Northwest Startup Supporters Grow U.S.-Canada Economic Ties

Xconomy Seattle — 

There’s a new network organizing the incubators, accelerators, and investors fostering innovation in the Pacific Northwest on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border.

Business collaboration across the 49th parallel is having a moment, thanks in no small part to a dramatic divergence in immigration policies between the two countries this year that have prompted U.S. tech companies to establish or grow their presence in Canada to access talent from around the world.

The Cascadia Venture Acceleration Network (CVAN) is focused on collaboration at the grass-roots level of the innovation economy—specifically the cleantech, life sciences, and IT industries—in the broad area known as Cascadia, encompassing Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia, Canada.

Through the network, which counts 48 organizations—including venture capital firms, university entrepreneurship programs, and trade groups—entrepreneurs from across the region will have access to a wide array of commercialization and research opportunities, angel and venture investors, potential customers and partners, and events and resources, says Lewis Coughlin, consul and trade commissioner at the Consulate General of Canada in Seattle, which is organizing the CVAN.

Representatives from the participating groups are expected to sign a memorandum of understanding at a gathering Friday in Seattle.

CVAN, which went by the name Cascadia Innovation Network when it was announced at a regional conference in September, is in the spirit of the Cascadia Innovation Corridor effort, which has gained momentum in the last two years.

In 2016, government and business groups held an inaugural conference in Vancouver to kick off the latest iteration of a concept that has a lengthy history in the Pacific Northwest, dating back at least to early 20th century efforts to unite the region by road. Microsoft President Brad Smith has been a leading proponent of the Cascadia Innovation Corridor, which seeks to tighten the economic, academic, and transportation ties that bind the hubs of research and business along the Interstate 5 corridor—the descendant of the Pacific Highway that resulted from those first collaborations more than a century ago.

The closer regional collaboration comes as Canada has gained ground on the U.S. in encouraging technology innovation, particularly when it comes to attracting the most talented people from around the world. And the cross-border business ties are not confined to Cascadia. Detroit and Windsor, Ontario, contemplated a joint bid for Amazon’s second headquarters, for example.

U.S. tech companies were already interested in Canada before the Trump administration began tightening immigration rules here. Canada, meanwhile, announced its Global Skills Strategy earlier this year, streamlining processing of temporary work permits for immigrants with sought-after skills.

Canada, says Coughlin, “is rolling out the red carpet to make it easier for companies in Canada, which includes U.S. companies that set up shop in Canada, to bring in talent from overseas when it’s not available locally.”

He says he’s seen a significant uptick over the last six months in interest from Seattle-area tech companies that want to establish operations in Vancouver both to take advantage of the more liberal immigration rules, and to tap talent emerging from universities there.

“They can’t get all the talent they need [in Seattle], so they’re looking at setting up a satellite office in Vancouver, recruiting in Vancouver, but also bringing in people from India and China and wherever as needed, with a 10-day work permit turnaround rather than six months under the new guidelines,” Coughlin says.

Canada also offers generous research and development tax credits.

“A lot of software engineering companies, like the Microsofts and Amazons and smaller companies of that nature that have gone to Vancouver and set up a presence, they’re taking advantage of those R&D tax credits,” he says.

The CVAN, meanwhile, is more about nascent startups looking for commercialization help, or those that are still in the pre-commercial phase that may need assistance from the region’s research universities. While it is independent, the initiative has benefitted from the first two Cascadia Innovation Corridor conferences, Coughlin says.

“It really exploded even in the last couple of months, just because of the tremendous interest and goodwill that those two conferences have generated, and the interest, at the grassroots level, of universities, incubators, these partners, these investors,” he says. “They’re all kind of coming at it from their own perspective.”

For Cambia Grove, the Seattle-based healthcare innovation space where the CVAN members were gathering Friday, participating in the network “gives us access to a wider network of organizations and innovators who can bring forth ideas to help solve some of our most complex health challenges,” executive director Maura Little says via e-mail. In particular, she’s optimistic about what healthcare innovators can learn from closer partnerships with the cleantech and IT industries. (Cambia Grove recently hosted Xconomy’s Healthcare + A.I. Northwest event.)

“As one example, understanding new cybersecurity technologies from the IT sector will be crucial in health care as we move to a more digitized platform,” Little says. “We are also looking forward to learning from the Canadian health care system as we move to transform our own domestic health care system.”

The CVAN will begin a series of programs in 2018. Plans include “soft landings” for startups that want to expand into another market in the region through shared office space and other resources provided by incubators and accelerators participating in the network. The CVAN also wants to build on the Cascadia Venture Forum, a series of life sciences pitch competitions that took place in Seattle, Portland, OR, and Vancouver in October, broadening the scope to include cleantech and tech startups, Coughlin says. “Those are the starting point,” he says. “There’s more to come.”

The organizations signing up to join the CVAN are, from Washington:

Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, Alliance of Angels, Cambia Grove, Cancer Research And Biostatistics, CleanTech Alliance, Flying Fish Partners, E8 Angels, Life Science Washington, Life Science Washington Institute, Liquid Capital Northwest, Readiness Acceleration Innovation Network, SURF Incubator, Technology Alliance Group for NW Washington, University of Washington, Voyager Capital, Washington State University, Washington Technology Industry Association, Western Washington University, and WINGS—The Medical Technology Angels.

From Oregon: Oregon BEST, Oregon Bioscience Association, Oregon Entrepreneurs Network, Oregon Health & Sciences University, Oregon State University, Oregon Translational Research & Development Institute, Portland State University, Technology Association of Oregon, University of Oregon, Oregon Nanoscience and Microtechnologies Institute, Oregon RAIN, and Willamette Angels.

From British Columbia: Accelerate Okanagan, Accel-Rx, British Columbia Cancer Agency Branch, BC Innovation Council, BC Tech Association, Cascadia Venture Forum, Espresso Capital, Foresight CleanTech Accelerator, Kensington Capital Partners, Innovation Boulevard Society, Life Sciences BC, Mitacs, New Ventures BC, Simon Fraser University, University of British Columbia, Victoria Innovation, Advanced Tech & Entrepreneurship Council, and Wavefront.

Photo credit: The Peace Arch at the U.S.-Canada border, photo by jmv via Flickr used under a CC BY 2.0 license.