The University of British Columbia

The University of British Columbia

Leading research universities are not generally considered startups; however, The University Of British Columbia’s Okanagan Campus (UBCO) is just that.

With many of the hallmarks of a successful startup, including pushing boundaries, nurturing creativity, and fostering community engagement, UBCO has been cultivating and inspiring the next generation of entrepreneurs and innovators since opening its doors in 2005.

“To be part of this growth trajectory as a startup, not many opportunities like this exist in North America,” says Associate Vice-President & Vice-Principal of Research, Dr. Philip Barker.

“Everyone knew it would be a great thing to have a university [in Kelowna], but the impact of having a top 40 university in your city, you can’t underestimate it.”

Thanks to top-notch faculty and close to 10,000 degree-seeking students hailing from more than 100 nations around the world, UBCO’s work has led not only to economic prosperity but also to what Barker calls social prosperity: bringing in new perspectives and broadening the ways of thinking about what can be accomplished in the region.

“We have embedded ourselves in the community in a really profound way,” says Barker. “Knowledge that sits on the shelf doesn’t help anybody, so we’re trying to be deliberate with the kinds of programs and the research that we’re doing.”

One such program, Entrepreneurship@UBCO, is an incubator run out of Kelowna’s Innovation Centre, offering mentorship, training, and other support so students and graduates can dream big and start their entrepreneurial journey off on the right foot. Since its launch in 2018, early-stage companies that have completed the program have raised more than $2.5 million in capital and hired over 100 employees.

To further its research and development activity in the region, UBC recently launched its Innovation Precinct on a 60-acre parcel of land at the Okanagan campus, bringing together some of the University’s best and brightest minds to advance ground-breaking research.

These are just two examples of the programs and research being conducted at UBCO that support and encourage growth in the region’s key sectors, growth that is plain to see, as Barker notes.

“We’re seeing the results manifest in what you see when you walk through Kelowna and see the companies that are here. It feeds forward towards a more vibrant community.”

Geometrik

While it may seem hard to believe, Geometrik, one of the largest wood ceiling manufacturers on North America’s West Coast, started out as a children’s furniture shop. The Kelowna-based company was operating in a 3,500 square foot workshop when Vladimir and Natasha Bolshakov purchased it in 2007.

The furniture production was soon phased out to focus on incoming orders for wooden acoustical panels, a craft Vladimir learned in his native country of Ukraine and honed while working in the U.S. for four years before settling in Kelowna.

The shift in business brought exponential growth to Geometrik—they’ve twice moved to larger manufacturing facilities to keep up with demand. The company’s fully customizable and ready-to-install products are now manufactured in an efficient 30,000 square foot factory.

As an active participant in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), Geometrik is focused on reducing or eliminating the environmental impacts of its manufacturing process.

“Our mission is to be a sustainable business—not just by using raw/recyclable materials, but in a broader sense, by providing sustainable employment and sustainable relationships with our suppliers and community,” Bolshakov says. “This focus for the last 14 years has resulted in enduring relationships both internally, within our company, and externally with our customers.”

This commitment to sustainability, along with Vladimir and Natasha’s combined experience in industrial engineering and economics respectively, have been integral to Geometrik’s success. Add to that the combination of their talented, highly skilled workforce and leading-edge industry technology, and it’s no wonder they’ve been able to consistently add to their impressive portfolio of projects.

This portfolio includes close-to-home projects like the Okanagan College Center of Excellence and UBCO Teaching and Learning Centre, as well as international projects like the Law building at Stanford University and the Illumina Campus at Lincoln Centre. With their array of completed projects and a continued focus on growth, you just may be admiring Geometrik’s work firsthand the next time you’re in a building with beautifully designed acoustical panels.

“We fell in love with the Central Okanagan on our first visit in 2007. It was then and there we made the decision to build a company and commitment to the Okanagan Valley.”

SKYTRAC

SKYTRAC’s Autonomous Distress Tracking (ADT) was the first GADSS-compliant product to go to market. From there, the Kelowna-based company signed a partnership with Embraer, the third-largest aircraft manufacturer in the world, to add GADSS technology to all new E1 and E2 jets.

