Victoria’s tech events kickstart new startups, products, and relationships
Moving out of the pandemic, the community has big plans for 2023 and wants you to be a part of it.
Victoria's first tech event of the year, 0-1 Getting Traction. Photo: Junaid Ahmad
The monthly Scaleup Story Series is supported by VIATEC, but articles are written and edited independently by Victoria Tech Journal.
Talks of economic headwinds haven’t slowed down the local tech community. On paper, Victoria closed out last year ranking in the top 10 Canadian cities for venture capital, according to the Canadian Venture Capital and Private Equity Association. That’s 11 deals worth $109 million dollars — so what could be behind Victoria’s success? Perhaps it’s the enthusiasm, networking, and relationships found at recent in-person events. This year, we’ve already seen local entrepreneurs pitch in the historic Craigdarroch castle, founders gather to talk about getting traction for their startups, or medical practitioners learn about innovation in healthtech. There’s an energy in the city thanks to leaders who are excited to build locally. And no matter the industry, there’s something for everyone on the ground in Victoria.
Victoria tech is focused on inclusivity
When you think of the occupations of people who build tech companies, software engineers, computer scientists, or folks with a background in business and finance may come to mind. Tech is often synonymous with the image of San Francisco and the Bay Area — the headquarters of companies such as Google and Meta, alongside many software startups born out of homes and basements. But Victoria has a special quality that Silicon Valley doesn’t, said Junaid Ahmad, CEO and co-founder of JackRAbbit Ops, an AI documentation software venture. “A big component of what Victoria has to offer is that we're not like [that],” he told Victoria Tech Journal. “[Victoria is] not just made up of fancy software companies — we have very socially driven or environmentally driven companies that use technology to amplify their ability.”
Armon Arani, left, and Jason Cridge, right, co-founders of Cognito Health. Photo: Jason Cridge
Take, for example, Jason Cridge, co-founder of healthtech venture Cognito Health, a platform for online treatment for anxiety and depression. Cridge only came to start the company upon reflecting on the gaps in healthcare that he saw as a pharmacist. The Victoria native, who also founded Cridge Pharmacy, witnessed how patients often suffered poor health outcomes as a result of inefficiencies. “I saw just how much of a patchwork system it is,” he said. “A lot of the onus is placed on the patient to navigate the system, and they really need to be their own advocate in the system. And if they're incapable of doing that when they're not feeling well, or they're sick, they usually just fall through the gaps.”
Cridge saw an opportunity to address these issues, and give patients ownership of their health through technology, when he co-founded Cognito Health in 2021. “The company has done a lot to improve the provision of mental health care in Canada,” Cridge said. “The way we do that is we pair [users] with a physician, a counselor, and a bunch of digital tools as well. So [they] get full wraparound care through a single platform.” Cognito Health has resulted in improved outcomes for its users, said Cridge, with over 90 percent of its patients showing improved depression and anxiety symptoms at the 90 day mark, compared to about 50 percent of people who received traditional care or medications only.
In-person events are key to growing the tech community
Nonetheless, co-founding Cognito Health led Cridge to find other gaps in the ecosystem — particularly, the lack of a healthtech community in Victoria. There’s a high barrier to enter the space, largely because of the esoteric nature of clinical knowledge, and it’s a difficult topic to pick up quickly. This led Cridge to start Health Tech Nights (HTNs).
Each HTN features a presentation on a topic in healthcare, and attracts a monthly audience interested in the space. The most recent HTN featured Jordan Schley, founder of Care2Talk, a platform that enables seniors to better access a network of health care practitioners. Schley presented on how he got Care2Talk licensed with the primary care network in B.C., which is no easy feat for a third-party platform. “Entrepreneurs in the room are able to kind of get that next-level insight that doesn't really exist anywhere else, through Health Tech Night,” he said.
February's Health Tech Night, featuring Jordan Schley of Care2Talk. Photos: Jason Cridge
Perhaps the biggest draw for HTNs is the space to bring together different groups of people who are eager to use technology to address problems in healthcare, but perhaps otherwise wouldn’t cross paths. Cridge said HTNs attract healthcare professionals just as much as they do tech entrepreneurs and software developers: an audience that is key to building an effective venture in the space. “I don't think healthtech companies are well-suited to just tech entrepreneurs. I think you often need that healthcare co-founder that can really see the problem and help navigate the problem with technology,” he said. “Health Tech Nights is a venue where we strive to bring together the co-founders of the next great healthtech startup.”
