By Doug Hallett
Guelph’s technology sector is having trouble competing for tech talent with the bright lights of places like Kitchener-Waterloo, says a spokesperson for a local tech group that’s trying to change things.
The biggest challenge faced by Guelph’s largely hidden tech sector is finding qualified employees, including software developers, said Greg Phillips, who works for a local tech firm and is on the board of the Guelph Technology and Design Cluster Cooperative. “I think a lot of the resources are sucked up by the well-known companies,” such as the K-W operations of Google and of Desire2Learn, which creates software for educational applications, he said.
Phillips made the comments Tuesday during what was described as the biggest tech gathering ever held in Guelph – the second annual Guelph Technology Showcase.
The 5-7 p.m. event in the U of G’s Science Complex Atrium, jointly organized by Phillips’ cooperative and by the U of G’s School of Computer Science, had representatives from 34 local technical organizations.
Last year, it drew reps from 21 firms, said Phillips, the chief financial officer for Innosphere, a 15-year-old, 30-employee firm on Wyndham Street that creates custom software systems for web and mobile applications.
“It is the best attended tech event in Guelph,” he said. “We had 300 people last year, and it’s bigger this year.”
Part of the reason for the event is to make early connections with U of G tech students who will be looking for jobs in the future, Phillips said in an interview.
A rough estimate is that 1,200 people work in tech firms in Guelph, he said.
Asked how Guelph’s tech sector stacks up against those in other Ontario cities, he replied, “I would say our growth is moderate.”
It’s not growing a lot, he said, “but I think it could be if more was done to promote it. I think that is one of the things our organization is trying to do.”
The relatively new 30-member cooperative, of which Phillips is one of 10 board members, is trying to show U of G grads and others that there are alternatives to joining a big tech firm in a place like K-W, he said.
“I think there are a lot of interesting possibilities in Guelph. When you work for a small company, you get to do a lot of things. I think you get a lot of experience faster.”
The website for the cooperative, which brings together small and medium-size tech companies in various stages of development, says Guelph’s “underground technology community” consists of firms that are largely hidden on the second and third floors of downtown buildings.
It aims not only to attract tech companies and skilled employees to Guelph, but also to “decrease the exodus of technology companies from Guelph to the Kitchener-Waterloo area,” its website says.
A lot of U of G tech grads go to K-W not only to work for big tech firms there, Phillips said. He said some go there to start their own tech companies with help from Communitech, which operate a hub for start-ups in a former tannery in downtown Kitchener.
Guelph doesn’t have anything like that, but it has business leaders “who can mentor them on an informal basis,” he said, noting this is part of the cooperative’s mandate.
“Obviously, if we have more companies starting in Guelph, the sector will grow more in the long term,” he said.
The biggest strength of Guelph’s tech sector, which is largely made up of software and web-based companies, is that it includes several very successful and profitable companies that have been doing well for years, including through recessionary times, Phillips said.
They’re not always known to each other, he said, giving as an example a local firm called RinkNet Scouting Software. This 15-year-old firm makes management productivity software to help hockey scouts in various leagues with the administrative side of their work.
“Having worked in the tech sector in Guelph for 15 years, I wasn’t aware of RinkNet until last June,” he said, noting RinkNet is about the same size as Innosphere.