This ADT system is just one example of SKYTRAC rising to the challenge for its customers and the industry.

“The reason Embraer selected us was for our superior technical expertise and commitment to quality. We stood out as the only company working with previous years of flight data and aircraft tracking. We were the only company agile enough to meet the rapid timelines required for such a project.

The company was founded in Penticton by a group of experienced aviators who wanted to explore the possibilities of GPS technology being used for non-military purposes. Since its humble beginnings, SKYTRAC has brought to market products in tracking, flight data monitoring, and satellite communications. Their work touches law enforcement, aerial firefighting, emergency medical services, the oil and gas industry, and government sectors.

In addition to its work on GADSS, SKYTRAC partnered with Iridium to offer some of the fastest Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite connectivity to manned and unmanned aviation through the Iridium Certus service.

As one can imagine, these game-changing technologies have led to exponential growth for the company. SKYTRAC now has more than 120 employees in its Kelowna, Ottawa, and Victoria offices.

“It has really been a success story going from a startup in a basement to a globally-renowned aviation data company,” Manson says.

Even as they have gotten bigger, SKYTRAC keeps the same level of expertise, says Head of Marketing, Reuben Mann. “We’re a true all-in-one provider. We don’t just give you the box, we give you the connectivity, all the different capabilities. If someone wants a new capability, we’re literally creating it for them and going to market with it,” he says.

But what makes SKYTRAC unique amongst other large avionic companies is its commitment to the Central Okanagan. Manson himself is a product of Okanagan College. “We’re not shipping people in from other markets. We’re hiring locally and training people up,” he says. 

The future of aerospace is fast paced, and the real-world implications are truly lifesaving.

“It is definitely an interesting ride. Buckle up. Every day is exciting and there’s always something different,” Mann says. “I can’t imagine working somewhere else, it’s fun and challenging and I feel like we’re making a difference.”

“I’ve travelled with this company and been to a lot of places. In the Okanagan Valley, there’s a culture with the talent we hire that is different from other locales. It’s a hidden gem.”

Valens

The Valens Company, which is one of Canada’s most successful cannabis companies, knew that keeping things simple would be the key to their success when cannabis became fully legal.

“Some people overcomplicate cannabis,” says Valens CEO, Tyler Robson. “We’re really a consumer-packaged goods (CPG) company that manufactures cannabis. It’s focusing on the fundamentals and getting out of your own way.”

How Valens got to this point is a testament to the company’s vision of positioning itself as a global consumer company connected to Kelowna, one of the most cannabis-centric places in the world.

The vertically integrated, publicly-traded company has grown to more than 370 employees with manufacturing facilities in Kelowna, Toronto, and Vancouver. Valens has a strong foothold in Canada and the United States, as well as 19 other countries—and counting.

“We’ve achieved success because we’ve gotten so far ahead of everyone else. It took a while for the market to catch up. We hit the ground running once it went legal federally,” Robson says.

While the company starts with the product in mind, it ends with the needs of its customers. Since cannabis customers don’t fit into one box, Valens transitioned from being a sole extraction company to developing consumer products in the medicinal, wellness, and recreational sectors.

“It’s a personal experience that everyone uses for different reasons,” Robson says. In a rapidly growing space like cannabis, thinking strategically is a major competitive advantage. Valens’ Chief Commercial Officer, Adam Shea, says that thinking five steps ahead is part of the company’s DNA.

“A lot of companies in the cannabis field are reactive… We go to where the puck is about to go, not where it is,” he adds.

“Being part of the Okanagan community has always been an asset to us. We are in the business of making products that can potentially enhance people’s lives – and we cannot think of a better place to do it.”

Basing Valens in Kelowna was also a strategic move. Both Robson and Shea tout the cannabis culture in the Okanagan Valley and the local officials and businesses who supported Valens’ operations as Canada moved towards legalization.

The company also benefits from local talent who are tuned in to the needs of the cannabis sector and understand the market.

“You can hire accountants and lawyers, but finding seasoned cannabis talent is very tough,” Robson says. “The depth of experience here is second to none.”

