Last week, Kelowna-based Accelerate Okanagan appointed Brea Lake as its new CEO. Lake, who has been the acting CEO of the hub for the past nine months, spoke with BetaKit about her vision for the region and what she plans to bring to the role.
“As a community, we’ve set some big goals and I am looking forward to leading our team and supporting the entire ecosystem in achieving them.”
– Brea Lake
Within the next five years, the Okanagan tech ecosystem is expected to have an economic impact of $5 billion and a Level 5 Techstars Community Score, with Accelerate Okanagan looking to multiply its company membership by five-fold. These are big goals for a relatively small region, but Lake told BetaKit that with a growth rate of about 15 percent year-over-year, one of the fastest in Canada, the Okanagan Valley is well-positioned to meet these goals, adding that community resources like Accelerate Okanagan are the key drivers of the ecosystem’s current trajectory.
“To really grow at that rate, you need to put extra support around the companies that are in our region,” said Lake. “A lot of the time, [Accelerate Okanagan] are the ones that are bringing the right groups into the room to come up with strong solutions. What we find is we are very strong at building authentic relationships that help to solve some of these big challenges that will create a thriving community for our region.”
Lake is an Okanagan College alumnus, and has experience with companies like Disney’s Interactive Studios, where she was responsible for curriculum development, global training, and policy documentation. She had previously served as director of operations for Accelerate Okanagan, where she managed the team and implemented entrepreneurial programming and strategic initiatives. Accelerate Okanagan said the board was “unanimous” in the decision to select Lake out of a pool of 120 candidates.
“We had some incredible candidates apply for this position but Brea stood out above the rest,” said Quinton Pullen, board chairman at Accelerate Okanagan. “We are fortunate to have someone with her vision, team leadership, and ability to build community lead our organization through this next stage of growth.”
“They did a lot of community consultation, which I think was greatly appreciated in a more rural region like the Okanagan,” Lake told BetaKit. “Everyone felt like they had a seat at the table and a voice on where we should be taking the innovation sector and tech, which is one of our primary industries here.”
Lake is currently an advisory board member for the Canadian Digital Media Network, an executive committee member for the Cascadia Venture Acceleration Network, director for the Okanagan College Foundation, and an executive board member of the YMCA Okanagan.
The organization said Lake, her team, and various community partners and players have distinguished three main areas of focus they believe will help the region meet these goals: engage the willing through relationship building, unlock capital through collaboration and network-building, and coach leaders through strong mentorship.
One of the key focus areas of Accelerate Okanagan’s five-year plan is to grow into a level five Techstars community, which means finding more community leaders who can help to grow tech companies and unlocking new capital. The Techstars community scores assess the state of an ecosystem’s maturity level based on the principles of entrepreneurial leadership, inclusivity, network over hierachy, and a “give first” mentality. In its last assessment, the Okanagan region was ranked at level 3, finding that Okanagan’s biggest opportunities for growth were in talent and culture.
“At any stage of the entrepreneurial journey, you should be able to raise capital in your own backyard,” Lake said. “So in the next couple of years, we’re really focusing on the angel investors first, but how we can start to scale that up so that a local company can actually raise a Series A potentially just here within the Okanagan Valley.”
Lake said the region is home to many retirees from other tech hubs across North America, which are likely investing in other sectors like real estate, and her hope is that Accelerate Okanagan can tap into that capital for the region’s tech ecosystem and entrepreneurs. Ongoing Accelerate Okanagan initiatives include the OKGN Angel Summit, an investor-led event aimed to raise awareness about angel investing and to educate accredited investors and entrepreneurs in a participatory manner. The hub also runs a national conference called the Canadian Accelerator Summit, which allows accelerator leaders from different regions to discuss best practices and apply leadership frameworks across Canada.
The CEO noted another challenge is one that most of the country is currently facing: access to senior-level talent. “I think any tech ecosystem is facing that [issue] right now, and we’re not unique,” she said. “What we’re trying to do is come up with a long term talent strategy for the whole community that will help even the entry-level talent grow so that they can take on more of those senior leadership roles.”
Lake and her team’s approach is to brand the region externally on both a national and international scale, to help spur a new influx of talent to the region and promote a more diverse workforce. To do this, the team has been putting more emphasis on women in tech, but also in working with Indigenous-led companies and collaborating with local First Nations communities.
“One of the reasons why [the Okanagan] region has been very successful is that it has always involved the community,” Raghwa Gopal, president and CEO of Innovate BC and former CEO of Accelerate Okanagan, told BetaKit. “That’s why over the last six years, it’s been the fastest-growing tech innovation ecosystem in the entire country. Brea has that quality of uniting and bringing the community along.”
Over the last six months, the region has secured over $2.7 million in funding, as well as contributions from agencies like the National Research Council of Canada and the Western Economic Diversification initiative.
“If you’re looking at this particular region, agriculture and tourism have been the bread and butter for the last hundred years,” Gopal told BetaKit. “Over just over the last five years, tech and innovation have contributed about $1.7 [billion] to $1.8 billion, which is more than agriculture and tourism combined. It’s already kind of surpassed what the traditional economy has done.”
“There is no question that big things are happening in Okanagan tech,” Lake said. “As a community, we’ve set some big goals and I’m looking forward to leading our team and supporting the entire ecosystem in achieving them.”
Image courtesy Accelerate Okanagan