A technology startup school in Sydney, N.S., is expanding and says a focus on combining technology education with business skills may be the key to revitalizing Cape Breton's economy.

Opportunities to learn about computer coding, software innovations and entrepreneurship are growing on the island thanks to a burgeoning collective of people willing to share their knowledge. 

The Uhma Institute of Technology, a tech startup school, opened in 2014. Located in the New Dawn Centre for Innovation in Sydney's north end, the school is considered a stream of Cape Breton University's bachelor of business administration. 

Sydney native Gavin Uhma founded the program after he and his partner sold their software company GoInstant for $70 million.

"The goal is to start your own business and maybe not everybody is going to have a million-dollar idea at the end of this," says student Rachael MacKeigan.

"But you learn the whole process right from the beginning, so even if you don't become a coder at the end, you learn how to talk to them when you start your business." 

MacKeigan says she's thrilled to be learning about something she's always been drawn to.

Helping people start new businesses

Gavin Uhma uit

Sydney native Gavin Uhma founded the program after he and his partner sold their software company GoInstant for $70 million. (Gavin Uhma/Twitter)

UIT is aimed at anyone who wants to start their own tech business or work with other tech startups, says executive director Mike Targett.

He says technology and new businesses are key to Cape Breton's future. 

"I think entrepreneurship is one of the only ways a place like Cape Breton can turn around," says Targett. 

"Diversifying its economy requires people who are creating new businesses, so that's what we're in the business of, helping people start new businesses."

Ten students are enrolled in the program. The first half of the year is focused on learning to code. After the technical foundation is built, the business side ramps up as students develop apps and other online products. There are also regular tech mixers, guest speakers and a host of high-calibre mentors to guide students. 

Overwhelmed by opportunities

"Ahh, it's still kind of under wraps," student Allyson White chuckles, talking about the app she's in the midst of creating.
She says she's impressed with the options now possible in the tech sector. 

"I know it can seem really defeating trying to find a job in Cape Breton but I've been overwhelmed by the opportunities that have come from UIT."

George Johnston entered UIT fresh from high school.

"Ever since I was a younger child, I've always known that I wanted to work with computers and work in the tech industry," says Johnston.

"And UIT seemed like the perfect opportunity for me to learn both code and the business practices behind starting a startup."

Having just finished renovations to its facility, UIT is now equipped to handle 20 students, allowing the school to double its program enrolment next year. 

The success of UIT's first crop of graduates spawned an incubator hub — a place where new companies can nurture their apps or other online products.

Navigate Startup House is one such location. It consists of four companies — Click to Go, Layers, Phased IO and Collegio. 

The bright multi-office space is located in the same building as UIT, making collaboration easy.

'What the heck is going on up there in Sydney?'

Brian Best, chief technology officer of Phased IO and a UIT graduate, says with the four companies working so closely together, they all improve.

Originally from Ontario, Best says the buzz about the Sydney success has reached his home province. 

"I've got a lot of friends back in Toronto and Waterloo and every time I go back it's like, what the heck is going on up there in Sydney?" he says.

Navigate Startup House also holds workshops for the community, including Ladies Learning Code, helping to spread interest in tech skills and how to acquire them.