Winnipeg: Tech Hub In the Making
In March 2016, most Snapchat filters you could use were made in Winnipeg. Yes, you read that right. Manitoba’s capital is rapidly becoming a tech hub. According to the 2021 results from Scoring Tech Talent, a labor market analysis in North America, Winnipeg is listed under Next 25 Markets, with its 5-year tech growth soaring at 37%, and 18,800 tech jobs recorded in 2020.
Manitoba interactive digital media companies are varied, and many are making their mark on the global market. Geofilter Studio, Chris Schmidt’s brainchild, was creating filters for all kinds of events. “We’d do parties, bachelorettes, etc., but also corporate events, every new Starbucks, McDonald’s, Kanye West at the Staples Centre, you name it,” says Schmidt, now Parallel CEO, an AI social platform that matches users with others with similar body measurements to see how clothes would fit you. “You’d talk to someone on Coca Cola’s product team, and they’d say ‘where are you’ and you’d say ‘Winnipeg’ and you realize that they don’t know where that is, they don’t know where Manitoba is!”
Within its first year, Geofilter Studio grew 24,000%, and was sold a short few years later. Born and raised in Winnipeg, Schmidt always tries to keep creating and building companies at home. He credits his good sense of timing for Geofilter’s studio’s success, and the fact that there were no prior investments needed. Money made went right back in the business.
New Media Manitoba’s last industry census in 2017 counted 67 interactive digital media companies in Manitoba, generating $190M in economic impact annually. Among the factors that can explain this phenomenon are the low cost of living and college and university training that have kept up with the market demands.
But the city hasn’t always been this exciting. When ComplexGames’ CEO Noah Decter-Jackson co-founded the company in 2001, there wasn’t much else around. “We had some tech industry, in traditional tech like software development. But there was no game development here at the time. It was an empty landscape,” says Decter-Jackson.
Over the years, ComplexGames has collaborated with some big names as service providers: Sony, Zynga, Nickelodeon, Disney. But over the past five years, they have decided to work on their own project. Noah Decter-Jackson explains this bold move quite simply: they wanted to develop their own projects. “We’ve been working on a title that’s essentially our own, to a very well-known gaming franchise: Warhammer 40,000: Chaos Gate - Daemon Hunters. We just announced it in June and are frantically working towards a launch next year.”
In 2018, Ubisoft, the French video game company, set up shop in Winnipeg, sending the message that the city has the talent pool and the infrastructure required to operate a tech business.
Back in 2019, blockchain developer Dustin Brickwood felt there was a need for better networking within the growing industry. “I felt it was quite fragmented and there was no one that was pushing the envelope for individuals who were interested in tech but were perhaps new to the industry and looking to interact with leaders,” explained Brickwood. He created TechWPG, a volunteer-based non-profit organization showcasing Winnipeg’s tech talent. The organization is based on similar Torontonian organizations that Brickwood was able to benefit from when he worked in the Queen City, in the few years post-graduation. At that time, he felt he needed to leave Winnipeg to pursue a career in tech. Since then, the market changed and he was able to move back home where he’s now working on his own blockchain start-up.
“There’s been incredible demand [on the North American and global markets] and it has forced investment outside major centres, where it’s become too expensive,” explains Noah Decter-Jackson. “The pandemic has also led to the locality not being as relevant, but even before the pandemic, we were growing like crazy.”
“Companies like Bold Commerce, SkipTheDishes and Geofilter Studio are showing investors in the U.S. that we can build companies here that are the same caliber as Silicon Valley,” adds Schmidt. And all agree that Manitoba colleges and universities are contributing to a good tech-trained workforce.
But for Dustin Brickwood, some pieces of the puzzle are still missing. “We are underserved from a venture capital perspective. Many start-ups continue to seek funding outside of Manitoba. We need to remedy that over the next five to ten years.”
Chris Schmidt’s enthusiasm is also realistic. “We are behind the major cities like Toronto and Vancouver, but we’re lining ourselves up well to have a buzzing tech community.”