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Foreign brain drain huge gain for Victoria tech

Immigrants develop software and IT firm with 50 employees
Praveen Ramachandran, left, and George Philip of AOT Technologies: Expertise across the applications spectrum.

Greater Victoria’s technology sector has been blessed with world-class post-secondary institutions, research facilities and a climate and setting that helps to attract both workers and companies.

It’s also evident the sector has inadvertently reaped benefits from the U.S. immigration system.

Citing the number of hurdles to clear to just study or work in the U.S., to say nothing of the length of time it takes to become a citizen, several young tech entrepreneurs have opted for Canada, and the shores of Victoria for a chance to spread their wings.

The young Indian men behind early-stage start-ups Pani Energy and HRG Infrastructure Monitoring are here because the U.S. presented problems. The rapidly expanding Freshworks Studio — also founded by Indian-born entrepreneurs — is headquartered here because visas, immigration and being able to start a business would have been much more difficult in the U.S.

It’s a story George Philip and Praveen Ramachandran, who went to school together in India, know too well.

The 37-year-old friends and collaborators founded AOT Technologies in Victoria seven years ago, after both worked separately in the U.S., but saw long and difficult paths to citizenship and a chance to start their own businesses.

In Canada, they saw a chance to once again work together, and seven years along their company is about to take flight.

AOT Technologies started with the idea of establishing a consulting and software development firm that would provide services to other companies.

This year, AOT, which first hit the $1-million revenue mark in 2015 and hit $3.3 million in 2018, will hire 20 people, bringing its payroll to 50 employees, and will have established offices in Vancouver and Seattle.

Sitting in their new Sayward Building offices — 2,000 square feet in the 1200-block of Douglas St. in the heart of their adopted city — the two founders say it’s an exciting time, and that after seven years of working to establish their business and their reputations it’s time to flex their muscles.

“We both had an idea of developing our own products and we are both passionate about software development, so we wanted a platform that would fund our ideas,” said Ramachandran. The business model includes IT consulting, contract product development for other companies and producing their software applications.

“We feel we are really on a growth track,” he said.

Rob Bennett, chief operating officer at the Victoria Innovation, Advanced Technology and Entrepreneurship Council, said he’s not surprised AOT is taking off.

“Their growth rate is phenomenal. I’m not surprised they are able to do it because of the sorts of individuals they are,” he said.

Bennett saw them first hand when AOT went through VIATEC’s accelerator program with a software product.

“Both AOT and Freshworks were in the accelerator and both at one point faced dire circumstances, a turning point. Their tenacity got each of them through it,” Bennett said.

“When the tough got going, they got tough. They are both rocketships and they have numbers of people both here and [India] and have the flexibility which ends up allowing them to do all sorts of contract work.”

He noted their market timing has been good.

“This is the age when everyone wants a customized app on every platform and people don’t want to ignore the web,” he said. “Well, these companies have the expertise across that spectrum.”

AOT’s growth has been paced by a steady stream of government work. Philip said the province’s new procurement strategy has opened the door to smaller firms to bid on complex and interesting projects.

That has done a couple of things for AOT, he said.

“That’s’ really helped us to grow,” he said of a firm that specializes in integrating large enterprise IT systems.

It has also enabled AOT to attract and keep top-end talent, which has been known to leave either for more money or for more interesting work.

The company has a program, again designed to keep top talent, that allows all employees to pitch a project each month. The one that gets the most votes will be funded by AOT.

“We are still in our early stages, but we have a proven business model and proven we can make high quality software ... and that we can compete and win government contracts and deliver on time and on budget,” said Philip.

He said that’s brought them to the point of serious expansion, which he looks at as an opportunity to export the Victoria advantage — collaboration.

Philip said the collegial nature of the tech sector allows small and mid-sized firms to partner to go after bigger business in places like the U.S.

“As we go outside of this market to bring [those companies] together at the table to other markets. It’s a Victoria capability we can bring,” he said.