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Burgeoning tech sector primed for big year after major investment in 2019 – CBC.ca

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An interconnected tech ecosystem is sprouting in Saskatchewan thanks to eager startups, established tech companies, venture capital funds and the provincial government.

The shared goal is to make Saskatchewan a destination for tech companies to grow and thrive. The provincial government has a goal of tripling the tech sector by 2030 and its tax incentive aimed at startups is having a major impact, less than a year into its existence.

The signs are there. According to the most recent report from the Canadian Venture Capital and Private Equity Association, nearly $100 million in venture capital was invested in Saskatchewan in 2019 — more than the past five years combined.

More than half of that investment went to two Saskatoon-based tech companies: Vendasta and 7Shifts.

The investors

Regina businessman Jason Drummond is one of those keen to invest. 

A year and a half ago — with the help of more than a dozen friends and associates — Drummond decided to invest in eight prairie startups: four in Regina, three in Saskatoon and one in Winnipeg.

The group calls itself the Broad Street Bulls.

Drummond said it was the first group in the province to commit to funding tech startups at the earliest stages.

“This is typically the hardest stage to attract capital. Founders usually beg and plead with family and friends to get the ball rolling,” he said.

“Before they can get funding from the larger [venture capital] firms they need angel investors or individuals to back them and support them with mentorship and help them build their business.”

The Bulls’ fund, which is now moving into its second stage, is growing. Drummond brought in managing partner Trevor Phenix to help take the fund to its next round.

Phenix said the Bulls provide more than just money. The network of investors “can provide everything from sales support to mentorship.”

“What we’re doing is helping them develop as individuals that are about to go and build big companies,” Phenix said.

Drummond said the ultimate goal is to create something lasting, rooted in Saskatchewan.

“What it does is create jobs, attracts talent, attracts people. Our kids can hopefully come out of university and be really excited to stay here and work on some innovative projects with some innovative companies,” Drummond said.

“What our group is really excited about is being able to invest in our own backyard. It’s going to be a great thing long-term for the city and province.”

He said he wants to create momentum and bring as many people along as possible.

“We can’t do all these deals ourselves. We can’t even do one deal all by ourselves; we’ve got to pull in others.”

The startup

One of the Bulls’ investments was Offstreet. Started in 2016 by Matt Fahlman and Kyle Smyth in Regina, the company sells parking management software.

Offstreet offers parking validation software that makes it easier for businesses to pay for and validate customer parking.

Smyth said the company, which has a presence in a handful of Canadian cities, is focused on further North American expansion but parking is a worldwide market.

“We can grow the product to anywhere in the world, but parking problems exist, whether its South America, Europe or China,” Smyth said. 

In the second half of 2019, Offstreet signed contracts with two major parking companies based in Vancouver, prompting Fahlman to temporarily move there, while the staff works in Regina.

Fahlman said early funding provided by the Bulls is filling a gap, allowing companies to get going and build out before securing a larger investment from bigger funds.

“Being able to get that first $100,000 to $200,000, there’s not a lot of options for that as young companies. If they can kind of help fill that gap it helps a lot of startup companies,” Fahlman said.

Kyle Smyth is one of the co-founder’s of Offstreet Technology. The parking software company experienced its largest growth in 2019, thanks in part to support from local investors. (CBC)

“What we’re hoping to do is be one of those early anchor companies that can, you know, show some sizeable growth in the next couple of years and employ a significant number of developers.”

Fahlman said Saskatoon’s existing tech companies had been established for several years before growing to 100 or more employees. In a year, Offstreet went from two employees to five and is expecting further growth in 2020.

The credit union

For the past 12 months, Offstreet’s staff have been working from a unique space in Regina called Cultivator, a business incubator established by Conexus Credit Union.

Sean O’Connor moved from Vancouver to run Conexus’s venture capital fund, which was launched in 2019. The $32-million fund is the first in the province dedicated to tech companies. The fund invests in companies further along in their development.

O’Connor said groups like the Bulls get involved financially in startups at an earlier stage than Conexus. To borrow a sports analogy, Conexus is scouting the Bulls’ investments and will be ready with their money when the time comes. 

“Having the proper angel fund like the Bulls here — that understands technology companies and how to grow — has really been a huge boost to the ecosystem.” O’Connor said.

“Our belief is that entrepreneurs in Saskatchewan are exceptional and because it’s been a largely overlooked province in the technology ecosystem we can drive outsized returns while we’re really supporting the entrepreneurs while they’re trying to build and scale their companies,” O’Connor said.

He said in 2017 and 2018, Saskatchewan secured less than half a per cent of all the venture capital deployed in Canada, but 2019 was a different story.

“[As of October] we are $98 million deployed in venture capital into startups in 2019, which is more than the past five years combined.”

Sean O’Connor is the venture capital fund manager at Conexus. The Saskatchewan-based credit union has a $32 million investment fund dedicated to tech. (CBC)

The incentive

Conexus, Offstreet, and the Bulls point to a government incentive that has allowed more people to invest in startups while assuming less risk.

