Geek Speak: Bill Tam, CEO of B.C. Technology Industry Association
Bill Tam says the entrepreneurial culture in Vancouver’s tech industry is the “envy” of other cities in Canada. But he notes the country’s “startup capital” faces challenges when it comes to access to capital and talent.
Tam is the president and CEO of the B.C. Technology Industry Association. He took on the leadership position in 2011, after signing on as a CEO-in-residence with the nonprofit organization’s Centre4Growth program in 2010. Through a network of regional associations, the BCTIA represents about 2,500 companies. On February 6, around 300 people are expected to attend the BCTIA’s latest TechBrew “mega-mixer” at the Stanley Park Pavilion.
A 45-year-old Vancouver resident, Tam has much experience as an entrepreneur and venture capitalist. After working for Bell Canada and Rogers, he helped start up MetroNet Communications, which merged with AT&T Canada in 1999. He went on to found EQO Communications, whose Internet phone and instant messaging technology, he concedes, was “a few years too early”.
The Georgia Straight reached Tam by phone at the BCTIA office in downtown Vancouver.
How would you describe the state of Vancouver’s technology industry?
Well, Vancouver, I would say, is arguably the startup capital of Canada. I think a number of recent reports have supported that claim. I think we have more people per capita who work in startups than any other city or centre in the country. We were recently ranked among the top 10 centres globally in terms of startup ecosystems.
What would be needed to make Vancouver the next Silicon Valley?
Over the last 20 years, we’ve become home to some great global leaders—companies like MDA, which is now Canada’s largest aerospace company. Westport is another example of a global leader in natural-gas engines. We have Sierra Wireless, which is arguably the largest mobile computing, machine-to-machine wireless company in Canada and also globally.
But I think our real opportunity is to capture more of our share of what I would characterize as a $9-trillion market opportunity for technology. We’re really about fostering the hyper-growth of smaller tech companies to become mid-size companies and larger and to really become global leaders.
A great success story and a great example of this is Avigilon. Avigilon is a company that was founded in 2004. Over the last four or five years, it’s been growing at an incredible rate—125-percent growth in revenue per year over the last number of years—and now is closing in on $100 million in revenue. Really, it’s become a household name for many of the larger venues in supplying high-definition surveillance systems in places ranging from airports to ports to stadiums and banks and all sorts of secure facilities. They are by far and away the leader in that category. I think, if we can grow more Avigilons, then we will be able to more than realize our opportunity as being a very successful tech centre.
I think one of the challenges we have right now is that the vast majority of our tech companies in B.C. are small or very small. In fact, there’s only 3.5 percent of all our companies in B.C. that are more than 50 people. Compared to other competitive jurisdictions, where you see much more vibrancy around mid-size and larger companies, we probably need to triple the number that are there. A large and stable base of mid-size and growing companies, it just attracts more investment, develops stronger pools of talent, really expands the opportunities for those who are part of our ecosystem. If we can do that, I think we will fully realize our full potential.
We have a provincial election coming up. If you were talking to the leaders of the major parties, what would you tell them the tech sector needs from government to get to the next level?
Our mantra has always been about being a catalyst and helping companies start, grow, and succeed. Having such a great entrepreneurial culture that’s pervasive in Vancouver and, I’d argue, across B.C. has really made us the envy of lots of other communities across the country. What I would underscore for all of our government colleagues is that building tech companies and the tech industry in the province is fundamentally a team sport. It requires a blend of people, capital, know-how, and access to really foster and inspire the best of the best.
A couple of years ago, we, alongside a lot of the folks in our BCTIA community, set up a program called Centre4Growth. That was a program designed to draw on the expertise and the best in the community to consciously and deliberately accelerate the growth of these smaller tech companies to grow into global leaders. I think we’ve seen some great success from that. We’ve helped over 300 companies now. On average, those companies have more than doubled their revenue. They’ve raised a lot more investment. They’ve grown their employment. I think if we can continue to work with our government partners to embellish that program, to support more tech companies, I think we’re going to have a very successful and vibrant tech industry for years to come.
How much would the legalization of equity crowdfunding help tech startups in B.C.?
Certainly, I think having any vehicles to expand access to capital would be a tremendous benefit to entrepreneurs. B.C. is already one of the leading jurisdictions because we’ve got progressive regimes, like the angel tax credit since the early part of the 2000s. That’s really been a key part of what’s allowed companies to access private individuals and angels to invest in their ideas and innovations. Anything that moves along the spectrum of expanding the access to more pools of capital—whether it’s crowdfunding, whether it’s increased access to venture capital, whether it’s looking at other tax credit incentives at a federal level for more angel investments—those are all avenues that I think would really help to build up the industry.
What’s a key trend that you’re going to be watching in the local tech scene over the next year?
I think probably the biggest trend for us is whether we can capitalize on the emergence of all these companies and fill their needs around capital and talent. Those are two limiters that we’ve seen over the last couple of years. As we’ve fully recovered from the downturn, we’re starting to see that there’s pressure points to have the right people in the right positions—to hire the necessary talent to really scale the companies. I think that’s the trend that we need to be watchful of.
We’re working with our government partners to make sure that we’ve got the right tools in place—not only for the short term but the long term. That requires investments in our postsecondary institutions, making sure that a steady supply of talent comes out of all of the great universities and colleges in the province. But it also requires that we have the right methods around our immigration systems, so that we can also attract the best of the best from around the world.