Taking Edmonton’s Technology Community to the Next Level

I’m always thinking about the technology community in Edmonton. Some very positive things have happened in recent years, and I want to see that trend continue and even accelerate. To take our tech community to the next level however, we’re going to need everyone to bring their unique strengths and abilities to the table. Community organizers, researchers, investors, public policy makers, educational institutions, small and large enterprises, and most importantly, entrepreneurs, all have a role to play.

For a while now I’ve felt that something is holding us back, something that we can change. That’s what this post is about.

Leveraging Technical Expertise Locally

There were two interesting items at the top of the City of Edmonton Executive Committee meeting yesterday. The first was the TEC Edmonton 2008 Annual Report (PDF). The second was a report entitled Leveraging Technical Expertise Locally (Word).

I read the second report with great interest. It is based on a consultation with TEC Edmonton, Edmonton Economic Development Corporation (EEDC), and City Administration and is in response to the following motion from the May 6, 2009 Executive Committee meeting:

That Administration consult with TEC Edmonton, Edmonton Economic Development Corporation, and the general technical community on opportunities to facilitate and better capitalize on incorporating work and research done via the City’s purchasing, standards and business practices, and report back to Executive Committee.

The report is relatively short at just two and a half pages, so I encourage you to read it for yourself. Here’s my summary:

  • One of the four principles of the City of Edmonton Strategic Plan is innovation, loosely defined as “exploration in the adoption of new techniques, technologies, products and ways of operating in order to improve results and lead progressive change.”
  • With that in mind, EEDC, TEC Edmonton, and City Administration want to challenge the status quo with a pilot project that connects them with one another and the “general technical community”.
  • The pilot project would provide benefits to local technology firms (such as opportunities to use the City as a reference customer) and to City Administration (including exposure and access to technologies that previously had not been realized).
  • The pilot project would leverage concepts similar to “the University of Alberta Idea-Fest or local technology Demo Camps” and would consist of two sessions.

It’s nice to see DemoCamp and IDEAfest both get mentioned. Kudos to Cam Linke, Michael Janz, and everyone else who makes those and other events successful.

The above points seem logical enough and if that’s all I had read, I’d happily support the recommended pilot project (which sounds like a couple of events). Unfortunately I kept reading, and as the saying goes, the devil is in the details.

First, the scope of the pilot project is defined as:

  • Small entrepreneurial organizations
  • Prototype the approach – keep it simple
  • TEC Edmonton would identify potential attendees and review with Administration
  • Products must be usable and available for testing

If by “small entrepreneurial organizations” they mean “startups” then I think the first point is spot on. There are so many local startups that could use a leg up with the City. The second point makes sense also – simplicity and iteration are key. The fourth point is similar to the rules of DemoCamp – we’d like to see action rather than talk. I’ll come back to the third point.

Next, the two sessions are defined as follows:

The first session, held in Q3 of 2009, would focus on the City of Edmonton identifying business problems and communication of priorities to TEC Edmonton associated companies.

A second session would be held approximately four weeks later with TEC Edmonton members presenting possible solutions to opportunities identified.

Can you spot the pattern? It continues in the report’s final remarks:

This pilot also supports the concept of the knowledge economy and leverages the capability of local educational institutions.

It focuses on retaining and accelerating the success of high-impact innovation-based start up companies in the Edmonton area by strengthening the partnership between TEC Edmonton and the City of Edmonton. This in turn promotes the development of an entrepreneurial culture and the infrastructure to nurture and sustain scientific and technology-based enterprises.

What started out as a promising attempt by the City to leverage and work with the wonderful technology community we have here in Edmonton quickly became all about TEC Edmonton. According to the recommendation, TEC Edmonton would be responsible for picking the attendees and for driving the dialogue.

This is bad for two reasons:

  1. TEC Edmonton does not represent the whole of the technology community in Edmonton.
  2. TEC Edmonton has a very poor track record when it comes to “promoting the development of an entrepreneurial culture” in Edmonton.

TEC Edmonton Background

Formed in 2000 and ratified in 2006, TEC Edmonton is a joint venture between the University of Alberta and EEDC. It’s mandate is to “help navigate the commercialization process – transitioning science solutions into business opportunities” in the greater Edmonton region. A few highlights from the annual report I mentioned above:

  • TEC Edmonton received 98 reports of inventions in 2008. A total of 77 patent applications were filed and 48 patents were granted. A total of 23 technologies were licensed.
  • TEC Source provided free business advice to 70 entrepreneurs in 2008.
  • A total of 160 entrepreneurs participated in TEC VenturePrize in 2008.
  • The TEC Centre is home to 22 tenants.

TEC Edmonton represents the Information and Communications Technology, Physical Sciences, Life Sciences and Agri-Value industry sectors. There’s absolutely a need for an organization to facilitate the commercialization of research coming out of the University of Alberta. TEC Edmonton needs to continue that work – they’re good at it and they’ve proven they can get results.

The Problem With TEC Edmonton

TEC Edmonton automatically gets a seat at the technology table in Edmonton, whether it deserves one or not. The City of Edmonton and EEDC cannot pursue their objectives in the technology space without involving TEC Edmonton, which is a problem because TEC Edmonton isn’t interested in much of what it would take for those organizations to achieve their objectives.

