Saskatchewan’s tech sector might not rival the scale of its eastern and western counterparts, but it’s no slouch when it comes to innovation.
Recent years have seen the ascendance of players like SkipTheDishes, Vendasta, 7shifts, and Coconut Software. But even as those companies have scaled, and in some cases exited, Saskatchewan has historically been characterized as a “flyover province” for VCs, according to Jordan McFarlen, business incubation manager at Regina-based tech incubator Cultivator.
“That’s what really prompted us to bring together the talent from both the technology community, so developers and data scientists, as well as business and design communities, and really be intentional about supporting the growth of more companies and creating that next wave,” McFarlen told BetaKit.
Cultivator was launched in 2019 by Conexus Credit Union to address the gaps and barriers in Saskatchewan’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. The incubator, which runs four startup growth programs for local tech companies, has worked for the last four years to help buttress the region’s visibility on the national tech stage.
“In a short period of time from 2019 to 2023, [to] surpass $100 million, it’s pretty remarkable.”
This week, it hit a new benchmark: the companies nurtured through Cultivator have collectively raised more than $100 million in private capital since 2019. For McFarlen, the milestone serves as a validation of not only what Cultivator’s founders are building, but also that Saskatchewan has the chops to cultivate a highly successful tech ecosystem.
“In year one, our first-quarter companies raised $1.1 million, and we were actually super pumped about it—that was a big deal,” McFarlen said. “But we also knew it wasn’t a mega-milestone. In a short period of time from 2019 to 2023, [to] surpass $100 million, it’s pretty remarkable.”
At the time of Cultivator’s launch more than four years ago, Saskatchewan startups received less than 0.5 percent of all venture capital invested across the country. Cultivator was one of two initiatives launched by Conexus Credit Union to help address this funding gap and bolster Saskatchewan’s prowess as a tech hub.
Later in 2019, Conexus launched a $32-million venture fund, and two years later, launched its second fund, Emmertech, a now $60-million VC fund targeting Canadian AgTech startups. Per the CVCA, Conexus Venture Capital is now among the country’s most active early-stage VC funds.
Cultivator operates three incubation programs: “Start,” a three-month, program for pre-revenue startups; “Grow,” a one to two-year program for founders focused on product-market fit; and “Scale,” a one-year program for companies generating over $250,000 in annual recurring revenue. Cultivator also runs an AgTech-focused acceleration program for both Canadian and international startups.
As part of its broader goal to support the next wave of Saskatchewan tech companies, one of the biggest challenges, McFarlen said, was getting investors from across Canada to give the province a closer look. For the team, it meant attending national events like Startupfest and eventually launching its own two-day event, Startup Summit, to draw investors into the province.
“If we could get an investor out to Saskatchewan, we would provide them with an absolutely amazing experience; going to Roughriders football game, walking around Wascana Park, [letting them] experience that Prairie hospitality,” McFarlen said.
Attracting these investors often involved emphasizing what McFarlen believes are some of Saskatchewan’s “unfair advantages” as a tech hub. One unexpected strength, he said, is its relatively small size. Given its smaller population, McFarlen believes the local tech sector is much more tight-knit and collaborative compared to larger Canadian cities.
The perception of Saskatchewan as a “flyover province” for investors has also cultivated a more tenacious cadre of entrepreneurs, McFarlen noted. “These founders were so resilient because they had to traditionally rely on not accessing capital as early, and had typically had to build bootstrapped businesses and show traction earlier to even get a look,” he added.
Another key advantage, McFarlen continued, is the Saskatchewan government’s keen interest in supporting its tech ecosystem. In fact, the provincial government collaborated with Cultivator through its innovation and economic development agencies in 2021 to launch the AgTech-focused accelerator program.
“I think Saskatchewan’s collaborative and entrepreneurial nature has made a small but extremely mighty ecosystem,” he added.
Over 100 companies have been incubated by Cultivator since 2019, and according to the incubator, these companies have collectively raised $115.8 million in private capital, $49.6 million in public funding, and generated $64.1 million in revenue.
One of those companies is Offstreet, which has developed a license plate-based parking validation software and has been a member of Cultivator since the summer of 2019. Matt Fahlman, co-founder and CEO of Offstreet described his company’s experience at Cultivator as “overwhelmingly positive.”
“We grew from a couple of founders with an idea to a team of [over] 10, surpassing $1 million in ARR run rate, and closed a seven-figure capital raise,” Fahlman added.
Thanks to its location in Canada’s breadbasket, Cultivator has also supported a strong cohort of AgTech companies, such as Precision AI, which raised $20 million in venture funding in 2021, and ChrysaLabs, which has raised $19 million since its first day in the program.
“Cultivator was an amazing launchpad for us in the Western Canadian [agriculture] market,” said Samuel Fournier, co-founder and CEO of ChrysaLabs. “The team has deep roots in the ecosystem, making it easy for startups to connect with key opinion leaders and decision makers.”
Cultivator’s latest funding milestone comes amid two other notable developments for the incubator. Last week, it was announced that Cultivator was named a member of C100, which connects Canadian Silicon Valley “insiders” with founders in Canada to unlock capital, talent, and information across the two regions.
McFarlen said Cultivator is the first organization in the Canadian Prairies to be named as a member, and added that he believes access to the C100’s network will open up more opportunities for the incubator’s founders to learn from individuals who have scaled “very, very impressive companies.”
“C100 is the real deal, and we’ve been aspiring to that for a long time,” McFarlen added.
The milestone also comes amid a moment of change for Cultivator and Conexus Venture Capital. This week, Sean O’Connor announced he would be stepping away from his role as managing director of Conexus Venture Capital and Emmertech. McFarlen said O’Connor and the Conexus Venture Capital Fund have “made a huge impact on the ecosystem.”
According to McFarlen, Cultivator’s team is already looking to the next $100 million milestone. Amid the recent fundraising headwinds in Canadian tech, he said Cultivator is currently focused on getting “founders out of the ecosystem to raise” while also continuing to amplify Saskatchewan’s tech sector across Canada.
“We’ll just be continuing to double down [on the belief that] Saskatchewan has some of the most ambitious founders in the country, and that it’s a great place to build a tech company,” he added. “We’ll maintain that conviction and continue to try to produce outsized results for our little ecosystem here on the Prairies.”
Photos courtesy of Cultivator.