Cochrane becomes an unlikely tech hotbed

April 14, 2016, The Globe and Mail: When Kip Fyfe and Victoria Brilz co-founded their first company, building their business in the town of Cochrane, located 35 kilometres northwest of downtown Calgary, was a matter of pure practicality.

The couple, both engineers, quit their office jobs in Calgary to start a wearable technologies company in 1998. Dynastream Innovations Inc.’s products for athletes included heart-rate monitors and foot pods, which are small devices for runners that monitor data such as distance and pace; the first customer was Nike.

Cochrane, a town rooted in ranching history, may seem an unlikely setting for a high-tech business, but three of the four founders, including Mr. Fyfe and Ms. Brilz, called Cochrane home. “We were super pragmatic and said, ‘How will we deal with kids and work?’” Mr. Fyfe says. It made sense to start the business where Mr. Fyfe and Ms. Brilz were raising their two young children.

The setup worked, and the business grew. In 2006, Garmin bought Dynastream for $36-million. Now called Garmin Cochrane, the company remains in town. Other entrepreneurs have joined Ms. Brilz’s and Mr. Fyfe’s lead, starting innovative companies that, collectively, have transformed Cochrane into an unlikely tech hotbed in a resource-dominated region.

Mr. Fyfe recently started another business in Cochrane, 4iiii Innovations. Its products – various sports electronics for cyclists – entered the market in 2012. Now Mr. Fyfe, CEO, and Ms. Brilz, chief business development officer, are back working in the same Cochrane office space where they started Dynastream.

Alongside 4iiii Innovations and Garmin Cochrane, a handful of companies are putting Cochrane on the map as a place to build tech businesses. The town, home to just over 23,000 people, has upwards of 20 “knowledge-based innovation companies,” says Robert Kalinovich, economic development officer for the Town of Cochrane.

“Some years back, a lot of people’s impression of Cochrane was it was a bedroom community of Calgary with good ice cream. That’s where it ended,” Mr. Kalinovich says. That perception is shifting, he says, thanks to the cluster of innovative companies making a name for themselves, many aiming to follow in Dynastream’s footsteps and achieve global reach.

While Mr. Fyfe started Dynastream in Cochrane for practical reasons, the location proved a good fit. “The rent is low, there’s free parking, and we’re close to the river for running and riding trails. Cochrane really is a nice town to work in,” Mr. Fyfe says. Of 4iiii Innovations’ 30 employees, Mr. Fyfe estimates about one-third live in Cochrane, with the rest residing in Calgary and commuting daily.

Cochrane’s absence of a business tax helps attract entrepreneurs, as does the near absence of traffic. Most commutes in town take mere minutes, Mr. Kalinovich says, while the international airport, in Calgary, is about a 40-minute drive away.

There’s been little focus on recruiting more companies, however, for a practical reason. “We really don’t have, at the moment, a lot of places to put [new companies],” Mr. Kalinovich says. “Most professional office space is full.”

Developers are being made aware of the situation, Mr. Kalinovich says, and a site downtown poised for redevelopment was sold on the condition commercial office space be built.

Cochrane’s popularity with entrepreneurs over other towns in Alberta may have something to do with its enviable location. The town is nestled in the Bow River Valley and surrounded by foothills, close to the Rocky Mountains.

The outdoorsy lifestyle possible in such a setting is attractive to entrepreneurs, says Cynthia van Sundert, executive director of The A100, an organization for founders and executives of Alberta tech companies. “There’s a balance between work and family and outdoors that Cochrane offers, while still being close to a major city,” Ms. van Sundert says.

While other towns looking to build and grow new economies can’t copy Cochrane’s geography, there are other takeaways. The Town of Cochrane supports its entrepreneurs by proudly sharing local stories, Ms. van Sundert says. “We need to be better at storytelling, and they seem to be good at that,” she says.

“We’ve been in the shadows of the oil and gas industry, but with [the price of] oil being down, it’s easier now to have a voice.”

Nathan MacLauchlan, chief technology officer at Frontier Telemetry, relocated his home-based startup a year and a half ago, when he moved from a Calgary apartment to a house in Cochrane.

While the move was motivated by more affordable housing and “awesome cycling” nearby, Mr. MacLauchlan, an engineer, has found it has also been a good fit for his business. Frontier Telemetry designs and manufactures remote camera systems that can easily integrate into Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) networks, systems for gathering and analyzing real-time data.