Startups have little to no interaction with TEC Edmonton and are very rarely impacted by TEC Edmonton programs. Software-based startups are even further removed from TEC Edmonton’s activities. The organization is completely geared toward monetizing expensive high tech research from the University of Alberta, not helping local startups.

  • Patents are meaningless in the world of software, but are at the heart of nearly every deal that TEC Edmonton does. The very first question mentioned on the TEC Source page is: “Do you have intellectual property or a business plan?”
  • The TEC Centre is an incubation facility for TEC Edmonton companies, not technology companies in general. You can’t just drop in.
  • Alberta Deal Generator doesn’t help startup companies prepare for investment, it helps later stage companies. And the private sector does a better job of that anyway.

Quite simply, TEC Edmonton has been ignoring software startups for nearly a decade now. Why does this matter? If we want to move beyond our current energy-based economy to nurture and capitalize on the incredibly smart and talented people we have in Edmonton and Alberta, we need to start paying more attention to software. That’s where innovation is happening and value is being created.

What We Really Need

We don’t need two events to talk about business and communication problems for TEC Edmonton associated companies, nor do we need an organization filtering communication between the City and the technology community. What we really need is for TEC Edmonton or an organization like it to help software startups by doing the things the community can’t.

Easy exchange of knowledge and ideas is something the community has proven it can do well with events like DemoCamp and BarCamp. The ability to get started without a lot of initial investment is another thing the community is addressing through initiatives such as ENTS (you can read more about ENTS here).

Something the community can’t do is provide smart seed funding. I’m talking about YCombinator and TechStars. Tiny amounts of money to get entrepreneurs going, with ongoing mentorship and other networking opportunities. These programs likely aren’t going to make anyone rich, but that’s not the point anyway. The point is to invest in people, to encourage entrepreneurship. TEC Edmonton could do this right away if they really wanted to by scrapping Alberta Deal Generator and taking a fraction of the money spent on that program and putting it into a local YCombinator. I’ve heard about some members of the community working towards this, but I think it would be a great opportunity for TEC Edmonton.

Final Thoughts

If we want to take the technology community in Edmonton to the next level, we need the City of Edmonton and EEDC to recognize that as it currently exists, TEC Edmonton is holding the community back, not helping it move forward. TEC Edmonton certainly has a role to play, but it’s not the catch-all they’ve been given. We need to focus more attention and energy on software startups, an area that TEC Edmonton has historically ignored.

Unfortunately I wasn’t able to attend or listen to the meeting yesterday, so I’m not sure what the Executive Committee did with the report. I’m hopeful that the right people will read this however, so that we can start down the path to positive change.

Finally, I’d like to thank everyone who provided me with context and thoughts on this topic over the last few months – you know who you are.

38 thoughts on “Taking Edmonton’s Technology Community to the Next Level

  1. We are starting a small group for digital media producers here in Edmonton. Digital Alberta seems to have a Calgary centric focus, so we want to have a group that pays attention to Edmonton. There are a lot of talented people in this city working in games, entertainment, education, etc using digital media and the provincial and city governments seem oblivious. There is always talk about “diversifying” during down times, but rarely has any effort been put behind it to make it happen in the tech sector. Some point to a success story like BioWare, but I’d say their achievements are outside the norm. There is a reason that Montreal and Vancouver are the big hubs for the gaming industry in Canada. Their governments saw the potential and invested. Now there are thousands of people in those cities working directly in gaming or it’s support industries. The Alberta government and to a lesser extent the city of Edmonton doesn’t seem interested in any kind of investment unless it involves oil and gas in some way.

  2. Mack:

    As you know, I am a big proponent of improving the Cities focus on economic development in the software space. I agree that TEC can be improved, and making it a less onerous resource for the small software company is certainly one way. I am confident we will see improvements, starting with the selection of a new CEO which has been placed with a local headhunting firm.

    I specifically think that the software start-up community is extremely strong, and this represents a very low-risk, low-cost area for developing our knowledge economy. I love the idea of a City funded micro-venture fund, operated like the Y-Combinator concept, and especially if it includes entrepreneurial mentoring. As we have discussed in the past; for what the City has in exceptional inventor talent, it seems to be lacking in start-up entrepreneur bench strength.

    I’ll be passing your message along to the senior leadership of EEDC.

  3. Hey Dave – I agree, a huge thing is community and getting people together who are working in the same industry to be able to collaborate, share ideas and experiences, etc. That is one of the biggest things that we are trying to accomplish with DemoCamp. I think that the stronger that we are able to make these communities the more that it forces the government to step up and get involved (or in some cases get out of the way).

    Keep me up to date on what you guys are working on for your group here in the city. I’d be happy to help out if I can. You can fire me off an email at: cam.linke@gmail.com

  4. Interesting. I’ve worked in Edmonton for the past 14 years in IT. Never heard of TEC Edmonton until now.

    Been employed by a couple of startups in that time. In each case, I’ve heard complaints/concerns about how Alberta in general isn’t very friendly to startup IT companies.