The Saskatchewan Technology Startup Incentive (STSI) started as a government pilot in 2018. It allows for a 45 per cent tax credit for investments into eligible startups.

The province’s minister responsible for innovation, Tina Beaudry-Mellor, said about $8 million has been invested, resulting in $3.5 million in tax credits for 123 investors with 51 tech companies applying for eligibility.

“It was an important move I think for us as a province. So that’s been huge in terms of attracting investment into the province,” Beaudry-Mellor said. 

At the same time, established tech companies in the province are expanding, she said. 

Saskatoon software company Vendasta received $40 million from private investor groups in 2019, allowing it to more than double in size over three years, to 650 employees. It was one of the largest venture capital investments in prairie tech sector history.

Other Saskatchewan tech anchors include Saskatoon-based companies 7Shifts, Coconut Software and Solido, which was bought by Siemens in 2017

Beaudry-Mellor said the government is focused on not only attracting tech and fostering investment but keeping local companies in Saskatchewan. 

In 2016, Skip the Dishes moved its head offices to Winnipeg, in what is the most high profile re-location of a Saskatchewan tech company in recent years.

“It’s a highly competitive environment everybody wants to have these tech companies. It’s important especially for the 7Shifts or the Vendastas that they stay anchored here because losing an anchor or lacking in the ability to secure an anchor actually impacts the whole ecosystem and how it functions.”

Beaudry-Mellor said the province’s goal to triple the tech sector, add 100,000 jobs and grow the population as part of its 10-year growth plan have her, the premier and government as a whole focused on tech and innovation.

“We need to grow the investment community here that supports the companies that are also growing here so that they are not lured away by their investors.”

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Earth Talk: Is climate change affecting mainstream investment strategies? – Red Deer Advocate

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Dear EarthTalk: Are climate change and other environmental issues affecting or informing mainstream (Wall Street) investment strategies, or is sustainability-oriented investing still just a do-gooder niche?

—Mary S., New York

It wasn’t long ago that so-called “triple bottom line” investing —factoring in not just financial returns but also social and environmental impacts —was purely the domain of a small set of outliers willing to forego profits for the sake of proving that investing could be used as a tool to drive change. Just two decades ago, the only real way to have an eco-friendly investment portfolio would be to put your money with one of a handful of mutual funds focused on “Socially Responsible Investing” (SRI) —or research and invest in often speculative individual “green” companies directly.

But in intervening years, many investors’ perspectives have changed. It turns out “green” investments are not only safer than their conventional counterparts given the actuarial risks of rampant climate change, but they also tend to perform better. Generation Investment Management (GIM), founded in 2004 by former VP Al Gore and ex-Goldman Sachs exec David Blood, was one of the first well-heeled firms devoted exclusively to sustainable investing —and shocked analysts 10 years in by how profitable they were. GIM’s 12.1% annual average increase over its first decade ranked it second in profitability of over 200 competitors, including many of the biggest names in conventional investing. The lesson is companies prepared for and even poised to profit from a warmer future are most likely to succeed.

A 2019 report by BlackRock, the world’s largest investment firm with more than $7 trillion under management, confirms what GIM’s founders claimed all along: Going green pays. Not only has funding/investment in the environmental, social and governance (ESG) space almost doubled over the last five years, but these investments outperformed non-ESG bets overall. ESG-focused equity benchmarks in the U.S. yielded an annual return of 14.5 percent, compared with 14.4% for non-ESG investments. Meanwhile, globally ESG-based investments also bested non-ESG antes 8.1% to 7.7%.

Perhaps this new reality is why BlackRock recently announced a sweeping new set of policies aimed at making sustainability the “new standard for investing.” The firm plans to launch new active and passively-managed SRI-based funds in the short term and will look into other ways to align the rest of its investments according to its investors’ increasingly pro-environment values.

Environmental advocates are glad to hear about BlackRock’s plans, especially given the need for the private sector to step in and take an active role in carbon drawdown in lieu of federal action. Ben Cushing of the nonprofit Sierra Club considers BlackRock’s shift “a major step in the right direction and a testament to the power of public pressure calling for climate action.”

But he would like to see BlackRock —still the world’s largest investor in coal, oil and gas —go a giant step further and divest entirely from fossil fuels. “BlackRock should expand on its commitments and other financial institutions should follow suit.”

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UVic adopts investment policy reducing reliance on carbon emitters, but critics call it 'greenwashing' – CBC.ca

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The University of Victoria’s board of governors approved a “responsible investment policy” to reduce investment in greenhouse gas producers Tuesday, but some at the university say the change isn’t meaningful. 

The policy applies to the university’s $225-million short-term investments fund. The university says the policy will lower carbon emissions across the entire portfolio by 45 per cent by the year 2030. 

The university says it plans to divest from high carbon-emitting companies regardless of their industry sector, including the fossil fuel industry. 

