Living/Working April 28, 2017

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AI recruitment woes stall B.C. business expansion plans

Province lost nearly 300 software professionals to other regions in 2016 as AI funding flees
Bernie CEO Justin Long shows off his company’s AI-powered dating app | Chung Chow  

February’s federal budget delivered a quantum leap in funding for Ontario’s machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) industry, with Ottawa and Ontario each committing $50 million to Toronto’s Vector Institute.

The dollars dedicated came from the $125 million Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy, which is making investments in centres of expertise in Montreal, Edmonton and Toronto-Waterloo.

So far B.C. has been left out of the country’s strategy, and local AI entrepreneurs like Justin Long are worried about what the province’s already small talent pool spells for the future.

“The East Coast is receiving a lot of that money … [because] they have a lot more funding for researchers and universities,” said Long, CEO of AI-powered dating app Bernie.

“Companies like Google [Nasdaq:GOOG], Facebook [Nasdaq:FB], Microsoft [Nasdaq:MSFT] and IBM [NYSE: IBM] snapped up these [B.C.] researchers.

“They came in, they hired all of them, they relocated them to the south or they relocated them to their other Canadian offices.”

For the local AI talent pool to deepen in the long term, Long hopes the next provincial government fulfills BC Liberal Leader Christy Clark’s March pledge to increase the number of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) university graduates by 1,000 seats a year.

In the short term, he’s counting on Ottawa’s promise to make immigration easier for skilled workers beginning later this spring to attract more talent to Vancouver’s AI ecosystem.

B.C. lost 299 software professionals (mainly to the United States) between January 2016 and January 2017, according to a report from Vancouver’s Talentful Technology Inc., a recruitment company focused on the AI sector.

Meanwhile, the Business Development Bank of Canada is trying to bring talent into the country.

It partnered with three private-sector companies in January to fund the $5 million NextAI program, a global tech accelerator aimed at attracting international AI talent.

“It’s about bringing some teams to Canada that will focus as a cohort on developing and starting new companies in that space,” BDC Capital executive vice-president Jerome Nycz told Business in Vancouver.

While BDC Capital has invested in B.C. firms specializing in AI such as Mobify, Bit Stew and Trulioo, NextAI will be based in Toronto.

But Long said that even if immigration becomes easier for foreign AI specialists, many might balk at moving to B.C. when they examine pay rates.

The Talentful report found compensation for a junior professional averaged $61,809 in Vancouver compared with $102,578 in Seattle. And senior professionals in Seattle had average earnings double those of a Vancouver senior professional: $204,950 versus $100,627.

But BC Tech Association CEO Bill Tam said the tech sector has had “a steady rise” in pay levels over the past few years.

He said that as more anchor companies like Microsoft and Amazon (Nasdaq:AMZN) set up shop in Vancouver, compensation levels will likely become more competitive.

“It’s clearly not there yet,” he said.

In the meantime, the BC Tech Association’s HyperGrowth accelerator program is providing local AI startups like AIDA Technologies with mentorship from anchor companies already investing heavily in machine learning.

Vancouver-based BuildDirect, often described as the Amazon of construction supplies, is among the companies providing mentorship at HyperGrowth.

The company began collecting immense amounts of data about supply chains and customer needs in 2008 before launching an AI-focused division about three years ago.

“We’re all in on AI and machine learning. It’s at the core and the foundation of the platform we’re building,” said Joe Thompson, BuildDirect’s vice-president of marketing.

He acknowledged the region’s AI talent pool can be a challenge, but so far BuildDirect has been able to build a team based in Vancouver without relying too heavily on satellite offices. He said the company is committed to staffing “as much as possible” in Vancouver and plans to unveil more about its AI agenda later this year.

“This will be one of the most important industries to be a part of and to own for the next five, 10 years and beyond.”

torton@biv.com

@reporton

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Infographic: 17 first things to ever happen on the Internet

Long before Google, there was Archie. This infographic breaks down some big Internet ‘firsts’

Infographic source: Academized

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Fried chicken, burgers, craft cider dinner and more!

Looking for a change of pace? Here’s what’s new in Vancouver’s food scene 
Homer St Lemon Lavender Sponge Cake — Milk Creative Communications photo

Attention, chicken lovers … Freebird Chicken Shack has finally re-opened at its new location in New Westminster’s River Market. The larger space can now seat 24, including four at the bar, and has an expanded menu that includes fried chicken, turmeric fried chicken with curry and roti, grilled chicken vermicelli, fried cauliflower, roasted chicken pho and more. freebirdchickens.com

Monarch Burger, a new venture from chef/owner Robert Belcham of Campagnolo and Campagnolo Roma, is officially opening at The American at 928 Main St. on April 27. Belcham has long been famous for his “dirty” burger and the new space will offer more of his inspired burger creations, all made from scratch. facebook.com/monarchburger

Botanist, the new restaurant at Fairmont Pacific Rim, has officially opened. In addition to the dining room, led by executive chef Hector Laguna and wine director Jill Spoor, there is also a cocktail bar and lab, led by the award-winning Grant Sceney and David Wolowidnyk, a champagne lounge and a garden space. botanistrestaurant.com