  5. Hey Mack: Interesting post. I agree with some of the points around the need for a smaller “Seed Funding” approach for technology based startups, however, I believe that we need to take an approach where we are willing to show the City, EEDC, and TEC Edmonton that we are willing and interested to move forward with this type of idea. The government dollars are not as freely available as in past years so asking them to create a new fund may not be an effective approach. However, if any others are interested in putting some of their own money and time into a venture like this than I am willing to participate wholeheartedly (and once we have shown some success CoE, EEDC, and TEC Edmonton will be happy to support the program).

    The TechStars/YCombinator approach has some merits and if people out their are looking for entrepreneurial assistance, technical assistance, Seed Funding many of us in the community are willing to contribute our time and own money to do this.

  6. Jason: Thanks for your comments. I hear what you’re saying, but I don’t think getting CoE/EEDC/TEC to jump on board after the fact is really what we want. It wouldn’t be much different than where we are today (everyone likes to use DemoCamp as a shining example, even if they had nothing to do with it). I think it’s an opportunity for CoE/EEDC/TEC to take the lead on something, while gathering input from the community.

    Furthermore, I don’t think they need to create a new fund. They just need to eliminate some of the less efficient ones and reallocate the dollars.

  7. Thanks for the ENTS mention Mack!
    There’s been a lot of discussion within ENTS about just this problem/situation and we’re very hopeful that ENTS can be part of the solution.

    The comment about having never heard of TEC Edmonton certainly rings true with an awful lot of people in this industry. Seems to me that the City is able to ‘tick the technology box’ on a check list somewhere by having TEC Edmonton without actually realizing what a limited scope it has.

  8. Being an entrepreneur with experience in a software start-up in Edmonton, and with various governmental and industry organizations, perhaps I can share some of my experiences:

    1) Canada, and especially the Canadian venture scene is extremely risk averse. Innovative software is not on their radar, especially at early stages. There are many city-centric incubators popping up around the US (and even in Waterloo) that are perfect examples of how funds should be appropriated to new software start-ups – small seeds to quickly validate ideas and low investment to quickly wind down ones that don’t spark. We need an incubator and without saying too much i believe there are several initiatives in the works that will hopefully converge soon.

    2) The Alberta government is not the best supporter of new tech organizations, but they’re getting better. My company has benefited greatly from the AIBPP program with consultants in SF region providing links to companies like Sun and Google that would have otherwise been hard to attain. Other programs offer fewer benefits, including the innovation vouchers (which force you to work with a government backed company). We have also received booth space at major gaming events that has helped out tremendously. What start-ups need is to pool resources and have costs covered for them. They need to be able to focus without having to do freelance work on the side to eat and pay bills. We don’t need any more funding for extensive market research proposals (IRAP i’m looking at you here). Now, the whole budget fiasco is killing a lot of the initiatives that work the best and I know that my contacts within the government share the frustration of companies who benefited from the best programs.

    3) I have some experience with Tec Edmonton – from what I have seen many of your points are valid Mac, but I would disagree with others. They do have a focus on non-software based companies and they are trying to justify their funding in tough times, but from my experience they have seemed very open to discussing how they could help with our software venture. The issue is that it comes down to their personal preferences. If they don’t drool over your concept, good luck.

    4) AVAC/IVAC – these guys are where some real focus should be put. I often scratch my head at the companies that get funded by these organizations. The application process is onerous to say the least and let’s be honest here – what entrepreneur in a hot software space has 3 weeks to go through an application/initial screening process just to get a proof of concept or first launch to market? Do they want early stage companies or companies with products looking to commercialize? What is their mandate? Why do they wait 3 weeks to return phone calls? All valid questions for taxpayers I’d say.

    At the end of the day taking government money seems to the be the issue with most of the organizations that are supposed to be helping technology start-ups in edmonton. Once you get that check it ends up being spent on pricey overhead (Tec Ed, IRAP for example) rather than on putting small seed investments where they could really help organizations most. We don’t need more market surveys – we need the time and resources to prove concepts and plant seeds.

  9. Good points Mark and you have far more experience with tech initiatives in Alberta than I do. From a bird’s eye point of view though places like Quebec and BC do far more to incubate and attract established game companies. There is a reason that Vancouver and Montreal have 99% of the gaming companies in Canada. For years Quebec gave tax credits for employee salaries for tech companies.

    Even Ontario is starting to get it – http://kotaku.com/5308480/ubisoft-toronto-brings-800-jobs-to-ontario

    The Alberta government seems to talk a good game when it comes to diversity, but what are they doing to actually make it happen?

  10. Mack: Good post. Having been involved in a few startups (including a software commercialization/tech transfer out of UCalgary years back), you’ve hit the nail on the head. Most organizations that focus on that kind of commercialization do most of their work in medical-based areas, where the intellectual property and financial requirements are entirely different from modern software startups. The skill sets, metrics, timeframes and processes are entirely different too.

    Having recently moved here from the Tech Triangle (Kitchener/Waterloo/Guelph) area, what I see missing here is an organization akin to Communitech. I don’t think there’s enough critical mass here to support something on that scale. But having a central resource, helping to put on, promote and sponsor events, document existing programs and resources, providing connections to people, money and expertise, mentorship opportunities, networking and more would be fantastic. And an organization that encourages participation by a wide variety of people (from students to senior execs).

