How to Build a Tech Ecosystem in the North

Last week I was invited to meet with Yukon Premier to speak about innovation in the Yukon. So for almost 2 hours, I joined a group of local entrepreneurs with backgrounds ranging from engineering, software, tech, science, and urban planning to share ideas for how to grow and evolve the tech and innovation ecosystem in Yukon.

As an urban planner, I’m always excited about the opportunity to hear and discuss ways in which new ecosystems are evolving across Canada. Burgeoning tech companies are on the rise in many Canadian cities attracting funding and VC backed companies. Whitehorse is a long way away from being able to compete with southern cities but it shouldn’t stop from thinking big and wanting to grow the innovation/tech sector. Being an entrepreneur in Yukon has its perks. One of the rewards for living in the North is having the ability to work hard and play hard in a place that abounds with world class outdoor activities. I like to joke that Whitehorse is perfectly located — 2-hour flight to Vancouver (Canada’s lifestyle capital) — and 10-minute drive to Yukon. Drive any direction for 10 minutes in you’re in Yukon.

So, before my meeting with the Premier, I sat down at my desk and wrote my thoughts on paper. I thought I would share with you my notes and speaking points.

I don’t want to oversimplify what is arguably a very complex set of variables required, but I do want to highlight some factors that I believe will help Yukon build a startup ecosystem.

Local concentration of tech founders and entrepreneurs

I don’t need to tell you how hard is building a new company, never mind alone in a vacuum. Sharing experiences with others should not be under-appreciated. Proximity of nodes and networks are powerful aids to creating a strong tech ecosystem. YukonStruct (a maker space located in Whitehorse) just signed a lease for a co-working space and will be opening soon. In co-working environments, valuable expertise is just a few seats away. Co-working space members benefit from the people it attracts which are typically associated with startups such designers/developers/programmers/entrepreneurs.

Yukon tech community will benefit from this initiative and Yukon Government may want to keep support flowing it in any way possible.

Local culture’s support towards entrepreneurs

Whitehorse is a government town and a great deal of people have made a career by never taking risks. In a place like Whitehorse where failure is branded with you forever, risk taking is naturally discouraged. In Whitehorse, if you have job security, 5-week vacations, and a healthy pension plan, you’ve made it. Entrepreneurial pursuits are inherently risky, let alone startup ventures.

This is something that Yukon Government can help change through targeted media campaigns and government intervention programs.

Access to successful mentors

The challenge for any startup ecosystems is identifying individuals who’ve been there and have done that. Finding an efficient ways for these potential mentors and serial entrepreneurs to meet promising new companies and founders is another challenge for remote communities. In Yukon, this challenge is even more pronounced. Most successful entrepreneurs here don’t come from a tech background and the experience of say someone opening a coffee shop differs widely from building a tech company that is acting in an area of high uncertainty. There are many great entrepreneurs in Yukon and we should celebrate their successes. That said, Yukon Government can help by connecting local talent with entrepreneurs from outsite.

Yukon Government started the Kick program (entrepreneur bootcamp) following my company’s request to the Department of Economic Development for help with connecting us with mentors. The program was a great success and we are thankful for the opportunity as we benefited immensely from being teamed up with a mentor in Vancouver.

More programs like this one are incredibly beneficial to emerging companies like mine.

A strong media presence

As the old adage goes, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one’s around to hear it, does it make a sound?” Likewise, a startup story without an amplifier doesn’t help inspire others to do the same. Yukon Government can play a role here by celebrating startup entrepreneurs and helping to amplify tech entrepreneurial stories in Yukon.

Tax incentives for investors

The lack of potential investors in Yukon is a huge barrier to creating a startup ecosystem. However, tax incentive schemes for investors led by government, such as the SEIS program in the UK allows investors to offset income tax and capital gains tax on positive returns on an investment, can greatly increase the attractiveness of risky investments.

Open Data

City data. Territorial data. Bus schedule, bus stops, energy information. Data is an increasingly valuable asset. Startups and new businesses can help cities and governments use data and spin off innovative solutions.

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