Building opportunity for the future

This is the first in a series of profiles on the Okanagan Centre for Innovation – where the idea came from, how it became reality, key partners and future opportunities. This month: the story of how a group of forward-thinking community leaders came together to make the concept a reality.

Jeff Keen has shared a table with innovators throughout his career. But it was sitting at the dinner table with his teenage daughters that galvanized his resolve to help bring together a group of community leaders to discuss the growth of the Okanagan’s tech industry.
“We were having supper one evening, and I asked the girls about their plans after graduating from college,” says Keen, a director with the Kelowna Innovation Society. “My wife and I were stunned to hear them say they planned to leave Kelowna to pursue their careers because there was 'nothing for them here.' I knew something had to change.”

As past CEO of Accelerate Okanagan and an active member of the high-tech industry, Keen knew there was a burgeoning tech sector growing quietly in the Okanagan. And he knew the potential impact that sector could have on the entire community.

“Most people hear ‘high tech’ and only think of computer engineers, software developers, the Internet, and if they’re not a “techie,” there aren’t career opportunities for them. But this sector represents so much more,” says Keen. “Firstly, technology crosses industry boundaries, encompassing tourism, agriculture, forestry, mining, etc. And the job opportunities aren’t limited to computer experts – the tech companies servicing these industries need management, business development, sales and marketing, administrators, accountants, human resources, you name it.”

The tech sector brings clean jobs to the community and gives students graduating from Okanagan College, UBCO and other local institutions a chance to live in a beautiful city and find relevant, competitive work in their field. Instead of heading south to the Silicon Valley or west to the Lower Mainland, graduates can launch their career, start a family, enjoy all the benefits this region has to offer and add to the fabric of the community.

“The tech sector attracts creative, innovative people – artists, actors, musicians – young people wanting to engage in their community. They bring new ideas, energy and vitality to the city,” says Keen. “The result is an injection of life into the financial and social economy. And that’s great for a growing community.”

Keen had been a part of many think-tank sessions on the growing sector, and resolved to build something tangible on the momentum created from those early talks. When a group of community leaders gathered under one roof in January 2013, they all agreed on some ground rules.

“There had been many great conversations about the tremendous potential,” says Keen. “It was time to make a concerted effort to turn those conversations into action.”
The stakeholders committed to two basic tenets: they’d leave their special interests at the door, and if they started the journey, they were going to finish it.

“It was important for us to agree and have this common understanding in order to move forward. Everyone’s input was invaluable, but it couldn’t be motivated by a personal agenda, you had to believe this was important as a community member, and if you volunteered to lend your support, the expectation was that you would follow through,” said Keen.

What was left was a grassroots foundation made up of forward-thinking entrepreneurs, community leaders, civic, provincial and federal politicians, and members of the academic community who shared a vision of the Okanagan as the new tech mecca. They broke into three subcommittees, holding day-long strategic planning sessions focussed on the place, the people and the message.

“Each group was tasked with coming back to the table with real solutions,” recalls Keen. “How could we support entrepreneurs start and grow successful companies? What kind of services and support do they need? How could we build a network that was central and accessible? How do we attract the right people, how do we persuade graduates to stay in their backyard to work and build their careers? And how do we share this opportunity with the world?” 

It was during these meetings that the concept of an innovation centre materialized.

With these goals and a team of volunteers, it didn’t take long for the group to get things off the ground. The official ground-breaking for what is now known as the Okanagan Centre for Innovation was held in October, less than two years after that first watershed meeting.

The centre, opening in 2016, will be a state-of-the-art building that will house everything from two-person start-ups to large technology and innovation firms. Publicly supported space and services will also be available for entrepreneurs and founders of early-stage companies, non-profits, community groups and social enterprises. 


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