    Finally, while I don’t argue there is a huge need for seed funding, I’ll disagree that it should be coming from TEC Edmonton or in fact any other new government based funding model. I’m not at all opposed to government funding, but for the relatively small amounts we’re talking about here in the software space, the application time and process in any formal programs just becomes too onerous.

  11. For anyone interested a few of us are meeting at the Hudsons in Oliver Square to talk about where to start the group that I mentioned. If anyone is interested they can email me directly at davec@3di.ca.

  12. @Dave – good point. Believe me, it sucks to have to travel outside of Alberta to speak to major game studios. Montreal has done a great job incubating that community and the government even helps to sponsor industry events like the Montreal Games Summit and formerly Festival Arcadia.

    The closest things to tax breaks for tech companies are IRAP’s youth program… and possibly their funding for innovative tech, but you have to be well established to get anything from them. Which again points out the glaring gap in government and angel funding in alta – there are funds for companies that have been around, are in the right industries, etc, but none for innovative start ups that don’t need a fortune to get going and prove a concept. Angels today want companies that are making cash and need money to grow, not ideas that need seed capital to spark.

  13. Mack, great post and glad that someone started this discussion. I will try not to rant too much…

    1. Completely agree with your assessment of TEC Edmonton. I have never had the sense that it attracts very entrepreneurial people, but rather houses those that are looking to continue their research from the U of A. They have added some great EIR’s, but the entrepreneurial blood has to be in the founders.

    2. I have to be careful what I say here, but I was part of discussions with a couple of people who were looking to start a micro-seed fund like you mentioned in partnership with the city, province and private investors. Everything was humming along well, the city was on board, but then EEDC squashed it. Apparently it didn’t align with what they envisioned. I read this to mean – “The money wasn’t going to TEC Edmonton”.

    3. Inventors vs Entrepreneurs. First a disclaimer, I love Edmonton and am excited to be a part of the tech community here. I would be the first to support any initiative that benefited it as well. However, coming back from the Silicon Valley I noticed something missing up here. We have some amazing, smart people with great ideas, some following through on them. Most of these people are inventors though. Edmonton needs more entrepreneurs to leverage the talents of these inventors. Entrepreneurship is hard to teach though, more so, it has to be experienced.

    4. Lack of entrepreneurs and good start ups. I know that there are some good companies and people in Edmonton. Unfortunately we fall in terms of where the money is going – which should be a sign.

    -IVAC has invested in numerous Calgary tech companies and I struggle to think of more than one or two in Edmonton.

    -Calgary has many serial entrepreneurs while most of Edmonton’s successes, at least in software and internet, have been one-hit wonders.

    -Even our small VC fund, based out of Edmonton, has found much more attractive opportunities in Calgary and Vancouver. Ironically, one of the Edmonton companies, not in the software space, but in one of the more supported industries, is heading out East due to frustrations of trying to garnish local support.

    All in all, we have a long way to go. I don’t think that there is one answer that will solve all the problems, but starting a discussion and having people passionate about the topic is a great start. A bit of support on the local level wouldn’t hurt either ;).

  14. Mark R. – You may be right about formal programs becoming too onerous. I guess I feel that it couldn’t hurt to try.

    Kevin – I think your last point is a very good one. That’s the old adage right, follow the money!

  15. This Comment is Directed to Dave Chan.

    Dave, you make a number of good points. Including: “We are starting a small group for digital media producers here in Edmonton. Digital Alberta seems to have a Calgary centric focus, so we want to have a group that pays attention to Edmonton.”

    The reason DA appears to be Calgary centric is because there is little support by the local community. People join the board for a year or so and then are gone. When the call went out this year for Board members no one stepped forward. When we had mixers here a half dozen or people would show up but they’d have 50-100 in Calgary.

    It’s as darn shame. We have some great people here doing great things and a provincial based effort would create strength in numbers.

  16. We actually had a pretty productive meeting. We aren’t looking to duplicate Digital Alberta or any other organizations out there, but are wanting to find ways to leverage what already exists and try to get local developers and content producers excited about working in Edmonton. There are a lot of us out there and it would be great if we were able to network and raise the profile of digital media in Edmonton and all of Alberta. As I mentioned earlier, if you are interested email me.

  17. I was at the meeting with Dave yesterday and I have to say it was pretty awesome to get a great group of people together to figure out how to best create a group to focus on hiliting and forwarding the agenda of “Game Development in Edmonton” without necessarily trying to step on the toes of or steal thunder from groups like DemoCamp, Digital Alberta, TEC Edmonton and the many other groups that are out there.

    I can very positively say that I have high hopes for this group and think that it not only has the ability to help give a voice to a strong but ignored tech segment in Edmonton, but also help strength the aforementioned groups by working with them where possible to ensure common goals are met and we further the needs of technology and development here in Alberta as a whole instead of splitting attention of the government like squabbling children like we have in the past.


