The world is watching: Frontier Collective brings Vancouver to SXSW
Mayor Ken Sim and B.C. Minister Brenda Bailey took part in a unique trade mission led by the organization. Austin’s Dirty Sixth, they say, can teach Vancouver a lot about building a tech hub.
It’s barely seven in the morning in Austin, Texas, and the heat is already rising. Yesterday was a scorcher: shirts sticking to backs, the mercury soared to 31. Today, as the early-bird workers shuffle to their offices, there are a notable number of people who have ditched pants for cutoffs.
It’s the second day of South by Southwest: a conference-cum-festival better known by its acronym SXSW, or “South by” to long-time attendees. First held 36 years ago, the ten-day event now draws close to 250,000 people from across the globe, and has played a monumental role in putting Austin – a lone blue dot in Texas’s political sea of red – on the map for tech and innovation.
SXSW is perhaps best known for being a conference where, for the most part, no-one actually attends the conference. The official lineup of celebrities and thinkers brings the punters in – the Convention Centre and the Marriotts, Four Seasons, and other swanky hotels host formal programming – but the real events are happening across the city. Bars, clubs, parks, offices: any building with street entry is taken over by brands or locales keen to show off what makes them unique. Among the standouts are Slack, Dolby, Audible, Paramount, Niantic, South Asia House, U.K. House, and Tulsa House, each showcasing their own activations, tailored panels, themed drinks, music, and more. In a few hours, I’ve collected several bandanas, printed a t-shirt designed entirely by AI, cut my own live vinyl record, and explored Black poetics generated by GPT. Tech and creativity mash together in Austin, modelling the STEAM acronym in a location that – given the sweat dripping down my spine – is fittingly steamy.
It’s all fun and games, but with a serious point.
Not far from the state’s Capitol building, in a co-working space powered by industrial air conditioning and coffee, I’m sat opposite Brenda Bailey – B.C.’s Minister for Jobs, Economic Development, and Innovation – and Vancouver’s Mayor, Ken Sim. It’s a big deal when two elected officials from different levels of government travel internationally to attend the same event. The decision, I’m told, is testament to the opportunity both see for elevating Vancouver on the world stage.
“We're down here looking for opportunities to invite investors to British Columbia, and to really highlight what's going on in our tech sector,” Bailey tells me. “And from my perspective, to also let them know about where [the] government stands on tech, and the incentives that we have to encourage people to come to [the province], and what the environment is to do your work there. South by Southwest is just such an amazing conference [...] It's often surprising that people just don't know about British Columbia, and specifically Vancouver. So I think it's really important to be down here.”
It’s a step forward for the local community when municipal and provincial representatives – both from different political stripes – take time to attend a tech conference. But perhaps more than previous elected officials, Bailey and Sim have an insight into Vancouver’s tech ecosystem. Bailey co-founded Silicon Sisters, Canada’s first women-owned and -operated videogame studio, as well as helping to strengthen the province’s tech industry by heading DigiBC, the interactive and creative digital marketing association. Sim, meanwhile, co-founded two successful local companies, Rosemary Rocksalt and Nurse Next Door, the latter of which he characterizes as a tech platform. Both local innovators turned elected officials, the pair have a strong grasp on the importance of tech and how it can shape – and transform – a city.
“I think it's super important to wave the flag of Vancouver, and by default, British Columbia,” Sim tells me. “And you know, there are a lot of amazing things going on in Vancouver. We actually have the number two augmented reality and virtual reality space on the planet, other than Silicon Valley. We have amazing leadership roles in cleantech, AI, the movie industry, the gaming industry, STEM – it's just off the charts. And I would echo the thoughts of Minister Bailey here: a lot of people just don't know [about Vancouver]. And so coming to South by, waving the flag, seeking those investment dollars, getting people to invest in the future of Vancouver [...] is super important. And from the Vancouver perspective, we want to let the world know that Vancouver is open for business.”
Calling the trip what it is – a trade mission – is almost misleading. SXSW is not a suits-and-handshakes forum; instead, it’s an opportunity to trade finery for t-shirts, and build relationships and investment commitments in a more casual setting. A comedian at the conference joked that success at SXSW is measured in “vibes.” Like all good gags, it’s partly true. As much as hard data about the ecosystem, the soft power of Vancouver’s brand – the natural beauty that balances local innovation, locals’ passion for scaling the tech sector, the ethos of collaboration over competition – plays a key part in inspiring companies to move north.