As they grow, Valens is looking forward to more countries opening up to cannabis and more consumers looking for safe, high-quality products that are effective for their individual needs. This forward-looking mentality combined with the fusing of deep knowledge of cannabis and consumer goods makes Valens a force to be reckoned with.

“Look out, we’re just getting started. The bar is quite high, but we have the team to achieve it.” Shea says.

Okanagan College

Experiential learning, hands-on training, and apprenticeship are foundational elements of many of the programs offered at Okanagan College. On campus, the needs of students and industry intersect, resulting in a synergistic partnership.

“We listen to the needs of the region and respond through tangible, applied learning,” says Okanagan College President, Dr. Neil Fassina. “That close connection to the community and industry ensures our programs stay relevant and graduates are ready to meet the skill gaps of today, tomorrow, and years down the road.”

Okanagan College, which has fostered talent in the region since 1963, is the second-largest trades training institute in BC, with four campuses in the province. Graduates are primed for careers in the Central Okanagan thanks to training in areas like engineering, science, viticulture, wine studies, animation, aerospace and commercial aviation. 

Applied learning and apprenticeship opportunities with more than 1,300 co-op employers help, too. The college is even encouraging future generations of students through Camp OC, where kids can take part in STEAM-oriented camps.

In 2023, thanks to funding from the Royal Bank of Canada and Accelerate Okanagan, the School of Business plans to launch its new Experiential Entrepreneurship program pending ministry approval, allowing students to not only imagine their business but set it up as well. 

The School of Business faculty are also conducting applied research in areas like rural and social entrepreneurship, as well as in the non-profit sector through the Centre for Small Business and Entrepreneurship Research.

“We are incredibly heartened to see Okanagan College’s mission come to life—and while it may start in the classroom, lab or shop, it certainly doesn’t end there,” Fassina says.

“The creativity, talent, ideas, innovation, and commitment of our students and team members truly does transform lives and shape communities for the better.”

Hyper Hippo

Hyper Hippo’s success perfectly illustrates the John C. Maxwell-coined term, failing forward. By learning from their mistakes and taking a new, creative approach, Hyper Hippo’s team launched its flagship game and set off on an unstoppable growth trajectory.

It started in 2012, when Lance Priebe founded Hyper Hippo after leaving Disney, which had acquired his first Kelowna-based company, Club Penguin, in 2007. Priebe’s first venture helped put Kelowna’s tech community on the map, as it was still seen as a “remote” community in BC when he launched Club Penguin.

With $5 million in startup capital for his new venture, Priebe and the Hyper Hippo team got to work on building Mech Mice, which was slated to include an online game, television show, and more. Six months in, with almost no capital left, it was clear that Mech Mice would not be a success. They learned from their mistakes and Priebe gave the team the freedom to take risks and build anything they wanted over the following six months.

Through this process, AdVenture Capitalist was created and successfully launched in 2015. Seven years later, the idle game (sometimes called clicker or incremental games) has been downloaded more than 50 million times and is one of the most successful mobile titles ever released.

Hyper Hippo’s presence in Kelowna is one of the reasons that the Central Okanagan is known globally as a digital animation and gaming powerhouse.

“I can walk on Google’s campus and say we’re from Kelowna, and they say, ‘Oh yeah, Hyper Hippo.’ We’ve been very blessed, and it proves that this world from an industry perspective is getting smaller and smaller,” says Hyper Hippo’s CEO, Sam Fisher, who believes that the biggest key to the company’s success is working strategically in a spirit of true partnership. The simple philosophy that guides the company is also key.

“We’re not educators, we’re not politicians, we’re entertainers,” says Fisher. “We bring that little bit of entertainment to your day to make things just a little bit better.”

In its quest to attract top talent, Fisher notes that Hyper Hippo has to “take care of the people and give them a good place where they want to be and live. Kelowna is first-class when it comes to that.” The company is too, as evidenced by the Best Places to Work award they received in 2021 from gamesindustry.biz.

Most recently, Hyper Hippo launched Dungeon Dwarves, its first idle game on Netflix, which is currently available in 15 languages in more than 190 countries across the globe; 14 new languages will be available in an upcoming release.

