October 22, 2020

It’s full-speed ahead for the technology sector in Alberta

As appeared in Edmonton Journal

On a cold morning in early January 2020, we and five colleagues gathered at the University of Alberta to begin the process of coming up with recommendations to the provincial government on how to increase the amount of capital available to start-up and early-stage technology companies.

We recognized that it was a daunting task — with much ground to cover to catch up to our competitor jurisdictions and limited financial capability. However, we also fully appreciated the urgency of addressing our uncompetitive situation and the importance of creating the right conditions to be a competitive location for the technology sector. With a series of recent announcements, that strategy is now falling into place, and Alberta has the opportunity to charge out of this recession with technology in the vanguard.

The timing is right in Alberta for a focus on technology and innovation. Markets like Silicon Valley, Seattle, Vancouver and Toronto are getting too costly in terms of rent and talent, making it hard for firms to attract and retain the right talent. While COVID-19 has altered some of that dynamic with remote working, not every firm in the tech space thinks that is a sustainable approach. Reed Hastings, Netflix CEO, has become a vocal critic of working from home for technology firms.

Alberta, with its talented labour pool, competitive real-estate prices and great quality of life is an ideal market to grow and expand.

Some in our province try to position Alberta’s future as a choice between technology and energy — an either-or. That is just not the way it is happening, nor how it needs to happen. Alberta is already home to a large number of technology success stories, and the innovation ecosystem is growing rapidly. We need to continue nurturing and accelerating this development.

Moreover, it is precisely because of our province’s strengths in the “traditional” sectors such as energy, agriculture, health, and transportation that we have an environment that is ripe for development. The data sets, major companies and investments, customers and business opportunities that exist in Alberta can help accelerate our technology sector, while improving the competitiveness of those established sectors.

The Innovation Capital Working Group (ICWG), which we co-chaired, tabled its report and recommendations across three broad themes: vision, communication and branding; capital; and, talent. Recent announcements from the provincial government show that despite starting from a less than optimal position, Alberta is committed and poised to become a growth centre for technology and innovation. The strategy involves several pieces working in harmony.

First came the launch of Alberta’s Economic Recovery Plan that outlined implementation of two major ICWG recommendations — the innovation employment grant and the recapitalization of Alberta Enterprise Corporation. Alberta wanted to be back in the game, and these moves began the process of doing so. Positive and ambitious statements about the technology sector and its importance in Alberta’s future was a key ICWG recommendation and government had clearly taken the guidance.

The creation of the Jobs, Economy and Innovation ministry was another positive signal that innovation is a key pillar going forward. Minister Doug Schweitzer has wasted no time in gathering those in the tech and innovation community to understand, learn and test ideas about how Alberta can catapult ahead of other jurisdictions. Announcements on strategies for growth, and support of a smart agriculture accelerator program highlight a focus on where Alberta has key strengths.

Alberta is clearly planning to do more. The ambition to beat other Canadian jurisdictions to the punch on data and intellectual property strategy holds immense potential for a province rich in people with big ideas, ground-breaking research, and a vast data treasure that no other place in the world holds. Improving Alberta’s legislation on intellectual property will also create the means for technologies created in Alberta to be commercialized, flourish, and remain, in Alberta.

All of this creates immense job and economic potential, leveraging private capital that does not cost much to the taxpayer — vital in current economic conditions.

As future funds become available, opportunities exist to add to Alberta’s approach to attracting technology capital by creating more co-investment vehicles, enabling individual Albertans to invest in Alberta-based technology funds.

On the talent side, with the innovation employment grant creating the means for firms to hire more people, tech-talent capability will grow. Building on that with tech-oriented, work-integrated learning options at post-secondaries, the creation of programs like SAIT Polytechnic’s School for Advanced Digital Technology, and dedicated and targeted immigration programs will enable Alberta companies to compete for talent and create the means by which technology firms can grow.

Against the backdrop of this progress, Alberta entrepreneurs continue to grow, invest, hire and scale. In recent months, Alberta’s success stories of Attabotics, AltaMl, Symend, Benevity, Improbable, Thin Air Labs, Jobber, and The51 have attracted large investments, invested millions themselves, and grown their employment numbers despite facing headwinds.

We are excited by what we see on innovation in Alberta. We are heartened that the government has responded favourably to the ICWG recommendations and that there is an aggressive path being paved to grow the technology and innovation sector in Alberta. It’s full speed ahead.

Joseph Doucet is dean of the Alberta School of Business at the University of Alberta. Adam Legge is president of the Business Council of Alberta.

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