When Kip Fyfe and Victoria Brilz co-founded their first company, building their business in the town of Cochrane, located 35 kilometres northwest of downtown Calgary, was a matter of pure practicality.
The couple, both engineers, quit their office jobs in Calgary to start a wearable technologies company in 1998. Dynastream Innovations Inc.'s products for athletes included heart-rate monitors and foot pods, which are small devices for runners that monitor data such as distance and pace; the first customer was Nike.
Cochrane, a town rooted in ranching history, may seem an unlikely setting for a high-tech business, but three of the four founders, including Mr. Fyfe and Ms. Brilz, called Cochrane home. "We were super pragmatic and said, 'How will we deal with kids and work?'" Mr. Fyfe says. It made sense to start the business where Mr. Fyfe and Ms. Brilz were raising their two young children.
The setup worked, and the business grew. In 2006, Garmin bought Dynastream for $36-million. Now called Garmin Cochrane, the company remains in town. Other entrepreneurs have joined Ms. Brilz's and Mr. Fyfe's lead, starting innovative companies that, collectively, have transformed Cochrane into an unlikely tech hotbed in a resource-dominated region.
Mr. Fyfe recently started another business in Cochrane, 4iiii Innovations. Its products – various sports electronics for cyclists – entered the market in 2012. Now Mr. Fyfe, CEO, and Ms. Brilz, chief business development officer, are back working in the same Cochrane office space where they started Dynastream.
Alongside 4iiii Innovations and Garmin Cochrane, a handful of companies are putting Cochrane on the map as a place to build tech businesses. The town, home to just over 23,000 people, has upwards of 20 "knowledge-based innovation companies," says Robert Kalinovich, economic development officer for the Town of Cochrane.
"Some years back, a lot of people's impression of Cochrane was it was a bedroom community of Calgary with good ice cream. That's where it ended," Mr. Kalinovich says. That perception is shifting, he says, thanks to the cluster of innovative companies making a name for themselves, many aiming to follow in Dynastream's footsteps and achieve global reach.
While Mr. Fyfe started Dynastream in Cochrane for practical reasons, the location proved a good fit. "The rent is low, there's free parking, and we're close to the river for running and riding trails. Cochrane really is a nice town to work in," Mr. Fyfe says. Of 4iiii Innovations' 30 employees, Mr. Fyfe estimates about one-third live in Cochrane, with the rest residing in Calgary and commuting daily.
Cochrane's absence of a business tax helps attract entrepreneurs, as does the near absence of traffic. Most commutes in town take mere minutes, Mr. Kalinovich says, while the international airport, in Calgary, is about a 40-minute drive away.
There's been little focus on recruiting more companies, however, for a practical reason. "We really don't have, at the moment, a lot of places to put [new companies]," Mr. Kalinovich says. "Most professional office space is full."
Developers are being made aware of the situation, Mr. Kalinovich says, and a site downtown poised for redevelopment was sold on the condition commercial office space be built.
Cochrane's popularity with entrepreneurs over other towns in Alberta may have something to do with its enviable location. The town is nestled in the Bow River Valley and surrounded by foothills, close to the Rocky Mountains.
The outdoorsy lifestyle possible in such a setting is attractive to entrepreneurs, says Cynthia van Sundert, executive director of The A100, an organization for founders and executives of Alberta tech companies. "There's a balance between work and family and outdoors that Cochrane offers, while still being close to a major city," Ms. van Sundert says.
While other towns looking to build and grow new economies can't copy Cochrane's geography, there are other takeaways. The Town of Cochrane supports its entrepreneurs by proudly sharing local stories, Ms. van Sundert says. "We need to be better at storytelling, and they seem to be good at that," she says.
"We've been in the shadows of the oil and gas industry, but with [the price of] oil being down, it's easier now to have a voice."
Nathan MacLauchlan, chief technology officer at Frontier Telemetry, relocated his home-based startup a year and a half ago, when he moved from a Calgary apartment to a house in Cochrane.
While the move was motivated by more affordable housing and "awesome cycling" nearby, Mr. MacLauchlan, an engineer, has found it has also been a good fit for his business. Frontier Telemetry designs and manufactures remote camera systems that can easily integrate into Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) networks, systems for gathering and analyzing real-time data.
"[The move] has led to all sorts of interesting opportunities," Mr. MacLauchlan says. He's joined a local innovators group, and networked with other entrepreneurs in the Bow Valley, which encompasses nearby Canmore and Banff.
"Things seem to be a little slower pace here, not quite so frantic, and yet we still have a lot of resources," Mr. MacLauchlan says.