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The Digital Side Of Charlottetown

McCrae, the Propel ICT Vice-President, had just overseen her organization’s first Local Demo Day in Charlottetown. It had taken place before a packed house at the Upstreet Craft Brewery, the crowd full of mentors, entrepreneurs and politicians. And, she had to agree things were different when she started her own IT company on the Island four years earlier.

When McCrae went through the Propel accelerator, then called Launch36, she had to drive to Moncton each week for instruction. Propel and the Charlottetown tech community were too young to have a cohort in P.E.I. Both have grown up, as was evident at the Local Demo Day.

“You can see how much support there is here to help companies succeed,” said McCrae. “There wasn’t anything like this when I was going through.”

With its rich tradition in agriculture and veterinary medicine, the Prince Edward Island innovation community until recently was skewed heavily toward life sciences. Yes, there were great IT success stories, like video display advertising company ScreenScape Networks and digital archive manager discoverygarden. But with institutions like the PEI BioAlliance and the Regis Duffy Bioscience Fund, the support network for life sciences teams was far greater than for their brethren in IT.

But that is changing for a few reasons.

First, there are more IT companies springing up in P.E.I. Consider this: the latest Propel ICT cohort received a record 168 applications and P.E.I.  (which has about 6 percent of the region’s population) accounted for 18 percent of the entries.

Second, there are more established places for them to meet and work. Some of the young startups have been working in the Launchpad PEI co-working space, which is where the Propel cohort met. Charlottetown’s Startup Zone opened this summer. This startup house was expecting to welcome 16 companies in IT and other segments, offering them office space, programming and peer-to-peer support.

And third, there is Propel itself. Island companies are still able to join the advanced Build accelerator and travel to Moncton once a week for mentoring. Onset Communications, a Charlottetown company that helps film crew members communicate with one another instantly, did just that in the first cohort of 2016.

But there is also an option of joining the Launch program for entrepreneurial beginners, which for the first time this year met in Charlottetown. Five companies completed the Launch accelerator on the Island this spring and presented at the Local Demo Day. They included companies like Airbly, which has developed hardware and software that automates the process of keeping a flight log for small aircraft, and King Ding Productions Inc., which aims to improve food safety.

“IT is the fastest growing industry,” said J. Heath MacDonald, the minister of Economic Development and Tourism. “It just continues to expand. And what’s going on in P.E.I. is just phenomenal – especially the involvement of our youth as they are our future.”

McCrae knows the importance of building IT companies, and the challenges these companies face. Before joining the Propel staff in 2015, McCrae was the CEO of GetGifted, an Island phenomenon that let merchants give gifts to customers as long as they stopped by the shop or restaurant. The company went through Launch36 but shut down when the problems of expanding in a big city became obvious. Now, based in Halifax, McCrae works mentoring companies across the region and is looking forward to the next cohort – for which applications are now open.

She said the entrepreneurs and experts throughout Charlottetown have come out to help mentor the new tech entrepreneurs. “This has created an integrated program with support from the community and from the people within the program itself.”