Bauhaus has announced its new executive chef team. Two chefs will take over as co-executive chefs from former Michelin-starred chef Stefan Hartmann, who has moved on to Tacofino as its new regional executive chef. Tim Schulte and David Mueller both have experience at top restaurants in Germany, Australia and Vancouver. The duo takes over in May. bauhaus-restaurant.com

In a surprise announcement, Coast Restaurant, part of the Glowbal Group empire, has brought on the acclaimed and long-time Joe Fortes maitre’d, Robert “Frenchy” Gagne, as well as former Joe Fortes GM Scott Garrett. Frenchy was a 26-year veteran at Joe Fortes and a 2007 inductee to the BC Restaurant Hall of Fame. Prior to his 12-year stint at Joe Fortes, Garrett was restaurant guest services manager at Walt Disney Resorts in Florida and will now be Coast’s new operations manager. glowbalgroup.com/coast

On Thursday, May 4, The Cascade Room is hosting a Howling Moon Craft Cider Dinner to coincide with BC Cider Week (April 29 to May 7). The five-course dinner will be paired with Howling Moon’s Revival, Revolution, Rebellion and Serenity ciders, as well as a special cider crafted specifically for this event. Tickets $75 through eventbrite or thecascade.ca

On Friday, May 12, Vancouver Aquarium will host a Spot Prawn Pop-Up with executive chef Ned Bell and The Fish Counter’s chef Rob Clark. The five-course dinner, which will take place in the Aquarium’s café-turned-bistro, will feature the sustainable shellfish paired with some of BC’s best wines. Dishes include chilled, marinated spot prawns, spot prawn and razor clam soup, spot prawn ravioli, sake-poached spot prawns with coho salmon and “sugar kelp” chocolate mousse. Tickets are $155 per person. Proceeds go to support Vancouver Aquarium’s ongoing conservation, research and education programs. vanaqua.org/spotprawnpopup

Also on May 13 and 14, Homer St. Café and Bar will also be offering featured brunch and dinner dishes, including bacon, onion and spinach quiche, as well as rotisserie duck breast with fingerling potatoes, asparagus and cherry jus. homerstreetcafebar.com

Tableau Bar Bistro is offering feature dishes for Mother’s Day | Milk Creative Communications photo

On May 13 and 14, Tableau Bar Bistro is offering feature dishes for Mother’s Day. Brunch offerings include smoked salmon and goat cheese frittata with asparagus, as well as a classic crêpes Suzette with vanilla ice cream and pastry cream. Dinner includes a full rack of roasted lamb served family-style for the table, with herbed crust, spring vegetables, mashed potatoes and red wine jus. tableaubarbistro.com

Vancouver Westender

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Voters’ choice: government or ‘free market’ housing solutions

An unavoidable narrative that permeates every B.C. election is whether government or the free market can best allocate resources to deliver a better life to British Columbians.

This election is no exception, with partisans on each side of that apparent divide coming up with different policies to deal with the issue that tops the polls: affordable housing. The crude themes are: “depend on the market to sort it out” and “depend on government to sort it out.”

Both of these miss a fundamental starting point: the housing “market” is not “free” at all. It is largely a creation of government. It is regulated, taxed, incentivized, restricted, defined, subsidized and driven by government policies. At the low end, housing is entirely dependent on government funding. Recent price explosions are the direct result of government policies of restrictive zoning, low interest rates and immigration increases. A lot of foreign capital comes here through the hundreds of thousands of Canadian citizens living abroad who “bought” their citizenship, quite legitimately, under federal government programs designed to attract rich immigrants. Restrictive single-family zoning is essentially “socialism for the rich” – restricting access to their lands for people who can’t afford a single-family home. Inept and complicated municipal government approvals add delays that cost new buyers tens of thousands of dollars on each purchase.

Government policies have tried to deliver home ownership to as many people as possible. (Sorry, renters.) Homeowners get grants. Senior homeowners get subsidized loans to let them defer taxes. Government-backed Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. insures mortgage-lenders. First-time B.C. buyers get a five-year interest-free $37,500 loan. The federal government forgoes billions of dollars in capital gains tax revenue from owners who sell their homes tax-free. Apartments get pushed out by condos.

This jumble of government incentives and hindrances is failing. Young families are being priced out of their hometowns. Businesses are losing employees. Global capital investment is hiking prices to unheard-of levels – not just in Metro Vancouver, but in cities around the world, now including Toronto in a big, awkward way. Loopholes and lax law enforcement allowing anonymous ownership, money-laundering and surrogate student owners are creating a new class of free-riding investors and unfairness for local taxpayers. The foreign-buyers’ tax has moderated prices but few think they will stay on pause for long.

Where it’s free to work its magic, the market is responding to the highest-paying demand (think global, buy local), building what residents don’t need or can’t afford. Housing analyst Andy Yan describes the result as “too many Ferraris and not enough Hondas” – not what local-income-earning families need.

A recent housing conference asked the question: “How can we realign housing prices with local incomes?”