“[The move] has led to all sorts of interesting opportunities,” Mr. MacLauchlan says. He’s joined a local innovators group, and networked with other entrepreneurs in the Bow Valley, which encompasses nearby Canmore and Banff.

“Things seem to be a little slower pace here, not quite so frantic, and yet we still have a lot of resources,” Mr. MacLauchlan says.

Read this story at the Globe & Mail.

Council approves Renewable Energy Framework

The Town of Cochrane’s Renewable Energy Framework (REF) was made official, after council approved the plan April 27.

The REF will act as the guiding document for any renewable energy project proposed for the town, and was spurred by Cochrane High School’s wind turbine project and the subsequent backlash that came along with the school’s plans.

All councillors voted in favour of the REF, with the exception of Coun. Morgan Nagel, who said that he did very much appreciate the plan and what it was trying to accomplish, but that he could not support the document as it called for council to approve the possible allocation of $50,000 toward a renewable energy initiative from the town.

Nagel said giving council the option to approve spending $50,000 on a renewable energy project that the town would have no certainty as to whether it would be successful or not was not something he was willing to vote in favour of, despite his overall approval of the REF.

“I’m not anti-environment,” said Nagel, “just anti-wasted projects.”

Though Mayor Ivan Brooker said the allocation of the $50,000 was ‘pretty vague,’ he did approve the plan.

Town CAO Julian deCocq said, “It’s there to allocate to a recommended action to see a tangible policy.”
The money was not placed in the REF for any specific project, but rather as an option for council to approve toward a project that could come to fruition sometime in the future.

Renewable energy technologies that were studied for the purposes of the REF included solar, geo-exchange, biomass district energy, micro-hydro pressure reducing valves and small wind.

Solar was found to be the most viable in the Cochrane area, while small wind was the least.

Coun. Ross Watson said the possible funding was a good idea because it ‘keeps town departments looking for energy efficiencies.’

Coun. Tara McFadden agreed, saying the town must take a leadership role when it comes to renewable energy.

If the $50,000 renewable energy funding were to be requested, it would come before council during yearly budget deliberations and a decision would be made at that time.

Coun. Gaynor Levisky said that when it comes to renewable energy, all the little things add up.

Changing priorities
Council has updated its priority list for the next three years to reflect challenges, successes and changing demographics that it feels will be experienced from 2015-18.
The updated priorities will be used to build the 2016 divisional business plans and budgets. The Top 4 priorities for council moving forward are:
– Completion of Phase 4 of the aquatic/curling facility
– Improving roads and pathways
– Planning for a community cultural hub
– Implementing the Economic Development Strategy

Proudly Cochrane initiative continues

Mike Korman, the manager for the town’s Economic Development department, provided Council with an update on the Proudly Cochrane campaign at their meeting Monday night, a project that won them the 2015 Award of Excellence at the Economic Development of Alberta Convention.

Starting last September, the Shopping Cochrane initiative was launched with a focus on keeping more in town with local businesses rather than Calgary by delivering postcards to households detailing the shopping opportunities available in Cochrane and putting 1,100 reusable Proudly Cochrane shopping bags into circulation, which may be used in future initiatives at some point.

Administration also put out the word that they were looking for people to share their own experiences shopping in Cochrane and received about a dozen stories about why individuals choose to shop locally, which were then shared through social media.

Going forward, the Town is working on collecting new stories and business profiles that emphasize the uniqueness of Cochrane’s businesses which will then be put into a pamphlet that will be available around town and showcase the things made here in Cochrane. They add these profiles to the town website and www.makeithere.ca, a site created to draw in new business and encourage innovators to set up shop in Cochrane and that has drawn approximately 600 hits a month.

Another project in the works to keep people from constantly going out of town in the belief Cochrane has nothing to offer is an event pamphlet that will list all the things people can do in town between April and December, from the Extreme Cowboy Show to Footstock to Cochrane Vision Theatre shows.

Read the Cochrane Times article here.

Enhancing Historic Downtown has been a heated topic of discussion for Cochrane over last few years.
Vocal residents and business owners have been distressed about a number of issues and have been calling for action from the town to resolve them.

Barbara Lagore, who works at The Shoe Closet, expressed desire for there to be a change in traffic flow out of concern for pedestrians. When asked if she’d be in favour of enhancements through the use of a tax increase, she said yes.

“We really need to keep downtown going because, right now, it brings in so many people,” said Barbara Lagore, who works at The Shoe Closet.

Chris Tonkin, a Cochrane resident, wants to see enhancements but not if it means a tax hike in this economy.

