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Saskatchewan Tech Sector Thrives on Community: Interview with Mentor's Jeff Dyck

The Saskatchewan tech sector is booming. Local companies like Coconut, Vendasta, and 7shifts are generating huge investments and startups are thriving thanks to tech accelerators Co.Labs, an Innovation Place tenant in Saskatoon, and Cultivator, an Innovation Place tenant in Regina.

But, it wasn’t always like this. In fact, when Jeff Dyck, Director of Engineering at Mentor, a Siemens Business and Innovation Place tenant in Saskatoon, started out with his company Solido in 2005, there was virtually no tech community at all.

"It wasn't until about five years ago that the pieces started getting pulled together and [the tech sector] started operating more like a sector and community trying to grow,” Dyck told Innovation Place.

The evolution of the Saskatchewan tech sector is a combination of anchor companies, big investments, and community coalescing and drawing attention to the once overlooked sector says Dyck. "There's bits and pieces that catch people's attention and there's these money pieces," Dyck said referring to Siemens' acquisitions of Solido in 2017, Vendasta raising $40 million in growth capital in 2019, and 7shifts raising $10 million in series A funding and an additional $6 million in 2019, "but there has to be some kind of glue."

He credits Co.Labs and its founder Jordan Dutchak with bringing the community together around his vision for an incubator accelerator and the companies that have been successful and make it worth having a community. "They created the opening [for the community] and he went and made it matter."

Community and Mentorship is What It's All About

Community is an oft-repeated word when describing the Saskatchewan tech sector and is usually followed by the phrase "it's about connection, not competition." That feeling is evident at Co.Labs Co.mmunity nights when hundreds of people turnout in support, including a couple uninvited but much-welcomed Saskatchewan politicians one time, and the Uniting the Prairies (UP) conference, which is projected to bring over 700 people and tech companies to Saskatchewan this year.

Dyck also credits Innovation Place for helping grow the tech sector by clustering tech companies together and encouraging them to interact. "Innovation Place is a great place to meet people and acts as a great catalyst to help build community," said Dyck, who has been at Innovation Place in Saskatoon since 2000.

Mentorship is also paramount to the evolving community and to Dyck who spends multiple hours per week working with early-stage tech companies. "I believe wisdom is a product of failure and the cheapest way to spread that isn't by watching other people fail in the same way, [but by] helping them avoid it," said Dyck.

This dedication is why he received the Ravi Maithel Find-A-Way award, which recognizes the perseverance and success of a Saskatchewan- or Alberta-based individual or organization in achieving a worthy goal and/or accomplishing a task that others thought was impossible. The award was presented at the annual Raj Manek Memorial Banquet on February 27.

Dyck was surprised to receive the award, initially thinking the email was spam, but was touched when it turned out to be real. "For me, it was a huge deal [because] this isn’t a job," Dyck said. "It's me giving back to the community and really trying to help new companies find the ramp and break out."

The award has only been given out three times, and two of these recipients represented the tech sector: Dyck in 2020 and Katherine Regnier from Coconut, an Innovation Place tenant in Saskatoon, in 2018. Dyck thinks it's indicative of other sectors finally taking notice of the tech sector and the momentum around it. This in turn offers non-tech professionals an opening to help grow the Saskatchewan tech sector too.

"There's this fairly young, fairly fragile tech sector," said Dyck. "They need all kinds of help, including traditional business tricks that they're missing." He thinks there's a great opportunity for successful, non-tech sector professionals to get involved and help these new companies build those more traditional business skills.

This approach will require reimagining the ingrained concept of tech companies from ones that exclusively build software to ones that revolutionize an aspect of their sector to make it fundamentally different or fundamentally better. But once they do that, the usual business fundamentals still apply.

The Magnetism of Saskatchewan

Two companies Dyck thinks people should take note of are SafetyTek, a workplace safety engagement platform in the Co.Labs program, and TAIV, a custom TV box hardware and software solution from Winnipeg, Manitoba. They both provide an informed and pragmatic solution or better alternative to their customers and allow them to improve their output or environment.

They've also tapped into Dyck's own formula for success and the key piece of advice he offers enterprise companies:

1. Talk to your customers and figure out what problems they will pay to solve

2. Build that solution

"It sounds really obvious," jokes Dyck, but notes that the crucial first step is where everyone fails. "They build something they think people want, but they don't confirm that it's something customers will pay for that they can build," says Dyck, putting emphasis on the "pay for" with staccatoed finger points.

If there's one thing you should take away, it's that yes there are a lot of problems, but very few that people will pay to solve and that you can build a solution for. Go and find that problem and build that solution folks!

When it comes to Sasktatchewan tech right now, Dyck is most excited by the anchor companies that are giving back and form the epicentre for the growing tech ecosystem and by the tech sector's ability to identify its biggest bottlenecks and address them as a community. The Saskatchewan tech of the future will hit a few bottlenecks, a talent crunch being the first, "but we're going to deal with that too," Dyck assures me. The future he sees for Saskatchewan tech is not just about Saskatchewan. "We're breaking down some of the borders and people are starting to come here and play in our community because we've got a lot going on here," said Dyck.

The magnetism of Saskatchewan is starting beyond our provincial borders and lure others in. But Dyck emphasizes, "Don't worry about the borders. Let's just make stuff work and make a mark."

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- March 9, 2020