Gayle Gorrill, vice-president of finance and operations, says the policy will target fossil fuel producers and the release of greenhouse gases caused by consumer behaviour, deforestation and industrialization. 

“We think this is a much more holistic approach because we’re looking at all of those companies, not just the fossil fuel companies,” Gorrill said. 

‘Doesn’t feel like a victory to us’

Not everyone is pleased with the decision. Members of Divest UVic protested outside the meeting Tuesday saying the new policy doesn’t go far enough.

Juliette Watts, an organizer with Divest UVic, says the policy doesn’t reflect the values of the university population. In 2019, for example, 77 per cent of the faculty voted in favour of fossil fuel divestment.

“On the ground at UVic and here in our community, we have a really strong progressive stance against polluters and the biggest despoilers of Indigenous lands and waters — which are the extractive industries and specifically the fossil fuel industry,” Watts said. 

She said instead of targeting consumption practices, the university simply needs to remove all investments in the fossil fuel industry. 

“They’ve attempted to greenwash — or make it seem as though they’re addressing the climate crisis — but in reality they are likely not going to change their holdings very much or make an impact with this vague policy they’ve put forward.”

She says her group will continue to research and reconfigure, and possibly target the university’s foundation board which has a larger fund. 

Other B.C. schools divesting

The divestment movement is an international movement to persuade large endowment fund holders like universities, pensions, and charities to stop investing in the fossil fuel industry to reduce climate change. 

Simon Fraser University’s board of governors voted last November to cut its fossil fuel investments by 45 per cent by 2025 for its $400 million endowment fund.

The University of British Columbia voted to transfer $380 million from its nearly $2-billion endowment fund to a “sustainable fund” in November 2019. 

However in early January, a group of UBC students held a hunger strike to force the school to adopt a stronger stance on divestment from fossil fuels.  

In response, UBC president Santa Ono said the continued operation of the fossil fuel industry is “discordant” with a future safe from climate change and said the university is committed to full divestment “as soon as possible.”

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Urgent investment needed to increase affordable housing supply: Ottawa mayor – Ottawa Citizen

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A memo reviews the city’s six year-old plan to address housing and homelessness and calls for a dramatic “refresh” of that strategy.


Homeless and hungry in downtown Ottawa.


Errol McGihon / Postmedia

Urgent investment from all three levels of government is needed to increase Ottawa’s supply of affordable housing, and to help homeless and disabled people find permanent homes that meet their needs, Mayor Jim Watson says.

The memo, signed by Watson and Councillors Jenna Sudds and Catherine McKenney, was issued late Tuesday on the eve of a debate about whether to declare a city-wide emergency on affordable housing and homelessness.

The memo reviews the city’s six year-old plan to address housing and homelessness and calls for a dramatic “refresh” of that strategy.

In the next 10 years, it suggests, the city should create between 5,700 and 8,500 affordable housing units and financial subsidies, while also ensuring that 20 per cent of those are devoted to supportive and accessible housing. It also calls on the city to preserve its existing stock of Ottawa Community Housing units.

The proposal sets out some ambitious goals: to reduce overall homelessness by 25 per cent and to eliminate “unsheltered” homelessness — people living on the streets.

“The refreshed plan is aspirational in nature and requires the commitment of significant new funding from all levels of government in order to be realized,” the memo says. “Without an injection of increased, sustained and long-term funding, the plan will not achieve its ambitious outcomes.”

The city will spend $109 million on housing and homelessness this year, which means the cost of the refreshed plan cannot be absorbed by municipal property taxpayers alone, Watson said. In the past two budgets, the city has committed $30 million in capital for new affordable housing developments.

The province will contribute $43 million and the federal government $27 million to affordable housing and homelessness initiatives in Ottawa in 2020.

Last month, McKenney put colleagues on notice that she will ask for their support to declare an emergency on affordable housing and homelessness. Council is to debate her motion Wednesday.

The city’s housing crisis has been created by a welter of issues, according to a review of the city’s 2014 housing and homelessness plan.

Funding for new affordable housing units has not kept pace with the city’s population growth that has forced Ottawa’s overall vacancy rate down to 1.8 per cent. That supply shortage has driven up prices: the average market rent in 2018 was $1,174 — a 15 per cent increase from 2014.

That means more people in community housing are holding onto their units longer, reducing the annual turnover. The centralized wait list for community housing has more than 10,600 households on it. Families can wait years for a spot, and some are spending longer periods in emergency shelters.

The lack of affordable housing has exacerbated the city’s homelessness problem. During the past six years, there has been a 23 per cent increase in the number of people requesting an emergency shelter placement. In 2018, the emergency shelter system operated, on average, at 108 per cent of its capacity.

Family homelessness, the report said, is the main driver of the increased demand at the city’s emergency shelters, and the reason why Ottawa increasingly is relying on hotels and motels to house the overflow.

More than 55,000 households in Ottawa — about 13 per cent of the population —  live with the kind of low incomes that make housing a serious challenge. Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation says Canadians should be spending no more than 30 per cent of their before-tax income on housing.

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