Could Alberta’s town of Cochrane be the next Silicon Valley North?
“How the West is Now” greets people on the town of Cochrane’s welcome sign, just northwest of Calgary. The slogan is fitting when applied to the growing and rapidly evolving tech and innovation sector emerging in the community.
More than 12 of these companies now call the town home. The original, Dynastream Innovations, started 18 years ago in a garage.
“A couple of the founders lived here so really it was a practical thing to start with,” recalled Jim Rooney, who’s now the managing director of Garmin Cochrane.
“We did the engineering in my garage. Over time we just kept growing and moving to bigger buildings. At one point we were in three different buildings in Cochrane before we consolidated here.”
Ten years ago, Dynastream’s athletic tracking technology caught the attention of Garmin. Since then it has rapidly expanded, somewhat under the radar.
Garmin Cochrane employs 110 people and occupies one of the largest office spaces in town.
Lisa Stirling lives in the community and has worked at Garmin for five years. She says people often have no idea the majority of the technology used in its watches and head units are developed there.
“We do a lot of product testing with people who are athletes here. We’re telling them that we’re developing technology that’s going to go into watches that they’re going to find at Best Buy.”
A couple of blocks from Garmin, 4iiii Innovations is creating cycling and sailing electronics. Its technology is used by athletes competing in some of the world’s most high-profile sporting events, including the Tour de France and America’s Cup.
4iiii started four years ago and its CEO was among those who founded Dynastream. Kip Fyfe says Cochrane has developed more sports and wearable electronics than anywhere else in the world.
“For a little town of 20,000 people, that’s pretty impressive. I don’t know of any other place, you know Silicon Valley certainly builds a lot more, but there’s zillions of them.”
The town of Cochrane doesn’t have a business tax, which makes it easier for businesses of all kinds to set up in the community.
Discussions have also started between the town and several developers about creating a business centre for innovation and technology companies.
Plus, the town is looking at expanding its limited fiber network.
“Town facilities and actually some local businesses are on [it],” explained Robert Kalinovich, Cochrane’s economic development officer.
“For many businesses these days having broadband Internet, having access to fiber, that’s becoming more and more necessary and businesses are going where that’s available.”
Because there are so many innovation and technology companies in town, the opportunities for mentorship are also seen as beneficial.
Tech startup mcThings has been operating for about two-and-a-half years and works on software to connect company’s assets to the Internet in order to streamline operations.
Working with names like John Deere and General Electric, mcThings CEO Tom Groenland says being able to reach out for help is priceless.
“They’ve been through it before so you can call and say, ‘hey, I’m running into this problem, how do you solve this? How did you solve this?'”
The more established companies are in agreement.
“There’s always room for discussion and cooperation,” Rooney explained. “We even supply components between each other in our businesses.”
“On some levels, we work together and on some levels, some of us compete so it makes for a really interesting mix.”
At least 200 people are employed by Cochrane’s tech sector, but in the next year Garmin is planning on creating at least 15 new positions, while 4iiii expects to double its current 34 employees in two years.
Each company estimates about a third of its current employees live in Cochrane, while the rest commute from Calgary.
The close proximity to the city is helpful when it comes to hiring, but the companies say attracting talent to the smaller community has never been a challenge.
“People are super excited to be able to work on a product which they actually get to use for some of their athletic endeavors,” Fyfe said.
“They think this is just the best job ever.”
© 2016 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.