Building a community of entrepreneurs
Ahmad too, saw these gaps. He had built Jackrabbit Ops during the pandemic, and it wasn’t until he went down to San Francisco that he realized how powerful in-person events and networking could be. “Last year, a friend of mine hosted SF Tech Week in San Francisco and was like, ‘Hey, come down and see what the tech community can look like.’ I went down and absolutely fell in love,” he said.
Until that point, Ahmad had been building his company “in a silo” in Victoria. Going to the U.S. inspired him to bring the energy back to the region, instead of convincing him to move south. “San Francisco was never something I was super passionate about moving down to. I'm very much about [the fact that] Canada has talent. And we need to work on keeping the talent here, instead of the brain drain.”
But it was also after visiting San Francisco that Ahmad honed in on something missing in the local ecosystem, similar to Cridge. “Victoria has a very strong foundation for tech companies, but not the ability — at the current moment anyways — to really collaborate and reach out to one another,” Ahmad said. “I was like, okay, like, when I get back to Victoria, I have to find this tech community, I have to meet up with them. We have to start collaborating.”
Ahmad crossed paths with Brad Williams, CEO and co-founder of TheFinanceStack, a venture which offers companies fractional teams of finance and accounting staff. Aside from running his company, Williams was also pondering how to kick-start the tech ecosystem. “What can I do to reboot the community and create things [as] we're coming out of COVID?” Williams asked himself.
Left, Brad Williams, CEO and co-founder of TheFinanceStack. Right, Junaid Ahmad, centre, and Ahmed Amawi, right, co-founders of Jackrabbit Ops at the VIATEC awards. Photo: Brad Williams and Junaid Ahmad
Williams and Ahmad together organized Victoria’s first tech event of the year, titled 0-1 Getting Traction. The evening featured discussion from local startups and industry experts on what it took to get their companies off the ground — a gathering that was a great success, they said. But the event hammered home the need for teamwork. Williams and Ahmad were grateful to see that individuals in the tech community shared the same desire to build events and wanted to translate this into action. “After doing 0-1 Getting Traction, I realized that doing it alone is not a possibility,” said Ahmad. “People that not only have the passion for technology and companies, but also the passion for wisdom — they know that the best advances come from collaboration.”
While many event organizers may have concerns about physical space and administrative responsibility, that hasn’t been the case for Cridge, Williams, and Ahmad, thanks to VIATEC, a local not-for-profit organization dedicated to supporting the local tech sector. The space for all of these events is hosted at Fort Tectoria, VIATEC's event space. VIATEC provides additional support through food and drinks, registration, and planning for the events, and aims to provide experience and resources to support those in the Victoria community that want to get new events off the ground.
More tech events ahead
Williams is excited to unlock discussions that haven’t been seen before in the region. “We really honed in on the idea [that] it's not [only] startups and we don't just want tech. It's really about helping people grow and evolve and have impact.” The two, as part of a core steering committee — also composed of Dan Gunn, CEO of VIATEC; Carla Matheson, founder of CSM Insights; Nadia Tatlow, CEO of Shift; and Jayesh Vekariya, co-founder of Joni — are eyeing a future week of events in Victoria. Titled Scale YYJ, it will take place this May 29 to June 2.
A key element of the week of events is to unlock inclusivity by encouraging more people to see themselves as part of the tech community, said Williams. “There's a lot of inertia that has happened over the years where there are existing circles, and they're not necessarily explicitly exclusionary. But the fact that similar people show up all the time — the people that don't show up don't really feel like they can be included.” Williams is looking to start a new chapter with Scale YYJ. “It's time to break that down and create something brand new,” he said. “Surfacing all the really cool companies that nobody really knows about [...] How do we reach out and do that?”
Williams is eager to hold space to discuss topics that are often overlooked when growing a company, such as mental health. “I can be a founder and I find that to be a challenge, or I could just be working for a company and I don't know how to scale my career,” he said.
For Ahmad, the goal of Scale YYJ is to foster genuine human connection and relationships, beyond the technology. “Success for me looks like a continued frequency of events, after Scale YYJis done. Scale YYJ, in my opinion and vision, is the catalyst for founders and creators and makers in Victoria,” he said.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect that the events mentioned have been hosted at Fort Tectoria, VIATEC's event space.