By Francis Moran
Those of you who are regular readers of our posts will know that I am passionate about entrepreneurship and a huge fan and supporter of startups. So it’s not unusual to find me at almost any event where startup entrepreneurs gather.
Recently, however, I found myself in a bit of a more atypical venue for such a gathering — the barrel cellar of Laughing Stock Vineyards on the Naramata Bench near Penticton in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley. (I snapped the alongside picture from just outside the cellar.)
Startup Canada’s arrival in B.C.
Gathered around a long table in the cellar was an eclectic collection of agriculture and agri-tourism entrepreneurs, brought together by Laughing Stock co-founder and former investment executive Cynthia Enns. Cynthia took advantage of the arrival in B.C. of Startup Canada’s national tour and invited a number of her neighbours and other local stakeholders to come together to discuss how they could help each other and better promote their region.
As winery owners and agri-tourism operators, the collected entrepreneurs are riding a wave that has seen Penticton — once and, perhaps, still known mainly as an economical vacation destination for families — gain a whole new reputation for higher-end tourism. With 19 award-winning wineries in a mere 14-kilometre stretch of the Naramata Bench, plus several other specialty growers and producers, the region has a well-laid foundation for a successful agri-tourism sector. While the entrepreneurs around the table were more established than most of the startups with which I usually spend time, there was still a keen sense that they needed to pull together if their boat was to be rowed towards mutually agreed-upon objectives.
This bringing together of entrepreneurs and the support systems they require is the very mission of Startup Canada, a grassroots, entrepreneur-led organization intent on fostering a more robust entrepreneurial culture in Canada. I have been an advisor to Startup Canada since its inception and, last week and this, travelled with co-founders Victoria Lennox and Cyprian Szalankiewicz. Last week, the tour visited Kingston and Ottawa in Ontario, and I also participated in events in both those centres.
In the Okanagan, we moved on from the wineries, lavender farmers and organic producers to Accelerate Okanagan’s Jump:Start:Challenge, a pitch competition featuring 20 local entrepreneurs along with a Skyped-in entrant from each of Vancouver and Toronto. I was a judge for the event and what I most enjoyed was the diverse nature of the ventures that were pitched. While there were certainly the sorts of things any of us Ottawa regulars would recognize, there were also more esoteric ventures, such as one venture that would license new plant cultivars to growers worldwide.
I facilitated a Startup Canada town hall, a uniquely formatted event that this organization has held across Canada as it seeks to forge some consensus about what most needs to be done to foster a supportive and vibrant entrepreneurial culture in Canada. Earlier, I played a similar role in Kingston and was at the Ottawa edition.
Entrepreneurs outside of big cities
The energy, passion and commitment of the entrepreneurs were readily recognizable features of the events, wherever they were held. But there was something special and different about what I saw in the Okanagan. This is not a region that would easily come to mind when one thinks of startup hotspots in Canada. And yet, paradoxically, that makes the efforts of Accelerate Okanagan, the British Columbia Innovation Council and the other organizations involved in these activities all the more urgent. As I discussed in a chat with Accelerate Okanagan CEO Jeff Keen, major centres like Vancouver will be perfectly okay if entrepreneurs there don’t get much in the way of support from governmental, academic and quasi-public groups. But in towns like Penticton and Kelowna, there is not yet a well-established support structure for entrepreneurs. And, just as critically, these new businesses are essential to the long-term viability of communities that can no longer rely on traditional industries and must diversify beyond promising but highly seasonal alternatives.
I made some great connections at these events, connections that will bear fruit as we incorporate some of what’s happening out here into our blog posts down the road. Stay tuned for an Okanagan company to join our special series, “A Startup Story,” where we check in on a young company and its team every month.