“This is a fantastic opportunity for us to collaborate with a team who clearly loves games as much as we do and who support our vision of entertaining and inspiring players around the world,” said Priebe in a press release for the game’s launch.

Based on their track record, it’s likely gaming history will continue to be made by Hyper Hippo for years to come.

“You’re always working with new trends, new technology, new people, and new players [in gaming]. It doesn’t matter how established you are, you gotta be scrappy. Our focus is on how we get things done.”

WTFast

Steady, sustained growth is a feature of many Central Okanagan companies and is certainly the case for WTFast, which launched in 2009 to create plug and play network optimization for gamers. Today, the company employs 40 people, has 11 patents to its name, and makes millions of gamers very happy.

The happiness of the end user is achieved through the company’s Gamers’ Private Network (GPN), which is similar in nature to a Virtual Private Network (VPN). WTFast’s patented technology finds the fastest connection from a gamer’s computer to the game server, minimizing the network latency, or ping as it is known in the world of online gaming, that gamers despise.

It is the “interesting and challenging/novel work” the company is doing, which includes developing technology to level the playing field through connection equalization, that CEO and Co-founder, Rob Bartlett, says allows the company to attract and retain top talent. That and the fact that “the Okanagan is one of the nicest places to live in Canada.”

“Like many Albertans, we spent some time vacationing in the Okanagan. We got tired of the cold Alberta winters and generally fell in the love with the great work/life balance in the Okanagan, so we decided to move here,” says Bartlett.

As a self-described “Internet Hermit,” Bartlett says it was encouragement from the team at Accelerate Okanagan that pushed him to get out of his shell and take advantage of face-to-face opportunities in the region. This face time was vital for the company’s growth, Bartlett adds, as it allowed him to secure millions in investment and close distribution deals with multi-billion-dollar corporations.

“The region is a great place to build tech and while we are doing a lot of remote working these days, it isn’t hard to convince people to move to the Okanagan for those face-to-face meetings.”

Staffbase

When a business is included on three fastest-growing company lists in one year, you know they are going places. This was certainly the case for Kelowna-based Bananatag, who in 2020 was listed on Deloitte’s Technology Fast 500 North America List, The Globe and Mail’s list of Canada’s Top Growing Companies, and Rocket Builders annual Ready to Rocket list, which profiles BC tech companies who they predict will grow faster than their peers by delivering on technology sector trends.

The rise to the top started when Corey Wagner helped launch Bananatag in 2011. He and his co-founders, who all grew up in the Okanagan, set out to help companies, especially those with a distributed workforce, successfully deliver their internal communication.

“Our core belief is that internal communication moves people, and people move companies,” says Wagner. “Our solutions have been developed for enterprises who are looking to bring employee communication and employee experience to a new, modern level.”

Over 10 years, the Kelowna- based company grew to 150 employees and opened an office in Vancouver. In March 2021, Bananatag was propelled even further ahead when it merged with Germany’s Staffbase, a company with complementary software and strength in the European market, to form the world’s largest and fastest-growing internal communications company. While the Bananatag name has been retired, the ethos of the company remains.

Staffbase now employs more than 675 people across North America and Europe, providing service to 1,350+ businesses worldwide, including companies like Adidas, Audi, and Ikea.

While Wagner notes that the institutions and infrastructure in the Okanagan provided great support for the business, he believes it’s the world-class people in Kelowna that are the biggest draw.

“When new team members join, they always comment that everyone is so nice, people recognize that, and they want to be part of it.”

“Starting a business in the Central Okanagan is great because you and your employees get to enjoy a lot of the benefits of being near a major centre, without a lot of the downsides.”

Klonetics

Here in the Central Okanagan, industry-leading companies can be found in a multitude of sectors, including the booming cannabis industry. Having received its Nursery Cultivation licence from Health Canada in 2021, Kelowna-based Klonetics is one of those companies, offering an extensive selection of proprietary cannabis strains that medical growers and licensed producers can use to increase revenues.

“Klonetics has a portfolio of in-demand cannabis strains and will provide licensed producers and growers with plantlets or Ready to Flower™ plants, resulting in increased crop yields and higher quality genetics,” says the company’s CEO, David Brough. “We will be the premier cannabis cloning company that is cultivating in Canada.”

