early-stage companies as of 2017.

“With more startups per capita than any other city in Canada, Vancouver is leveraging its unique combination of assets: Hollywood North, a strong industrial foundation, enterprise data and cloud underpinnings, and a remarkably diverse talent pool, with over half of its residents having a first tongue other than English,” the report said.

Meanwhile, VSW’s own programming shift is paralleling growth in the city’s startup eco-system.

The event originally started as Vancouver Startup Weekend before expanding into a full week in 2015.

Chan said new trends such as blockchain and the intersection between technology and cannabis are coming into focus at events this year.

“We usually sit at 60 to 70 events a year,” she said. “This year we’re on track to hit 80.”