It’s a concept that the trade initiative’s organizer, the Frontier Collective, has embraced. A local coalition of leaders in tech, culture, and community who aim to drive forward the development of early-stage technologies, the Frontier Collective spearheaded Vancouver’s presence at SXSW. Rallying a delegation for an international conference is a tough job. Among other roles, the Collective organized the group of companies set to showcase their technologies, helped connect locals interested in brokering their own business deals, and wrangled the schedules of the Mayor and the Minister. The organization’s top KPIs? To create opportunities for global company leaders and elected officials to meet Vancouver’s representatives and brand, to open new avenues for trade and investment, and – of course – the SXSW imperative: to create good vibes.
“The delegation was chosen by the Frontier Collective to represent a swathe of frontier tech industries,” Kassandra Linklater, COO of the organization, tells me. “We wanted to make sure that we were unlocking the whole ecosystem. So we have education partners there in SFU. We have ecosystem partners there in AInBC, and Vancouver Mural Fest. We have digital health partners there from PrecisionOS all the way to GluxKind, which is AI strollers. And for us, it was important to represent the innovation that's happening in Vancouver, from deep tech to creative. It was not a traditional business delegation, as we had everything from artists to doctors to the Mayor of Vancouver and the Minister.”
Later this afternoon will mark the most significant part of the Frontier Collective’s presence at the conference: the launch of Vancouver Day. First planned as an unofficial popup, the organizers at SXSW quickly got wind of both the quality of the speakers and the magnitude of the event, and hustled to add it to its official programming.
It’s an ambitious undertaking. Seven panels are slated, spanning topics from why retail brands are driving the future to entry points for investing in the innovation economy, which call on leading local speakers and international execs to spotlight Vancouver’s expertise. Just beyond the sun-slanted patio is another room where the Frontier Collective’s hand-picked companies like VR mining-visualization firm Clirio and food-waste business Trendi are set to showcase their innovations. In the main bar, Tangible Interaction will paint digital graffiti on a screen, while mural artists the WKNDRS are set to daub a West Coast-inspired scene on canvas. Interspersed between each panel conversation will be videos in the Creators of Vancouver video series, shot by local brand agency Redshift Collective, and featuring the best home-grown innovation companies. It’s colourful, it’s bright, and it’s very Vancouver-meets-Austin.
“The impetus of Vancouver Day is to help Vancouver innovators, creators, and entrepreneurs to feel proud of the possibilities within our city, at no better place than Austin,” says Dan Burgar, CEO of the Frontier Collective. “I truly believe we can lead the world within this forthcoming technological revolution, as long as we continue to be bold, tell our stories, and drive new opportunities to our region in ways we've never seen in a lifetime. The Frontier Collective also wants to leave a lasting impact on the global leaders, investors, top-level talent, and brands. As our Mayor Ken Sim always says, we truly are open for business.”
“We want people to understand that the power to change the city that we love is in our own hands,” Linklater agrees. “And it's going to take all of us, and all of us are better than any one of us. Vancouver shows what happens when we all collectively put ourselves aside to grow the pie for each other.”
Cribbing from Austin
Austin is a city that gets a lot of things right – and not least its ability to host a globally renowned conference where icons like Barack Obama make it a priority to casually drop into events. There’s a je ne sais quois about the Texan capital – an intangible somewhere between authenticity, soul, and character – that draws hundreds of thousands back every year for SXSW and beyond. Capturing a similar essence for Vancouver, Mayor Sim tells me, is not just a nice-to-have: it’s a priority – and one which is vital for securing the city’s tech future.
“I've been coming down to Austin for over a decade now,” he says, leaning in across the table. “I've seen how it’s transformed. That's one thing that we really need to do in Vancouver. We talk about a buzz, we talk about a swagger – you can literally feel it when you hop off the airplane [in Austin]; you can feel the energy. And so that's what we want to do. We actually want to bring a lot of fun and excitement to Vancouver, be it revitalizing Gastown, Chinatown, and the Granville entertainment district, but also creating opportunities for people so they want to be in Vancouver. Because I can tell you, when we speak with a lot of the tech companies out there that are looking to relocate or augment their offices in Vancouver, they have to compete for talent on a global scale. And their talent wants to go to places that are awesome to be, that are fun and exciting.”