Of course we can try to raise those incomes, but ironically better jobs and stronger companies are hindered from growing because of our grotesquely high housing prices. One sure way to realign housing prices with local incomes is for government to limit access to the housing market – or a significant part of it – to people with local incomes.

Can government be trusted to make housing more affordable with this kind of restriction? Or with new taxes like the NDP’s proposal to add a 2% property tax to Metro Vancouver homeowners who don’t pay taxes in Canada? Or with Vancouver’s 1% tax on vacant or second homes?

Or do we just have to unleash the private market to build more housing units to get lower prices, as urged at the recent Greater Vancouver Board of Trade housing summit, where foreign capital and speculation were deemed by one speaker to be “on the margin”?

Of course, we’ll need a mix of government restrictions and free market supply. But the election outcome could depend on which approach voters think has the best chance of delivering housing affordability.

Unfortunately for the BC Liberals, they have to wear their record of mostly not interfering with the “free market”: record levels of unaffordability and voter anger. 

Peter Ladner (pladner@biv.com) is a co-founder of Business in Vancouver. He is a former Vancouver city councillor and former fellow at the SFU Centre for Dialogue. He is chairman of the David Suzuki Foundation’s board of directors.

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Fearless predictions: a Green grip on the balance of power in B.C.

BC Liberal Leader Christy Clark faces four opponents: New Democrats; Greens; the low-amplitude popular boredom with even good leaders tarrying too long; and her party record.

The too-politely named “indirect political contributions,” faux personal donations made by front men and hacks disguising the real, mostly corporate donors, are under investigation by the RCMP. Smoked out by the media – doing superior work in this election starting with the embarrassing “Wild West” characterization laid on by the New York Times – the Liberals sent back $93,000 to 43 donors.

“These individuals and organizations have indicated that they were unaware that reimbursements were not permitted under the act,” intoned a party spokesman.

Forty-three donors. Didn’t know it was wrong. Yet hid their donations. Should the cops be investigating for criminality? Or stupidity that endangers the public weal?

To this rascality should be added the Liberal scandals of the Health Ministry firings, taking the bait of their ancient and indeed insufferable enemies of the BC Teachers’ Federation ending with a humiliating court defeat, and the bizarre eccentricity or whatever of giving its third-largest donor, a car dealers’ association, oversight of disbursing $46 million of public-money incentives. And more.

Same sleaze, different cast: the New Democratic Party’s Soiled Tricks Department outrageously hid the United Steelworkers union’s covertly paying salaries of senior party campaign staff.

NDP leader John Horgan personally peaked early on. Abruptly the “new face” looked old. As if in a contest with the ghost of two decent failed predecessors who meekly let the Liberals run away with the ball, Horgan all but threw punches at small, smiling Clark in their first leadership debate – interrupted her, over-voiced her, then turned to the TV camera with a foolish what-a-good-boy-am-I smile. A disastrous performance. He repelled the unconverted. Possibly some of the converted. In my mother’s phrase, “he out-fumbled himself,” broadly definable as doing his opponents’ work for them.

Much can change, and 48 hours before an election can be the proverbial eternity in politics, but Horgan looks stale and spent. Nevertheless his party is vigorous, tasting victory, but gents named Dave Barrett, Michael Harcourt, Glen Clark and short-service premiers Dan Miller and Ujjal Dosanjh could display the scars of NDP internal bloodletting caused by unions who demand pay for the piper. This kneecapped their premierships. Today the jobs-versus-environment factional divisions, always carefully kept from sight during elections, would be sharper than ever.

Greens chafe indignantly when accused of sawing at a one-string environmental violin. Broadly, they’re on the ruby side of the NDP. Party leader Andrew Weaver, professorial in manner, bespeaks a basic decency and sobriety, historically disabilities in B.C. politics. As for depth, for potential cabinet material – quick, can you recognize any Green candidate other than party leader Andrew Weaver? Can you recognize party leader Andrew Weaver?

In this campaign no abruptly emergent fire-in-the-belly leader, no single policy or platform, has gripped the populace’s lapels or hearts.

As Winston Churchill grumbled, after a brief frowning taste of a dessert: “Take away this pudding. It has no theme.”

What to make of it? Policy nuances and electioneering hot air vanish in the bluntness of the ballot’s X. The job party is the Liberals. With five balanced budgets and B.C.’s national best-weathered economic performance in so-so times, and a timeliness-you-can’t-buy upswing in employment, Christy Clark, warts and all, fronting the developers, cement-pourers and energy industry (and its illusionaries), plus the allies of  arriviste working-class property millionaires – augmented by the better-the-devil-you-know weary cynicism of many voters  – will win on May 9.

The joker in the deck is the Greens, whose popular vote will rise. But too scattered to win many seats beyond Weaver’s lonely redoubt? A 200% bump – to two seats – could be the election sensation. Think: Liberals 43, NDP 42, Greens 2. 

So I’d make a rash side bet on a minority Liberal government, with just a few Greens holding the balance of power. Another election in the fall, anyone?

Longtime newspaper columnist Trevor Lautens, unfairly guided by his late fortune-telling mother, was a lonely prophet of the Liberals’ 2013 election victory. He’s a Libra.

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