Hyper Hippo

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.”

Yeti Farm

Rocket Monkeys. Pete the Cat. Angry Birds. Beat Bugs. DNAce. Hotel Transylvania. Any of these animated series ring a bell? If not, maybe you’re familiar with where they’re playing: Netflix, Amazon Prime, Nickelodeon Teletoon, Corus, YouTube.

It’s big time stuff for Yeti Farm, the Kelowna-based digital animation studio that has hit warp speed in the last few years. Animating shows under contract for other companies, they’ve steadily expanded to the point where they’re writing, developing and pitching their own series. Recently three ideas have been green lit to develop into prime-time pilots, one of them a live action series. How did this all happen?

Rewind to 2007. Creative guy Todd Ramsey has been working as an animator and director in Vancouver, while Ashley has been producing various children’s animated shows. After starting their own company and becoming parents, they decided in 2010 to move closer to family in Kelowna.

“It was a huge risk and took us a few years to get going” Ashley explains. “The animation industry was just beginning here. There was Disney, then Bardel Animation and The Centre for Arts and Technology was teaching animation. So we were lucky we had lots of existing relationships outside the region to build on.”

In 2012 the couple rented space, hired five students from the school and secured their first roster of work with Electronic Arts, producing the heads on the athletes in various games like FIFA, UFC and NHL. “Pretty soon we signed a three-year lock-in output deal with Atomic Cartoons for Netflix shows like Rocket Monkeys and Beat Bugs, and that was when it really took off. 2013 to 2016 was pretty megascale, scaling up to about 50 employees. Then we expanded again, and by 2019 we had about 160 artists and a 7,000 square foot studio space.”

“Starting out I think we definitely benefited from a blend of support systems with municipal, provincial and federal aid behind us.

While we were scaling up, I worked weekly with advisors looking at different financial models and how to handle our operation, which was changing drastically. We also participated on the advisory board of Okanagan College to shape their animation program so it would fit our talent needs and they really supported us in that.”

“Now that we’re a certain size, we benefit from the BC Film and Media Tax Credits (17.5%). There are also unique tax credit bonuses for being in this region (12% Regional + 6% Distance) which gives us a bit of an edge in terms of our competitors in a tough market, particularly against the overseas studios. The animation industry here is definitely bigger because of our studio. It’s basically grown from zero to one of the mid-sized employers of the area, maybe tripled in size. Now with the pivot in our studio space strategy (they’ve gone 100% mobile since COVID-19), I think it presents more opportunities for ourselves and our staff.”

“Today we’re producing three prime-time pilots. Prime-time animation is a totally different category in animated content, which is emerging because live action shoots have been discontinued for the foreseeable future. This is where I see huge potential. Then we’re also producing our own animated property, Sweet Tweets, and are in development with a Canadian network for Kick Flip, a girl’s live action sports dramedy to be shot locally.” “It can be seen as very brave to start a studio here, but it’s also been a very selfless and humbling thing. Todd and I are both really proud and grateful. We feed and build families.”

“A lot of people in the studio now have kids and homes and mortgages and cars and it’s kind of neat, right?”

Where else can they lead a really healthy balanced lifestyle where they animate in the morning, hike in the afternoon and then hop back on at night? “That’s the best part about the lifestyle here. Oh, and the wine. Which every stressed-out entrepreneur needs a lot of.”

“We were also part of the early days of Accelerate Okanagan and that definitely helped me as an entrepreneur.”

QHR

The innovative healthcare technology company produces a suite of industry- leading products designed to streamline medical practices. Their flagship product is AccuroEMR, Canada’s largest single-platform electronic medical record software.

Mike Checkley, President of QHR and one of the three original developers of AccuroEMR, explains how it came about. “I studied Computer Science right here in the Okanagan. It’s been an amazing experience to see it grow from those early days to now the largest tech company in the Okanagan with customers all across the country.”

QHR has two more products in market: FreedomRx, an e-prescription management tool for pharmacists and Pharmacy EMR, which helps pharmacy staff manage their professional services. Both of these are now used in over 1,200 Shoppers Drug Mart pharmacies in Canada, following Loblaws’ purchase of QHR in 2016.

QHR currently has 523 employees across Canada, with 368 of those in the Kelowna head office. “Our market is all across Canada, but from a talent perspective Kelowna continues to deliver,” says Checkley.

“Kelowna is on the map now, not only as a tourist destination, but also for new business, maturing business, and as a result, career opportunities.”

Two Hat Security

Since 2012, his company’s AI- driven content moderation platform has been identifying and preventing harmful online behaviour, including cyberbullying, abuse, hate speech, violent threats and child exploitation, all while enforcing rules of conduct in online communities.

“Some of the largest companies in the world trust our team to keep their users safe,” Priebe explains. “We now process over 100 billion human interactions every month. To put it in perspective, that’s six times the reported size of Twitter.”

Two Hat’s success was recognized in 2017 when they were awarded the largest MITACS cluster grant of over three million dollars to work with universities.

“We looked all over Canada for leading universities to partner with, and to our surprise, one of our best has been here at home with UBC Okanagan.”

Most recently, the World Economic Forum selected Two Hat as one of its most promising Technology Pioneers of 2020 for its groundbreaking platform, offering the opportunity to engage with other industry leaders and work with public and private experts.

When asked about the infrastructure in place to help get his organization off the ground, Priebe credits the many programs designed to support start-ups here in the Okanagan. “Accelerate Okanagan has definitely been a great friend and supporter of Two Hat and our mission,” says Priebe. “I was still in my basement when I heard about AO and their programs. They helped us get our first desks, a mentor, community services, as well as legal and accounting firms who volunteered and helped get us set up. It would have cost thousands of dollars to hire any of their services and here they all were giving me amazing deals.”