    That might be true, but when little to no effort was put in place after Ken Bautista left to bring any value to the Edmonton meetups. So it turned into another “meet at hudsons for some drinks” for a month or two and then died out and absoltely killed any momentum. Factor in that you guys really made a conscious effort to center all government meetings, speakers and events in Calgary the past few years and you get a bit of bitterness like we are seeing where there is a visible Calgary bias to Digital Alberta. So you have to understand that when no hand is reached out and yet we see a concious effor to focus the government and industry attention on Calgary, at the cost of making the other vibrant locations suffer, that media developers in the northern half of the province will slowly become jaded and upset that an organization that is to represent the province instead focuses on one small region that is at best on par with what Edmonton based companies are doing.

    Now with that said, I do support the goals of Digital Alberta as a whole and was a proud member at the time you guys did focus on being a province wide initiative. So I dont want to sound like a total douchebag trashing Digital Alberta. I just wanted to get the point across that blame is not solely on Edmonton media developers, which I think is pretty evident considering all the Edmonton based groups that have formed up with the absense of Digital Alberta.

    Just reach out and contact us, I know we actively discussed trying to partner with groups like Digital Alberta where we can to help give you guys a prensece in Edmonton. And really anything that we can do to work together as a group where and when possible to show that this province has world class talent (thats been ignored and under utilized) is a benefit to everyone.

  18. Mack – great, timely post.

    I am an employee of the IT branch at the City of Edmonton and a lifelong City resident. I have been frustrated that the city has not been able create a vibrant IT ecosystem as we seem to have most of the required elements. However, after a recent trip to the Silicon Valley area, I believe I have found the missing link. It was identified in a previous response as a risk-averse culture, but I would revise it to be the immaturity of our risk management models.

    I have recently been given the opportunity to explore this area in my position at the City and will soon release some position papers on the City’s objectives and plans. Broadly speaking, I believe that we can take the local technology community to the next level by creating a local enterprise market.

    The risk model in most enterprises (local or otherwise) discourage the use of emerging technologies or new companies. Similarly, most of the local funding sources support companies that can clearly articulate a ‘guaranteed’ revenue stream. Most of my thinking and planning has centered around a shift of this paradigm by intentional market development. One example could be the implementation of an identity management technology. Several local enterprises could agree on a staged implementation of an emerging identity management technology. This would then create an oppportunity for the local techno-preneur community to create a service offering that would meet that need, perhaps through the cooperation of several independent companies. This would also provide the opportunity for dialogue between entrepreneurs and enterprise decision makers that is required to create real innovation in both groups.

    The comments regarding TEC Edmonton confirm some of my suspicions. It is encouraging to see that there are other groups that could serve as potential contact point as this will be one of the initial challenges.

    I would love the opportunity to discuss this concept with other interested folks, however my evenings are usually unavailable due to family commitments. I can easily arrange or attend a meeting during the workday, if it is of interest to others. Feel free to contact me directly at jacob.modayil@edmonton.ca.

  19. Logan,

    You do have some valid points. I agree that the bulk of the activity has been happening in Calgary, due in part to members in Calgary being more active.

    And I also agree that the social/mixer committee chairs in Edmonton may have been able to do a better job in keeping the local community interested. And when you say no real effort came after Ken left – well, we needed people to do that. Trust me I know about the mixers at Hudsons. Once I was the only person to show up and had a beer all by myself.

    So I’m not saying and never did say that anyone specific is to blame. We just didn’t have enough people in Edmonton coming forward. Some did, got what they wanted out of it, maybe a subsidy to some event in the US then said – oh we’re too busy with our businesses; we’re a small org and can’t commit the time- then leave in mid term. I’ve seen that all too often.

    The comments make it sound like DA is “the Man”. DA is just a group of volunteers trying to make a difference.

    As far as reaching out, when the last call came for directors in March/April – those who guide the org and have the opportunity to shape and mold – no one stepped forward from Edmonton. And to me that was actually embarrassing. Instead of bitching and complaining and being jaded why not step forward and make the difference.

    I don’t want to belabor the point – there is a lot of history, -but yet, I can also see your frustrations as well.

    Overall, we’re all here to make things better for everyone. Maybe what we need to do is look at the big picture and see how can all find some synergy to work together for a common betterment.

    Now I have not been that active on the local front, but have been on a national front. In fact as a Member of the CIAIC – Canadian Interactive Alliance (There are only 7 of us across the country) we are working on formulating our response and position with respect to the CTF (Canadian Television Fund) on the changes to the Canada Media Fund (CMF) (Formerly Canada New Media Fund) to help ensure that we are looked at seriously and not continue to be just an adjunct to Film and Television. To ensure that funding is increased for New (Digital) Media projects which some of the Alberta companies apply for. And with the CTF http://bit.ly/2BtdSQ going out for industry consultation on the CMF of the 13 points covered in the briefing notes we want to make that the those relevant to our industry – nationally are being addressed. So it’s more than just about Edmonton & Calgary.

    Logan, I appreciate your frank comments. Thanks! I’m going to refer this blog post to both the President of DA as well as the Executive Director. Maybe we can get a dialog flowing.

    Anyhow, nuff said! Let’s just work together and make this better for everyone.

