A new focus for the province’s economy is likely to mean a new role for B.C.’s technology sector as well as a new look and mandate for some key high-tech resources, according to Jobs, Tourism and Innovation Minister Pat Bell.
Bell appears intent on integrating the tech sector with the province’s traditional economic engines in an effort to focus work on areas where B.C. can excel.
“I have a keen interest in making sure the work we are doing in the technology and innovation sector supports our industrial sectors,” he said. “One of the keys is to make sure we understand what it is we do well in B.C. and then try and focus our innovation in that area.”
Bell’s ministry is doing a review of all sectors and looking at how technology can act as a support.
“We’re trying to find ways to get our best and brightest to focus their energies in areas we do have natural competitive advantages,” he said. “We have a successful industrial sector. We’d like to grow that sector, and the jobs and value that come with it, and anyone working on innovations in that area are people we want to work closely with and support as much as we possibly can.”
It sounds like a positive step, according to Dan Gunn, executive director of the Victoria Advanced Technology Centre.
“I agree innovation in itself doesn’t have to be treated as a vertical, but instead as foundational to all types of business,” he said. “As a result it can play a role in improving the strength of our economy in multiple industries including historically strong ones like resource industries.”
Bell is also keen to see improvement in the commercialization of processes and products born and bred in B.C. “I think we do a very good job innovating, I don’t think we do a very good job of commercializing, we have lots of work to do in that area,” he said. “We have at universities and institutions and through the private sector come up with innovations where significant resources are deployed and the actual commercialization of that product ends up happening in another jurisdiction.”
The review has also meant the ministry is taking a look at the mandate and makeup of both the Premier’s Technology Council (PTC), which was founded in 2001 to advise the premier’s office on technology-related issues, and the B.C. Innovation Council (BCIC), which helps foster entrepreneurs and startups and connects them with industry to commercialize their products and services.
The news of the review sent a ripple of rumour through the sector with many believing the PTC would be axed or dissolve itself, while the BCIC could end up taking on more responsibility and a broader mandate.
Bell said any news on the future of the two bodies would not come until the end of the month.
Rob Bennett, president of Simation Global Technologies and chief executive in residence at the Centre4Growth, which offers programs for companies at all stages of development, said BCIC was integral to bringing along young companies, and was key in rolling out provincewide mentoring programs.
“That would be shame to see it disappear,” he said. “But at the same time, I recognize new governments have to look at the successes of the past and how they may grow on the base of those successes and this [new cabinet] may want to do things in a different way.”
Scott Phillips, CEO of Victoria-based Starfish Medical, said organizations like BCIC fill in the gaps for startup firms.
“We need to be supporting entrepreneurs and people deciding they will live with that kind of risk — if we give them support, the dividends can be massive,” he said. “People forget that little businesses are fragile, so whatever we can do to help those guys be successful and hire more British Columbians and spread our services and products around the world and products we should be doing.”
Phillips said the PTC had been effective in lobbying for changes to help grow both the sector and the economy as a whole. “It was great to have the ear of the premier,” he said.
The high-tech sector appears to be in good health in Greater Victoria. According to Gunn, there’s been a return of “ambition and vigour” following the economic turmoil.
Even during the recession, Victoria’s larger high-tech firms reported 7.5 per cent revenue growth and an 11 per cent increase in employment, said Gunn.