Yukonomist: Silicon Taiga taking off

Yukon’s tech sector is growing

There’s an exciting new kind of animal in the Yukon’s economic ecosystem: the digital start-up.

Way back in 2015, when the iPhone 6 was the latest must-have gadget and investors were giddy about the Fitbit IPO, I wrote a column called “Silicon Taiga.” It was about the vision and hard work of the Yukon’s small tech community to create jobs and opportunities out of the digital revolution emanating from Silicon Valley.

Four years and several iPhone versions later, that Yukon tech community is now a lot bigger.

I recently sat down in Whitehorse with leaders from three ambitious young companies that are part of our growing tech sector.

Their stories highlight how digital businesses can break new trail on the Yukon’s quest for economic sustainability. Knowledge-based businesses are not completely new to the Yukon. For example, Icefield Instruments has been designing, building and selling highly sophisticated instruments to drillers around the world for well over a decade. But tech innovators are growing in numbers and confidence. While not likely to take over as lead dog from government or mining any time soon, the tech sector employs a growing number of Yukoners in relatively well-paid jobs.

Alastair Smith, one of Proskida’s founders, told me how his company’s has designed cross-country ski poles and accompanying software that allow elite—and not so elite—skiers to track their performance with real data. Customers already include the Canadian and Swiss national teams and Norway’s Olympic squad.

Proof’s Ben Sanders and his colleagues are designing cloud-based software to streamline the flow of documents and decisions around governments. With more governments per capita than almost anywhere else on earth, Proof has lots of local opportunities to hone its product. The firm has been admitted to the 2019 intake at the Techstars technology accelerator program, which aims to give promising early stage companies a rapid boost.

Apprendo’s product is a “cloud learning platform,” which is an online service that allows organizations and individuals to put training sessions online and then track employees as they earn their credentials. Camilo Rivera, one of the founders, is based in Whitehorse, and they have team members from the Yukon to Buenos Aires. Apprendo is already in action with clients from international corporations to Yukon College.

There are others I didn’t get a chance to talk to. Kryotek, for example, won a Startup Canada award, the Arctic Innovation Award and the Arctic Kicker Prize from the University of Alaska Fairbanks for its innovative drills and permafrost sensors.

These businesses are different from traditional economic development projects.

First, they are nationally or globally ambitious. The idea is not to displace Yukon imports of Outside widgets by making widgets here. Instead, these businesses aim to make products that can beat competitors from Vancouver or Stockholm. Indeed, they have to, since via the internet their competitors can sell in the Yukon as easily as these companies can sell Outside.

Second, their products are either entirely intangible or physically small compared to their value. This means shipping costs hardly matter, compared to exporting something like 2x4s.

Third, they have blurred the definition of what it means to be a company. In the old days, a typical company would have mainly full-time employees and its own computer systems. This meant ramping up required lots of capital. Now the webpage that sells your product, your accounting system and your email can live on rented capacity on some servers in the cloud somewhere.

And instead of hiring full-time staff at your headquarters to get all the expertise you need, it is common to run the firm as a collection of employees and expert contractors from multiple locations. The firms above have employees and contractors in far-flung locations such as Mexico, Minnesota and Halifax.

The ease of working remotely by phone and web-conference also means these outfits can access specialist expertise that might be difficult to find in the Yukon. That could be anything from a technology patent lawyer to help you with your American intellectual property strategy, a software-savvy mechanical engineer to solve a problem with your new prototype, or a digital design expert to help with your mobile phone app’s look and feel.

The Yukon is not alone in attracting digital businesses. Dense traffic and soaring house prices are rippling out from digital epicentres like Silicon Valley and Seattle, engulfing other big cities like Vancouver and pushing on to smaller centres like Victoria. If you enjoy space, hiking, skiing and the mountains, places like Whitehorse, Canmore and Nelson can be attractive.

Indeed, lifestyle and quality of life came up early and often in our discussion about what makes Whitehorse attractive for digital businesses. The kind of tech talent needed to grow a digital firm can choose where to live.

It helps enormously that Air North has brought down airfares and boosted flight options, both for business travel and so the talent you lure here doesn’t worry about being isolated.

The intimacy of the local scene can also be helpful. TechYukon has been active supporting the industry in general, as well as providing coaching and advice to many of Whitehorse’s early stage firms. Northmark Ventures, a Whitehorse technology investment company, has also emerged as a key player.

There is also an alphabet soup of federal and territorial agencies keen to boost the tech sector, and their officials and budgets are far more accessible than their counterparts in the big cities. The new Northlight facility in the old Food Fair building is also proving to be a useful hub to bring the tech community together and encourage idea-sharing and collaboration.

The closeness of Yukon relationships also means that it is easier to find local outfits to be early customers, which helps test and refine products. All three of the companies I talked to have local clients who provide valuable early experience and revenue streams. Indeed, cross-country skiing is so well developed in the Yukon that local knowledge and expertise is considered a key asset for Proskida.

The flipside of this is that the local scene is too small and new to have a big community of successful and rich tech entrepreneurs who can invest in the next generation of firms and advise their managers on the ups and downs of running a digital business. This means startups may get more early-stage funding from government agencies, but then face what one entrepreneur called a “cliff” as they try to find capital for the next stage of growth.

Another drawback is the lack of a local university with strong computer science and engineering departments. Nor do Yukon high schools have the kind of tech and coding programs increasingly common at Outside high schools. Nonetheless, Yukon computer science students I happen to know studying at UVic and UBC are excited about the possibilities of local work in their fields.

It still remains early days for Silicon Taiga. But the prospects are exciting.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist.