It’s easy to overlook Vancouver’s growing attraction as a hub for technology development and investment amid the endless flow of negative headlines about the city’s housing challenges and British Columbia’s floundering liquefied natural gas plans.
But for those working to establish a Silicon Valley North in western Canada’s most vibrant region, 2016 is quietly turning into a watershed year with the rare convergence of U.S., Chinese and Israeli interests in Vancouver’s cyber-technology scene.
At a conference here last month, B.C. Premier Christy Clark and Washington’s Gov. Jay Inslee pledged to build the “Cascadia Innovation Corridor” linking the cities of Vancouver and Seattle to create cross-border innovation and business opportunities in the technology sector.
Microsoft founder Bill Gates and CEO Satya Nadella, who both spoke at the event, joined in the pitch that it was time for the 230-km coastal corridor between the two cities to become an “innovation hub” for the high-tech, life sciences, clean technology and data analytics industries.
In August, some 600 people registered to attend the first Canada China Trade Conference in Vancouver to leverage the Internet to boost Canadian exports to China. The event, which featured presentations by a dozen Chinese firms seeking Canadian products and partners, was organized by Richway New Media Technology Inc., a marketing representative for China’s Internet giant Baidu in North America. The $60-billion (US) Nasdaq-listed Baidu, often described as China’s Google, is gearing up to expand in the continent, with Vancouver as a launchpad, said Kevin Li, Richway’s project manager, in an interview.
Marching alongside these giant firms from the world’s two largest economies are a growing number of Israeli start-ups and Jewish organizations playing a key role in the city’s tech scene. Over the last three years, the Vancouver Israeli Tech Club Society (VITCS), the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), and the Canadian Associates of Ben-Gurion University (CABGU) have been laying the groundwork with the support of Israeli Ambassador Rafael Barak.
One of their achievements will be British Columbia’s decision to send its first trade mission to Israel next month to scope for cyber-security and life sciences opportunities. Led by B.C. Finance Minister Mike De Jong, the delegation of between 20 and 30 will aim to build business and research collaboration between the province and Israel, a Finance Ministry spokesperson said.
During their visit to the cities of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Be’er Sheva and Haifa from Nov. 13 to 18, De Jong and his delegation of government, academic and business people will meet with globally recognized universities, technology incubators, accelerators and companies.
“The mission will include face-to-face meetings with key business, academic and government leaders,” the ministry said in a statement.
“A series of business workshops, seminars and other ‘matchmaking’ sessions will be organized throughout the trade mission to promote British Columbia’s expertise to a diverse range of stakeholders.”
A highlight of the delegation’s trip will be its attendance at the annual Homeland Security and Cyber Security Conference in Tel Aviv from Nov. 14 to 17, where Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Liberman and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan are scheduled to speak. The B.C. delegation is expected to meet with prominent security experts and officials from Israel and other countries at the event.
With more than 500 registered members since its establishment in December 2013, VITCS is playing the role of catalyst for an Israel-connected community of technology entrepreneurs, professionals and investors in B.C., said Eran Elizur, a VITCS board member.
It has set for itself the mission of creating “a supportive ecosystem” for Israeli and Jewish technology-oriented business professionals to engage with the wider tech and investment communities in the greater Vancouver area. It’s also working to link up B.C.’s tech, investment and research sectors with Israel’s academics, scientists, investors and tech professionals.
Elizur, the CEO of medical high-tech firm IkoMed Technologies, said he sees opportunities and growth resulting from combining Israeli entrepreneurial spirit and technology with Canadian organizational know-how.
“Canada could provide Israeli companies access to the U.S. and Asian markets,” he added. The most promising areas now are in medical technology, cyber-security, clean energy, and water purification and monitoring, where Israel has built a strong global reputation.
Elizur said Vancouver is ripe for take-off as a technology hub, as the conditions are in place to support the growth of start-ups.
He said technology has become B.C.’s largest employer, eclipsing the oil, gas, mining and forestry sectors. More U.S. firms are setting up development centres in Vancouver, including Microsoft, Amazon, Google and Facebook, to name a few, alongside numerous start-ups in information technology, cyber-security and fin-tech.
While he did not mention China, Alibaba, one of the world’s largest Internet firms, announced plans to expand in Canada during Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s visit to the Asian country in early September. The China Entrepreneur Club (CEC), which represents the country’s most powerful business leaders, sent a delegation to Canada from Oct. 16 to 23 to explore trade and investment opportunities in a number of industries including technology, and the delegation met with Trudeau.
Nico Slobinsky, CIJA’s Vancouver-based Pacific director, believes Israel and British Columbia have the foundations for a ready-made partnership.
“Israel has few natural resources, but is renowned for innovation and technology that B.C. is keen to tap. B.C. has natural resources and an educated and diverse population. We can build on each other’s strengths,” Slobinsky said.
CIJA has been actively supporting VITCS since the latter’s beginnings in 2013. It helped arranged for Barak to speak at a VITCS gathering earlier this year, in which he revealed that he had met with Clark and Federal Technology, Innovation and Citizens’ Services Minister Amrik Virk to discuss increasing collaboration between Israel and Canada.
Nechemjah (Chem) Cohen, who sits on the board of the Vancouver chapter of CABGU, sees opportunities for introducing Israeli technology and products to North America.
The entrepreneur, who co-owns a cyber-security firm, Shield4uc and a secured mass fax service called Faxsipit, said he and his partner, Eli Mann, decided to represent Israeli companies in North America as the next phase of their business growth.
“Originally, we wanted to develop cyber-security technology ourselves, then realized that product development requires at least a year and a lot of resources. At the same time, we discovered that there are a lot of innovative products already available in Israel,” Cohen said.
Many of these companies, especially start-ups, don’t have access to markets and lack brand presence in North America.
That’s when Cohen and Mann realized it made sense to represent and market the solutions created by Israeli companies to potential customers in this region.
With Israel’s reputation as a world leader in cyber-security, Cohen said Shield4uc last year signed up to represent three Israeli companies in North America.