  20. I have been part of this discussion going back to the 1990’s. It ebbs and flows but usually winds up at the same place as before. tecEdmonton is an ILO, perhaps dressed up to look like something else, but the main intention is to support a transition of University based research into the commercial sector. To ask it to do anything else is wrong, EEDC (or whatever acronym they re going by these days) is from the same “development” school as any number of business development professionals. They are largely in sales and attraction. Their focus is external, that is why they link well with tourism – getting people from outside our market into our market. The issue is not with either of these organnizations, but with the City for asking them to do something that is outside their own frame of reference. We need a couple of things to happen:

    1. We need a direct, unedited line of communication with the City. These events should not be for tecEdmonton clients to meet with the city. They should be for anyone who wants to go. The recent COE open house was a great example. I saw everyone from the big consulting firms to one man shops. We need to build on that forum.

    2 we need to be as risk friendly as we expect government and investors to be. I go to the democamps and venture alberta and any opportunity I can get to see what is going on in the city and I see a lot of great ideas, but the follow through is soft. There seems to be a lack of commitment to product. Yeah I know we all have bills to pay and kids to feed etc. but what I see is a lot of service companies and individuals in the service side thinking about products. I applaud those who take it to the home stretch. I think it was Shawn Abbott from Tynt who said at bar camp: Investors can tell the difference between people playing to win, and people playing not to lose. Take from that what you will.

    Lastly I think we need to become a little more sophisticated about the relationship between investors and markets. start by turning off the TV whenever Dragon’s Den comes on. Money is about relationships not flash. I could go on and on (and I will for anyone interested). but I think any incubator needs to have some business mentorship brought into the picture.

    to summarize – the City needs to be educated about the difference between tecEdmonton and technology start ups in Edmonton. That is our job, not theirs. I will link up the people I know in City Hall with this discussion, but we need to talk and talk and talk until they get it. While we are at it, we need to talk to the Provincial government too. Check your rolodex, or plaxo or whatever and call your contacts, find out what they know, tell them what you know. I’ll do it, any other takers?

    Our business community also needs to be educated. We need to learn how to take ourselves to the next level. We can’t expect anyone to take us there. ENTS is agreat start – an initiative growing out of the grass roots. How do we leverage that spirit, how do we create spaces to accelerate our industry?

    We have work to do and issues to address, I suggest we bite off the ones we can chew and continue this discussion with the people who can best help us move forward.

  21. Thank you Mack for the article… Greg, thank you for bringing this blog to our attention and thank you all for your comments regarding Digital Alberta…

    Yes, Digital Alberta encompasses all of Alberta, not just Calgary. As Greg pointed out, it has been a struggle to get people from Edmonton to become more involved with Digital Alberta and that’s unfortunate as we’ve had some great Edmontonians involved at the board level who have made a huge difference. As a matter of fact, if it wasn’t for Greg staying on the board as Interim Vice-President North for the 2009-10 season, Edmonton wouldn’t even be represented on the Board of Directors.

    There may be many reasons for not getting involved, but more importantly the question should be, why not get involved???

    We have great programs coming up this year and I’m proud to say that we have a very energetic board, but unfortunately only 1 member from Edmonton stepped up to the plate to help out. If the Edmonton community wants to see more events, workshops, etc., and make a difference, then I respectfully put the challenge out to the Edmonton digital media community to be part of the solution.

    Digital Alberta is a not-for-profit organization. We’re all volunteers on the board, we all have full time jobs and families, but we’re out there doing our best to promote your industries not only within the province, but outside the provincial boundaries as well… I would be very interested in further discussions with any group in Edmonton to find a way to work together on this.


    Thank you for your comments and I especially appreciate this one:

    Just reach out and contact us, I know we actively discussed trying to partner with groups like Digital Alberta where we can to help give you guys a presence in Edmonton. And really anything that we can do to work together as a group where and when possible to show that this province has world class talent (that been ignored and under utilized) is a benefit to everyone.

    This is exactly what I’m doing right now…

    Let’s work together, a true collaborative effort that will not only enhance our presence across all borders but will showcase the talent from within our province to the world… Other provinces have done it, I believe that we can do it better, but we need your help…

    Larry Jacques
    Digital Alberta

  22. Wow, its great to see the enthusiasm from and on the technology community as evidenced by the responses to this blog. On behalf of Edmonton Economic Development Corporation, I wanted to respond to the points about TEC Edmonton.

    In reference to point #1 TEC Edmonton is not supposed to represent the whole technology community in Edmonton. That is one of the reasons that The Regional Alliance Group was formed.

    We recognize that the technology community needs support. TEC Edmonton is but one of the tools to do that. Collaboration between all tech support services is paramount and the Regional Alliance has been formed as a first step and layer in promoting a close working relationship amongst all the technology support services.

    The Regional Alliance even when complete will only be a part of the technology commercialization strategy being put forward by the province. Initial partners include novaNAIT, Northern Alberta Business Incubator, National Institute for Nanotechnology, TEC Edmonton and the Edmonton Research Park.

    As we move forward in building this collaborative network, input from the tech community is welcome.

    Regarding TEC Edmonton’s track record, let’s remember that this organization is only three years old and like any new company has experienced some growing pains including budget restraints. However I can tell you it has had some key successes. The Government of Alberta, the City of Edmonton, EEDC and TEC Edmonton are all working together to align priorities making technology growth in our city more efficient and therefore more effective.

  23. Candace, I really appreciate you taking the time to comment, thanks very much!

    – True, TEC is not supposed to represent the whole technology community, but it often is put into that position incorrectly. That’s my point.

