From A.I. to drones: B.C. to hold its first-ever tech summit

VANCOUVER -- Greg Caws calls home a cattle ranch in the East Kootenay community of Wardner and says he appreciates the perspective of rural British Columbia, where relatives have worked as miners and loggers.

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He's also an entrepreneur who champions the technology sector with unsung stories of companies marrying those traditional industries with cutting-edge innovations.

There are drones being designed in Nelson for prospectors, a robotic drilling rig that walks north of Fort St. John, and a tiny camera developed in Vancouver that can descend down a borehole for kilometres.

"Every time you hear the bogeyman stories about, 'Oh, our jobs are going to be taken,' it never happens," said Caws, president of the B.C. Innovation Council, explaining that work conventionally done by hands is instead moving to heads.

"One of the things that makes people fearful is because they don't understand or they don't know -- it's in their peripheral vision."

He's hoping that a made-in-B.C. technology showcase will illuminate the visionary achievements of businesses across the province and help British Columbians embrace futuristic technologies that are revolutionizing every industry.

The ".BCTECH Summit," running Monday and Tuesday in Vancouver, is a first for the province and expected to bring in about 3,000 participants, including business leaders, entrepreneurs, academics, public servants and students.

Companies from clean technology, mobile wireless, virtual reality and artificial intelligence to forestry, energy and transportation will participate.

"A whole plethora of companies that don't typically meet," Caws said. "That cross-pollination of ideas is where B.C. will drive its advantage."

Highlights will include holograms, 3D printing, electric cars and a 4D Portal exhibit, demonstrations by startups, a coding camp, and speakers who will be simulcast to classrooms across B.C., including keynote futurist Ray Kurzweil.

The provincial government is hosting the event, not only to vault the tech industry's profile at home and globally, but to increase the industry's share in the B.C. economy.

Technology and Innovation Minister Amrik Virk said B.C. intends to build a stronger "knowledge-based economy" that co-exists with the natural-resources sector and underpins all industries.

He said the summit is as large, if not larger, as its liquefied natural gas conferences -- and emphasized the two are tied, because new technology will make LNG more efficient.

"Tech is one of (our) many strengths. We're going to put it very high on our priority (list)," said Virk, who spent the past year meeting with representatives from hundreds of tech companies.

"We can sell technology everywhere else across the world after we develop it. It's something that stays after fossil fuels."

The province counts 86,000 direct jobs in the industry and aspires to grow that to 130,000 or more, Virk said.

It's B.C.'s third-largest industry, representing $15.6 billion or 7.6 per cent of the provincial GDP, according to the B.C. Technology Report Card by KPMG.

The 2014 report found the industry was strong provincially, but trailed other Canadian tech hubs on issues like availability of venture capital and talent pools.

Recognizing room for improvement, Premier Christy Clark is scheduled to unveil two more pillars of B.C.'s three-pronged tech strategy at the summit, focusing on talent and markets. In December, she announced a $100-million venture-capital fund to assist early stage tech firms.

Ray Walia, CEO of Launch Academy, a non-profit that's been prolific getting startups off the ground, said politicians haven't focused enough on tech until recently, but he believes they're now making strides.

"They're trying to learn as much as they can and catch up to what's been happening," he said.

Walia said governments must develop stronger relationships with savvy millennial entrepreneurs, who "live and breathe" tech, while relying less on advisers from the "dinosaur generation."

Government should play an important but not exclusive role in growing the sector, said Don Mattrick, the summit's industry chair, describing the transforming economy as a "renaissance."

Mattrick cited research that the population of cities worldwide will shift from 52 to 70 per cent over the next 20 years, making urban centres impractical for traditional industries like manufacturing.

"That's really what this conference is about," said Mattrick, who has held president positions at Electronic Arts and Microsoft. "Us building awareness and getting confident that we can grow as a community and have people become our No. 1 natural resource."


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