Talent, Minister Bailey agrees, is Vancouver’s competitive advantage as a tech hub. But attraction and retention remain two issues, double-underlined in red pen, on local companies’ list of gripes. The $480 million Future Ready Skill Program unveiled by the provincial government’s Budget 2023 goes some way to bridging that gap: a move that Bailey tells me shows how B.C. is “stepping up to address that people have the training they need.” Sim, however, goes one move further in his vision of building a vibrant city that will retain local talent. Similar to – if not inspired by – the neighbourhood layout of Austin, he elaborates on the industrial and tech land reserve alluded to in his election platform.
“The reality is that we have to make sure that we protect land areas for our tech industry to thrive,” he says. “Because if we don't, and if all we do is, let's say, focus on building apartments, condos, and housing, we have a big problem in our city. And, you know, what we talked about is a 15-minute city. And so if we can have everyone live 90 percent of their lives within a 15-minute walk of their front door, all of a sudden we deal with the environment, and we deal with transportation issues. The tech land reserve is a big part of that, because the future is tech. Actually, even the now is tech. I think there are more people that work in tech in B.C. now than in mining, forestry, and mineral extraction combined. It's important that we create these spaces for people to work.”
Vancouver’s path forward
If the trade mission in Austin has taught the Minister and Mayor anything, they say, it’s that tech’s success in Vancouver is a moving goalpost. Hype cycles continue to spin, technologies fall in and out of fashion, and computing capacity keeps rocketing at an exponential rate. The one constant in innovation is growth. But while that gold-standard yardstick is the measure of success around the world, Bailey believes that in Vancouver and B.C., we should be aiming for a more conscious target. The Minister, who has spent much of her career encouraging women and girls to enter the sector, tells me that growth in the province has to be sustainable, equal, and fair to be considered a victory. Ultimately, Vancouver tech shouldn’t copy the models of an Austin or a San Francisco, she says: instead, it needs to forge its own path.
“I would say, probably the biggest takeaway [from SXSW] is that there's still a lot of sharing to be done in regards to the opportunities in British Columbia,” she tells me. “We've got a lot of work to do. Fortunately, we have extraordinary people doing this work. [At] last night's event, we had an opportunity for British Columbians to get together at Canada House. The talent that we have down here, and the talent that we have in our ecosystem, is extraordinary. So I think our competitiveness is not just government talk. It's real. It's true. And luckily, we're not the only ones doing this work to ensure that people know about how huge the opportunities are in British Columbia.
“I got to meet with, for example, the Consul General down here in Texas, who's terrific, and promoting us and our trade officers down here,” she continues. “We've been traveling with Will [Fox] who's based here, and Chris [King], who's based in Boston [both of Trade and Invest BC]. They know so much about our industry. I didn't have to train them up. I was shocked. And they're doing great work. And there are individuals out here who are representing their own companies who are doing amazing work. So, many hands make light work.”
The Frontier Collective’s Vancouver Day, and the trade mission surrounding it, provides a vital piece of outreach for the province’s tech industry. But the event also serves as a rallying cry for the local tech community. Stepping out of the city allows a chance to look back with fresh eyes: an opportunity to celebrate the people tirelessly building international-standard companies, the conditions that helped produce 13 unicorns in 13 months, the elements that make our tech community unique. The night before the event, AInBC’s Steve Lowry put it best to me. At home, we scrutinize the areas where Vancouver can be improved. Abroad, we can take pride in the things we do right.
Vancouver Day closed the same way that it opened: with a packed house of innovators from the city and beyond. Drawing on the momentum from yesterday evening – where the Frontier Collective organized a VIP Tex-Mex dinner for those in the local ecosystem, and helped pack Canada House with residents from all corners of the upper 49th parallel – the organization more than hit the brief to showcase the best of Vancouver on the world stage. Under the city’s banner, it brought together the community, coalescing around one space, one idea, and one sense of local pride for our mountain-scaped city that – as the Frontier Collective’s tagline puts it – is innovative by nature.
A rising tide lifts all boats. With its trade mission to SXSW, the Frontier Collective proved itself to be the gravity that can pull that wave.