    – The Regional Alliance Group (which I wrote about on Techvibes) doesn’t represent the whole community either. Heck, it doesn’t even exist – where’s the website? contact information? how do I access it? talk to someone about i? It exists on paper right now, and that’s it.

    – I’m sure the community would love to provide input on the Regional Alliance. Where should we show up? Where are the meetings?

    – TEC Edmonton is not just three years old. The organization itself is older, as you know, and I did mention that it has had success.

    Sorry Candace, but replacing TEC Edmonton as the organization that CoE and EEDC work with when it comes to tech with The Regional Alliance isn’t the solution to this problem.

  24. As a few people have already mentioned here, the various levels of government have had years to co-ordinate efforts on this and have not come up with anything definitive. Not sure why jurisdictions like Quebec and B.C. are able to do it when Alberta can’t, but it’s obviously not magic. If I was to start a new game studio I’d be hard pressed to come up with good reasons to do it here. Besides the fact the I like Edmonton and it’s been my home for over 2 decades I just don’t get the same feel as the tech communities in Montreal or Vancouver, let alone the Bay area in California. Truthfully that’s a bit depressing because there are a lot of talented, passionate and creative people in this city. I do truly hope that things change, but the jaded part of me says we’ve heard it all before and as soon as oil recovers the focus will be lost again.

  25. I would like to try to answer why other provinces have had success while we have not. I would sum it up in one phrase – they keep it simple.

    I have found that in Alberta, and especially locally in Edmonton, there is way too much bureaucracy, too many programs, alliances and incubators and a lot of people involved that don’t understand tech start ups. In the end, this leads too a waste of taxpayers money, confused entrepreneurs who don’t know which of the many programs to pursue and little benefit to the tech community.

    I am a big fan of what BC did with their Advantage fund (http://www.bcadvantagefunds.com/). It is a simple program – invest in early stage tech companies and receive 30% of your investment back as a tax credit. It doesn’t get much simpler than that. There are numerous reasons why a program like this works:

    -the administration is simple and the overhead is low – meaning that most of the money goes to where it should, the tech companies

    -it puts the control of the funds in the hands of those who know what they are doing – the tech investors

    -it attracts other investors who have expertise in building tech companies that can bring more than just capital to the game, but also a network, experience and resources

    -it gives the traditional Alberta oil & gas or real estate investor a bit more incentive to look at tech

    -it removes the red tape for entrepreneurs to access public fund for their companies – no programs to apply for and no large progress reports to fill out – meaning they can focus on what they should be focusing on, building their companies

    One thing that really caught my attention in the Silicon Valley is that the whole industry there was driven by the private sector. I realize that Edmonton is never going to become the Silicon Valley, but I think the one thing we could learn is to resist trying to put the control of the tech industry in the hands of government programs and let those who are already in it move it forward. A program like the BC Advantage Fund does just that while still adding a bit of momentum as well.

  26. Good points Kevin and ultimately I agree that we should’t rely on government funding. However, since they do take my tax dollars and redistribute them to help kick start industries in the province I’d like to see them doa good job. Your example of BCs Advantage Fund is great. Kind of ironic considering the “Alberta advantage” slogan that’s been thrown around here for years. I may be wrong, but from what I’ve heard the tax credit program for employee salaries in Quebec was very similar and they have current programs according to this article – http://www.infoworld.com/t/business/us-companies-lured-montreal-salary-subsidies-470

  27. I’ll be sending your sage observations along to the author of the report in question. The Executive Committee received the report without debate (it was an especially long agenda) which authorizes the next steps to proceed. I would suggest that since it’s a pilot, and knowing the point person at the city, that there is probably room to incorporate some of the thinking in this thread.

  28. @Dave

    Unfortunately when it comes to tech its the ‘Alberta Disadvantage’ as we have all come to dub it.

    What is really bad is that theres is that we have the talent here, we have the schools here (which just need to be focused in the right direction) and we have the desire. What we lack is support. Support to get start, support to not fail in business, support to get our voices heard so that the people and those that run this Province do not think of ‘tech’ as some silly garage industry people are dabbling in, but a powerful and viable industry that’s been overlooked for far too long.

    I fully agree though that with the right organization in place and less buerocracy and if the selfish needs were thrown aside that a lot more could be done to further true technology development and not just commercializing research tech done at the U of A.


    Sorry but I am with the rest, finding information on which organization can benefit me and the work that I do is nearly impossible.

    As many others have said the biggest problem is that we have what seems like a dozen or so tech advocacy incubators, programs, whatever and yet we still have massive gaps in the system where companies and technologies fall through the holes and get little to no support what-so-ever. Worse yet is that all these different factions spread the message in too many directions and make what should be a unified voice sound week and muted.

    I am glad that the EEDC is putting the effort in, but in many ways I think you guys need to lead the groups that are under you so you can best do what will move this city forward and not pander to the needs of groups like TEC Edmonton who have too much of an ‘advisory’ role in how things get done (which I feel is wrong, because TEC edmonton is only interested in forwarding the goals of the UofA).

