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.
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:
- TEC Edmonton does not represent the whole of the technology community in Edmonton.
- 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.
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.