“I don’t think we as Cochranites would benefit enough to warrant a tax increase,” Tonkin explained.
He would like to see more esthetically pleasing design and planning in the area that will “stand the test of time.” He also finds the traffic too busy in the area on the weekends and thinks there needs to be more options in terms of railway crossings.

The town currently has the maximum number of at-grade railway crossings permitted – which can cause traffic congestion. Any future crossings within the town will need to be built above or below-grade.
Pixie Charter, who works at Traditions A Country Store, is unsure of if she’d be in favour of the enhancements if there was a tax increase involved. She would like to see a playground in the area and more cafes to allow people to sit and visit.

Charter also said it was “frustrating” to not have public washrooms available. Currently, shoppers visiting the Historic Downtown must use the businesses’ private washrooms.

Resident Misty Kabanuk also believes adding public washrooms is imperative to improving shopping experience. She would be OK with any additional tax increase if needed for the enhancements.
“I think that part of taxes should be given to the community to enhance Cochrane and its residents. We have a lot of visitors to Cochrane, and the Historic Downtown is part of that.”

She thinks the district adds value to the whole town but would like to see more family-friendly restaurants in the area.

“I love the downtown part, it’s part of what makes Cochrane unique and homey to be honest – it’s part of Cochrane’s culture,” Kabanuk explained.

Cochrane town council accepted the Historic Downtown Revitalization Project report at the council meeting on March 29. As a result administration will prepare a 2016 capital budget request to begin Phase I work for the project.

“The Historic Downtown Revitalization Project presents an opportunity for the town to continue to strengthen this economically and historically important part of the town,” states a report written by Mike Korman, the economic development manager for the town.

The first phase of the project, called Enhancements Beginning in 2016, includes: creating a gathering space, adding tree plantings and “bump outs,” the creation of a banner program for the street lights, moving the Visitors Centre and public washrooms to Main Street, and more.

Administration held an open house on March 15 for Historic Downtown businesses to view and give feedback on potential enhancements. According to the report, approximately 30 people attended and provided positive feedback on the concepts.

Regarding financial implications for the project, the report states a budget for the enhancements beginning this year will be brought forward to town council as a spring budget adjustment.
Councillor Morgan Nagel had concerns regarding the proposed “bump outs” that would be used as patio spaces in front of businesses and whether the town would give them to the businesses or if the businesses would rent them from the town. Korman explained the details hadn’t been developed yet for the “bump outs”.

“I applaud you, this is awesome, thank you. I read through the plan and I was so excited,” said Councillor Mary Lou Davis-Eckmeier, who then made a motion to accept the report and direct administration regarding the budget. The motion was carried unanimously.

Read the Cochrane Eagle article here.

You won’t believe what’s made in Cochrane

The Cochrane Trade Show is always a great opportunity to connect with friends and neighbours and find out what local businesses and service providers are up to. This year, the Town is doing something new at its booth. It’s bigger and better than ever: a variety of local businesses are sharing the space and showing a variety of “made in Cochrane” products.

The Made in Cochrane campaign is part of Cochrane Economic Development’s Proudly Cochrane campaign, promoting local shopping and in support of local businesses. At the Trade Show, 17 local businesses have provided examples of things they make to help demonstrate the wide variety of commerce that is done here.

Cochrane Economic Development has done a great job getting unique and interesting businesses to participate, from high-tech gadgets, metal work and bronze statutes to coffee, tea and sweet treats. The display is all about promoting Cochrane as a great place to do business in general – the diversity, variety and international success you’ll see makes us all look good.

Everyone is invited to stop by the town’s booth at the Trade Show and see the samples for themselves, learn more about the companies that call Cochrane home, and talk to council members and staff about current town programs and initiatives. town staff will also be presenting the second year of TOWNTalks on specific topics (see list of topics in the trade show guide inside this paper).

We look forward to seeing you at the Cochrane Trade Show, April 30 and May 1 at Spray Lake Sawmills Family Sports Centre. Stop by and say hello!

Read the Cochrane Eagle article here.

Conceptual plans viewed

Conceptual designs to enhance the Historic Downtown have been presented to the district’s stakeholders and after adjustments are made could be presented to town council as soon as Mar. 29.

The response to the plan seemed to be positive, said Suzanne Gaida, senior manager of Community Services, who is working jointly on the project with economic development. Some suggestions were made and are being incorporated into the plan.

“We showed the merchants the renderings and the ideas that we had for what we want to do downtown and everyone was fairly positive, which was good,” said Gaida. “There’s a few little tweaks, but most people were happy and want to see it happening.”

