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Upbeat signs for Greater Victoria tech firms amid pandemic

Billed as nimble, innovative and resilient, Victoria’s high-tech sector appears to be weathering the economic storm of the pandemic, says a report from the Victoria Innovation, Advanced Technology and Entrepreneurship Council.
Electrical engineer Martin Kellinghusen works on a project at StarFish Medical.

Billed as nimble, innovative and resilient, Victoria’s high-tech sector appears to be weathering the economic storm of the pandemic, says a report from the Victoria Innovation, Advanced Technology and Entrepreneurship Council.

The survey of local tech firms found the vast majority of companies have either held onto all employees or increased their workforce over the last three months, while the bulk of them believe they can handle pandemic restrictions for at least a year.

“We’re not surprised to see these companies are optimistic,” said VIATEC chief executive Dan Gunn, noting tech leaders tend to be willing to adapt when needed and see change as an opportunity.

Gunn said the survey revealed there is a small segment of the tech sector that is struggling and their survival is up in the air, but he said compared to sectors like retail and hospitality, the tech sector is generally doing alright.

The survey of 88 local firms found 44 per cent report stable revenue levels, while just 6.5 per cent report experiencing drop in revenue of in excess of 50 per cent.

Nearly 75 per cent of respondents felt they could survive the current restrictions for at least one year, while nearly 50 per cent said they could survive under the current conditions indefinitely.

The survey found 30 per cent of companies have added staff through the crisis while 47 per cent have maintained staffing levels and 23 per cent reports cutting workers.

It also suggested 50 per cent of tech companies intend to increase head counts again when the crisis passes.

Gunn said there is a chance the sector could emerge from the pandemic stronger than before.

“We were pleasantly surprised by the number of companies expecting head counts to increase, it’s a great sign they are treating this as a moment and not a forever,” he said.

The VIATEC job board has also bounced back. The board featured 100 job postings before lockdown, dropped to as low as 35 in April, and now sits around the 85-mark.

Scott Phillips, chief executive of StarFish Medical, said his company has been riding a bit of a wave over the last few months.

“From a business perspective it’s generally been pretty positive for us,” he said, noting they have benefited from investments in their facilities made last year and a high-profile ventilator program during the pandemic.

StarFish, the country’s largest medical-device design company, was contracted to manufacture 7,500 ventilators, part of an effort to manufacture 30,000 ventilators in Canada to meet an expected shortage of the life-saving medical equipment needed in severe cases of COVID-19.

As the company nears the end of that contract, its regular market appears to have stirred from slumber and they are now seeing new work hit their doorstep, Phillips said. Investments made a year ago in their bio-tech services, which include diagnostic equipment, are paying off as the kind of equipment they are set up to manufacture aligns well with a post-COVID world.

He noted they have even signed two major deals in the last few weeks with companies they have never met before, suggesting these could be examples of the silver lining for all tech companies on the Island.

Phillips said there’s no way, pre-COVID, they would have been able to sign major deals with companies they had never worked with given the million-dollar commitment required.

“If the markets get more used to doing business with people far away, it may remove the friction from the [Island’s] technology industry by and large,” he said.

Clayton Stark, chief technology officer for gaming studio Stillfront, said the gaming sector has also been lifted by the number of people staying home.

“It appears most, if not all, entertainment and gaming companies have seen a noticeable increase in customer engagement during the pandemic,” he said. “We are fortunate to be in this business, as we’ve seen an uptick in time spent playing, which translates into strong revenues.”

Overall, Gunn said how companies deal with the pandemic and the economic turmoil depends on the sectors they serve, as some that focus on supporting the hospitality industry will definitely be feeling the pinch.

“When we see how well tech is doing generally it’s testament to its global focus and making things that are innovative and the innovative nature of the companies that allows them to adapt and be agile,” he said.