Technology is intertwined with industries that Saskatchewan is built on, like agriculture, mining and manufacturing. It’s also found a home in government, education and retail. Through technology, all industries are able to find efficiencies and increase safety, communication, and expand their distribution.
However, Saskatchewan investors in the not too distant past had an attitude that if it doesn’t come out of the ground, it’s a risky investment. This has meant that tech start-ups have traditionally needed to look outside the province—and often physically leave the province—to get started and to stay viable. The recent announcement of the Saskatchewan Technology Start-up Incentive is a signal fire meant for investors that the tech industry here is ready for a seat at the table.
Our entire province has only a third of the population found in Silicon Valley, spread across a vast tract of land—but we’re still producing talented individuals and impressive tech start-ups. It’s starting to get noticed by angel investors from more traditional tech centers like San Francisco, Vancouver and Toronto. It’s great to get funding and experience from out of province investors and it helps to keep our companies here where we can benefit from their contributions to community and the provincial tax base. However, it’s also important to encourage local investors to invest locally. This tax credit is a step in the process that’s been underway for some time in the province—but it’s not happening at the same velocity in every city.
“We’re at a make or break stage with Offstreet,” says Offstreet founder, Kyle Smyth. “We’re currently working out of my house in Regina but are a part of a tech incubator in Saskatoon. Co.Labs is for early stage tech companies in the Software as a Service (SAAS) industry.” Co.Labs has been a critical component for Smyth and Offstreet, giving him access to office space, mentorship, and networking opportunities with other entrepreneurs. There wasn’t really anything similar in Regina when he needed it, so the Offstreet CEO has been making the trip to Saskatoon for mentorship and networking several times a month.
“The space means you’re able to be with companies in different verticals but the same stage of business.” The networking has paid off so far, and Smyth hopes he can maintain the momentum. “It definitely seems the industry is in early stages,” says Smyth, “Some innovators have left to get established, but they’re starting to come back because investment is happening.”
Technology innovations aren’t all about computer code. Jason Tratch is the CEO of the Galex Group Corporation. His company is focused on technology innovations specific to water recovery and reuse. He’s been facing a lot of the same challenges that a tech start-up can face—outdated regulations, entrenched consumers and significant investment in existing infrastructure impacting the ability to embrace change. And like computer programmers, Galex and their end users are very concerned with viruses.
When water treatment goes wrong, it makes the news—and that’s the sort of publicity wastewater companies and the regulators don’t want. Hence, it’s a highly regulated industry. However, Galex is trying to bring a proven concept into wider usage in Saskatchewan and has run into obstacles that don’t seem to be relevant to the new technology. Many of the regulations haven’t been updated in years or even decades.
Galex has a plant operating in Saskatoon and plans to expand operations in Saskatchewan. There are also plants operating in British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario plus Europe and the United States. But Saskatchewan has been slow to keep pace. With the plant operating in Saskatoon, there has been progress, but Tratch would like to see more education on the technology and for people to understand that this needs to be a priority. It’s not just an environmental concern. It’s a huge economic opportunity.
“There’s billions of dollars available in clean water,” says Tratch. He’s hoping to work with Innovation Saskatchewan and the Saskatchewan Indian Institute of Technology to educate people on technology solutions to one of the world’s most important problems. Recovering water from sources like apartments, hotels, and water-based businesses and reclaiming and reusing it for agriculture, golf courses, car washes and other water intensive endeavours will mean significant savings to the environment and to bottom lines. To get there, Galex will need to convince people to examine best practices and international standards—and to change outdated local regulations.
“It’s time to be aware,” says Tratch. “You can lower costs and have better quality.” He’s looking for people to adopt more social entrepreneurship where businesses and communities look for solutions together. He’s finding support for this direction with some First Nations communities in the province. Galex offers a solution to a problem that many First Nations communities are very interested in solving in an environmentally and economically viable way.
Whether we’re talking about tech start-ups trying to find a home in Regina, Saskatoon or other Saskatchewan town instead of moving out of province or discussing bringing proven technology into the province and educating the public and the regulators on how it can benefit everyone, we can easily see that support now will help to foster further growth. Technology like Galex’s membrane water treatment, and technology companies like Offstreet can have a significant impact on the Saskatchewan economy. We have a great foundation for innovation here—necessity is the mother of invention after all. In Saskatchewan, we deal with extreme distances, extreme weather, and a small population. We have learned to adapt and work together and it has created great conditions for outside investment. Now, we need to nurture the burgeoning tech sector and see where Saskatchewan entrepreneurs can take us.