Karrie Peace, chair of the Historic Downtown Cochrane Business Community, said the Mar. 15 presentation went well and there was a decent turnout of merchants.

“They had nice large poster-sized drawings with pictures of trees and benches along First and up some of the side streets,” said Peace. “They do plan to plant trees in the sidewalk. It will provide shade over the benches, and a place to string lights. They had some different sized archways placed at the intersections going into Historic Downtown–the big ones look quite grand. Pretty picture, for sure.”

Follow through, of course, is the big thing, but she’s holding out hope.

“The skeptic in me says, ‘So we have slick renderings and money spent on a vision–we have seen it before’. However, it does feel different this time; it feels like they may actually do something more than just appease us with pictures.”

Currently the report is being drafted by economic development manager Mike Korman and it is hoped it will be ready in time to present to town council for consideration on Mar. 29 or by Apr. 11 at the latest, said Gaida.

“At the next meeting we’re hoping to present the renderings as well as the report and then we will be, based on council approval of the report, be bringing some budget adjustments forward at a future date.”

The major goal right now is get the improvement plan approved as soon as possible so the town can start work on the first phase of the project.

Town council has established the project as a priority and the timelines set out by town department’s collaborating on the project have so far have been close to bang on target.

In addition, negotiations are underway to find a home for downtown public washrooms. Town council discussed the options during an incamera session at its Mar. 14 meeting.

“We’re diligently working to try and acquire a site in the downtown and we’re getting close, so hopefully, fingers crossed, if all bodes well we’ll be able to get council to approval some agreements there and if not it would be (April) 11th at the latest to be asking for a purchase or a long-term lease and the money to build them.”

Permanent public washrooms have long been a bone of contention in the Historic Downtown and it has been challenging to find the right location. There are currently public washrooms in the Homestead Building with the Visitor Information Centre but they are a distance from the shops in the Historic Downtown. Last summer the town located Port-a-potties on the dead end on 104th Ave. as a temporary measure.

“It was really about finding the right space,” she said.

“We will be open this year if we get the space.”

Gaida became involved in the project because the parks department’s expertise will be required for the tree plantings establishment of seating areas. But on a personal level, she’s excited to be part of the project.

“I’ve lived here for so long, and I love the Historic Downtown.”

Read the Cochrane Times article here.

Cochrane ranked one of Canada’s Top Entrepreneurial Cities in 2014

October 21, 2014, Canadian Federation of Independent Business: Historically, and for a variety of reasons, CFIB has found entrepreneurial characteristics to be strongest in Canada’s prairie cities and the urban areas that ring large urban cores. What they have in common is ‘newness’—the prairie economies have only been developed in the past 150 years or so. Only a few generations separate today’s urban prairie residents from their entrepreneurial forbearers. Similarly, suburban entrepreneurs sought the benefits of urban markets already in place, but found outlying areas more conducive to the structure and cost of doing business.

One often sees higher entrepreneurial activity in resource regions as well–although economies there can suffer from wider boom and bust business cycles. Favourable resource development conditions will attract businesses seeking to service increased activity—and, when conditions deteriorate, a strong base of experienced business owners often becomes the primary pillar of community support.

Among major centres, Canada’s overall top-ranked entrepreneurial communities in 2014 fit all these main characteristics. The combined communities of Airdrie, Rocky View, Cochrane and Chestermere that ring around Calgary’s periphery takes the top score of 70.8 out of a possible 100. This area also received the top score in 2012 and 2013. Periphery communities around Edmonton (which include Strathcona County, St. Albert, Parkland, Spruce Grove, Leduc and other smaller municipalities) climbs to second spot. Saskatoon slipped back a little, but still held its place above Saskatchewan’s other major city Regina. Kelowna is not far behind in fifth spot.

Among mid-sized urban areas, the prairie region is also still well represented, including Lloydminster, Fort McMurray, Grande Prairie and Red Deer. Here, the obvious common element is the resource sector, which has offered many new entrepreneurial and development opportunities. Medicine Hat is another Alberta community in the top 10, as are Camrose and Brooks, which are new to the study this year. Another newcomer, Collingwood, is Ontario’s representative in the group, while Thetford Mines and Saint-Georges takes Quebec’s top spots.

Click here to read the full report.

By:
Ted Mallett, Vice-President & Chief Economist
Simon Gaudreault, Senior Economist
Andreea Bourgeois, Senior Analyst