    I understand that this is a monumental shift with how things are probably done, but it truely is necessary to ensure that the true technology sector as a whole (its man facets) is properly represented so that it can grow. This is why Calgary looks like a gem in comparison to Edmonton when it comes to technology, because they have had for years a unified voice that has spoken for it and to be perfectly honest I feel that Edmonton is just as strong if not stronger than Calgary. The benefit of the EEDC to push for this is that right now the whole city is full of hidden gems because we have been underserved for so very long.

  29. I was talking with Rob Davy today and one thing that came up, that’s slightly tangential to this, is the idea of trying to build up a part of the city as a strong community for small, low capital, startups to go. Kind of a mini-silicon valley of sorts.

    The area around ENTS (southern tip of Queen Mary Park neighbourhood) is full of small warehouse buildings sitting largely vacant with low lease rates (I assume it never recovered from the loss of the railyard). This is part of why ENTS was such a great fit for this area. It’s also a pretty good medium-distance spot between the University, Downtown, and NAIT, which are probably the largest centers of white collar business activity in the city. It’s also right next to the Hudsons where TechWings has been held so far. And last but not least, it’s destined to get an LRT link really close to it along either the NAIT line or the WLRT line, depending on where those are going exactly.

    ENTS itself has put a couple hundred square feet of its space up as a sort of low-rent incubator space (and I think half of it is now gone), but this could be just the beginning. If other small tech businesses, including perhaps a freelance artists collective (see for example Periscope Studio in Portland: http://periscopestudio.com/ — I think this is another missing link in our community), set up shop in the area, it could do a huge amount to build and connect the tech community in this city.

    I think that, honestly, organizations like TEC Edmonton and the EEDC will never be able to fully service the startup community in Edmonton. A functional startup community moves too fast, relies too much on grass roots efforts (like TechWing, DemoCamp, BarCamp, Pecha Kutcha, etc), and just abhors all forms of bureaucracy that are not absolutely necessary (which is what government-run organizations do best).

    Our biggest barrier to the kinds of high bandwidth communication needed to maintain that kind of environment is, in my opinion, simply distance. The major centers of software tech employment tend to be large companies in the middle of wastelands (Bioware, Intuit). The small businesses are all spread out all over the city and so interact and communicate far too infrequently, and in the end this hurts them more than is recognized. Never mind the potential for a savvy investor to simply visit an area and see what’s going on, let alone set up an office there and become part of the community.

    So my modest proposal is: Turn the area around ENTS into a mini-silicon valley. It’ll take a lot of time and effort, but I think it’d be worth it. Anyone else think this is a good idea?

  30. Graham,

    Sounds like a great idea!

    As we discussed, I think the first step would be to establish what space is available in that area (by talking to landlords, etc) and then providing that information to the community. The space we (ENTS) found was fluke basically, but amazing space (big, cheap, flexible, etc), and I’m sure there’s more there, just needs to be looked for.

    Next step (or parallel) would be to establish something like the Old Strathcona Business Association, but for this area. The City loves stuff like that (rejuvenation programs, business revitalization zones, etc).

    Totally do-able.

  31. I think a first step should be to get the labeling right. As far as I understand the short TECH stands for ‘Technology’ – all forms of it, including software I would think. So if Tech Edmonton is focused on physical science / life science etc why not rename it to ‘PhySci’ Edmonton instead and make the Tech Edmonton label available to a future organization that aims to support all (promising) technologies?

    This would certainly reduce the immense amount of confusion around the topic. As always, good communication (including good, reality based labeling) paves the road to achieving ones (offical) goals.

  32. Hi everyone, I have been a self employed web designer in Red Deer since 1996. Although I am new to the issues in this blog, I have been intrigued by this discussion. I have just recently started attending Digital Alberta events in Calgary and it has been exciting for me to have the opportunity to network with others from my industry and keep abreast of new technologies, programs, etc.

    I can feel the frustration from Edmonton, and it seems by the discussion there are many who have examined the root of the issues and are ready to do something about it! Taking action is the key here, and if you get a group together up there that is open to working with DA to find solutions and make things better, I can see the apathy quickly disappearing and a new energy being ignited.

    By working together we can lobby the Alberta government to do things such as simplify it’s programs similar to the “BC Advantage” that Kevin mentioned, and educate them about the importance of diversifying our economy, especially in this rapidly changing digital age. Yes, the red tape that we all hate is inevitable, but the bottom line is, the government is still a source of funding that is desperately needed to get our digital / tech industry moving forward until we can sell the private sector on the value of investing.

    Logan mentions the lack of support… this is why we need to band together. We need positive change and that means participation from all over the province. The key is to get involved. I am not familiar with the organizations mentioned in the Blog and the comments (EEDC, TEC Edmonton, etc), so I can’t comment on what they are or are not doing to promote the growth of the Digital and Technology sector in Edmonton. But I do know that it makes sense that groups such as Digital Alberta can fill the gap as far as giving us a voice, providing support, education, collaboration, and resources for our Tech community.

  33. One comment is hardly a problem! Akismet tells me it has protected my blog from 168,592 spam comments so far. It seems one sneaks by every now and then.

  34. Graham I think you jinxed it! I don’t know why its only this post and I don’t know why Akismet can’t just block non-English comments. I am turning comments off.

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