Once they reach full capacity in 2022, Klonetics will employ 50 people and produce nearly four million Ready to Flower™ plants out of its almost 25,000 square foot Kelowna facility, where each room is sealed and ventilated to the highest Goods Manufacturing Practice (GMP) standards.

The Klonetics team is made up of world-class specialists who have access to the best technology in the field.

“We did consider multiple locations throughout Canada; after comprehensive due diligence, Kelowna provided us with the best opportunity to thrive,” says Brough. “We continue to attract the industry’s top scientific talent from all parts of Canada.”

Thanks to its partnerships with some of the most reputable breeders across the globe, Klonetics now offers the largest breeder-certified cannabis strain catalogue in the world to licensed Canadian producers.

Klonetics also partners with VEXSL, a transport company specializing in climate sensitive, high-risk and high-value controlled goods, to ensure its
products arrive intact.

Being recognized as a disruptor in the industry is how Klonetics defines success. The company’s existing accomplishments, coupled with the fact that they’re sourcing additional space to expand, leaves no question that they are already on their desired trajectory.

“There is a massive scientific component to cannabis that the Okanagan region is leading. Klonetics is leading the way on how cannabis is studied and developed for cultivation to produce the finest and cleanest medical and recreational products in the market.”

Jealous
Fruits

When it comes to farming, it’s all about timing. That’s what makes Okanagan-based Jealous Fruits the envy of cherry farms throughout the world.

The company capitalizes on the higher altitude of its orchards and Okanagan Lake’s moderating effect on temperature to extend cherry harvest into mid-September, so they can export product long after others have completed their seasons.

“There’s a big gap between Northern Hemisphere production and when the Southern Hemisphere production starts out of Chile and Argentina, as they don’t start until November,” says Jealous Fruits’ Sales Manager, Julie McLachlan.

“If we can pick fruit in early September, store it or put it on a boat to China, it’ll be sold in mid-October, when there will be literally nothing available in the world except us.”

Launched as a fruit stand in the early 1900s, Jealous Fruits is owned by the Geen family, with David Geen serving as the company’s CEO, running the operation with his two sons, Eric and Alex. The company is now the only vertically-integrated cherry grower in Canada, meaning they have the capacity to grow, process, and package their crops in-house—controlling the process from blossom to box, as McLachlan notes. “When you buy from us, you know you’re getting our fruit,” she says.

In the 1990s, David Geen saw an opening in the global market for cherries. With their years of experience and David’s reputation as one of the top cherry growers in the world, they went all-in. That was when their international business took off.

“There’s no place like the Okanagan. There’s a great sense of community, a lot of growth happening in the Valley. There’s quite a future for us.”

Growing cherries can be a risky investment, though. McLachlan notes that “cherries are a high-value crop because of its finicky relationship to heat and rain.”

Moreover, to compete as an international agricultural exporter, farms have to produce a significant volume. To meet international demand, Jealous Fruits has invested heavily in its infrastructure. In fact, the company opened its new, state-of-the-art 140,000 square foot facility in 2020.

The facility offers highly precise weight accuracy thanks to automatic box fillers. The latest technology, including the first UNITEC automatic palletizers in North America and optical sorting equipment, means gentler handling and quick identification of damaged product.

At its busiest, Jealous Fruits employs up to 1,200 staff, with more than 1,000 pickers throughout their 1,100 acres of cherry trees.

In 2021, the company produced its largest crop to date: nearly 7,000 tonnes, a 250% increase from the previous year. McLachlan says they are processing about 18 tons an hour.

In addition to mainland China, the farm has a sustained presence throughout Asia, including Taiwan and Japan. Jealous Fruits also exports to Europe and in 2022, they hope to enter the Korean market.

Geen says it’s extremely gratifying to see all of their hard work bearing fruit. “I take personal satisfaction in the jobs created and seeing our products shipped to markets around the world.”

“We’re very proud of the reputation that we have in the Central Okanagan and worldwide,” adds McLachlan. “It’s a testament to what David and his wife Laura have been putting into the company since the 1990s. It’s been a long time coming.”