Raising Money for Tech in Alberta

Post ImageAn incredible number of tech startups have been created in the last year or so, as evidenced by the existence of blogs like TechCrunch and The List to track them all. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, some people are starting to get turned off. Caterina Fake, co-founder of Flickr, recently suggested that it’s a bad time to start a company. She outlined six reasons:

  1. Everybody else is starting a company.
  2. Your competition just got funded too.
  3. Talent is scarce again.
  4. You can’t operate in obscurity anymore.
  5. Web 2.0 isn’t all that.
  6. There’s too much going on.

With the exception of number five, I have to respectfully disagree. And judging by the comments she received on that post, many others do as well. More and more companies are being launched every day, and while not all of them will succeed, some will.

The vast majority of these companies are located in Silicon Valley, or at the very least, in the United States. For a while it seemed that Canada was missing out on this time of growth in the tech sector, but thanks to conferences like Mesh and the odd VC deal, that perception is starting to change. We still have a long way to go though, before Mark Evans will be satisfied:

What I want to know is when is Canada’s Web 2.0 party going to start? When can I start writing about super-cool start-ups strutting around with a multi-million dollar VC deals? When do I get to attend parties with an open bar, a great band and a nice “loot bag” when you finally decide to leave?

I have been wondering the same thing, especially given the fact that I have been creating a “cool startup” here in Canada. Through VenturePrize, Wes Nicol, and all of the people and organizations we have met along the way, I have learned a lot about investment and raising money, both here in Alberta and elsewhere.

If you can raise money for a tech venture in Alberta, you can raise it anywhere.

The main thing I have learned about where to raise money is that in Alberta, raising money for a technology based venture is next to impossible. Alberta sees something like 3% of all tech funding done in Canada, which doesn’t jive with our incredible economy. The problem is that the Alberta economy is really a one-trick pony – we’re almost entirely dependent on oil and gas (and real estate which becomes valuable because of the oil and gas). And with generous tax and royalty programs like the Innovative Energy Technologies Program and the Generic Oil Sands Royalty Regime (more on these here), why would an investor put money into anything but oil? They can get a significant portion of their investment back through these and other royalty programs. I have been told that in some cases an investor can get almost half of what they invest back in credit!

One advisor I spoke with suggested that the way our provincial economy is setup is really “punitive” for technology based firms. It’s bad news for the future of our province too, as oil and gas are simply not sustainable over the long haul.

This web page appears to have been written in 1996, and yet the three issues identified at the very top still affect technology commercialization in Alberta (not to say that nothing has been accomplished in the last decade):

  1. The shortage of financing for SMEs, primarily for seed or early stage companies with a capital requirement of less than $500,000.
  2. The lack of financing options related to commercialization and early growth situations, where public offerings or other forms of institutional financing may not be appropriate.
  3. The lack in Alberta, relative to other jurisdictions, of tax related incentives, to stimulate investment in the technology sector.

They match up with everything I have learned thus far anyway. More recent publications seem to confirm things as well, such as Ernst & Young’s Alberta Technology Report from 2004:

“Limited funding is an issue that needs addressing,” says Ian Robinson, who as team leader of Ernst & Young’s Technology, Communications and Entertainment group heads up the report. “Locally based angel investors are improving the picture-in 2003 we saw a quarter of companies supported by angels, an increase from 17% the previous year. But few Alberta companies are receiving support from venture capitalists, and small companies-the majority of Alberta’s technology sector-are not able to access funding from these sources. Not surprisingly, perhaps, 38% of companies suggest a willingness to leave Alberta, in part to gain better access to capital,” he says.

So what can you do to raise money for a tech venture in Alberta? Turns out there are still a few options, one of which is of course to simply look elsewhere! In addition to personal or family and friends capital, debt funding, and the other traditional methods of raising money, here are some of the programs available in Alberta:

  • Alberta Deal Generator
    “Alberta Deal Generator (ADG) has established the largest network of accredited investors in Canada who are actively pursuing opportunities in Alberta’s early and growth-stage companies. We work to facilitate investment in high-growth Alberta technology companies.”
  • VenturePrize
    Having gone through the competition, I can confirm that it is a reasonable way to attract investment. At the very least you will likely be introduced to some of the individuals and groups in Alberta that might be interested in investing.
  • Scientific Research and Experimental Development Program
    “The federal government provides income tax incentives to Canadian taxpayers that conduct scientific research and experimental development (SR&ED) in Canada. The program encourages industry, including small business and start-up firms, to develop technologically advanced products and processes in Canada.”
  • Industrial Research Assistance Program
    We have consulted with IRAP here in Edmonton, and it turned out that we just weren’t at the right stage for funding (though they have helped us in other ways). If you’re getting started with a technology based company, make sure you talk to IRAP early so you can plan to use their services and funding.
  • Tech Focused VC Firms
    Organizations like Venture Alberta and SpringBank TechVentures are focused on technology based firms, though I have no idea how successful they have been.
  • Venture Forums
    There are lots of forums that are open to any company in Canada, no matter where you are located, such as the Canadian Venture Forum. There are some local ones too, like the Keiretsu Forum for Calgary and Edmonton.

Hopefully that gives you a good overview of the funding situation for technology companies here in Alberta. There is lots of room for improvement, and until things do improve, I would not be surprised if we end up losing some good technology firms to other locations.

That said, I guess I should point out that starting a company in Alberta is not all bad. There are many advantages to being here, such as excellent access to labor, reasonably good tax rates, and very little threat of natural disasters (such as flooding destroying your data center or something).

In terms of funding though, if your venture is oil and gas related, Alberta is the place to be. If instead your venture is technology based, you might be better off elsewhere unfortunately.

Podcasters Across Borders

Post ImageThere are so many podcasting events taking place now, which is a good sign of the buzz level surrounding the technology. The latest one I have run across is called Podcasters Across Borders, taking place on June 23rd and 24th in Kingston, Ontario. There isn’t too much information on the event yet, so stay tuned to their blog if you’re interested in going. They also have a details page with a little more information.

I think we’ll start to see more and more targeted podcasting events appear. I have a feeling that there can only be so many “general purpose” podcasting events, and with the Portable Media Expo, Podcastercon, and other conferences like Gnomedex or Northern Voice, I’m willing to bet that we’re getting close to reaching the limit. So if you’re a conference organizer looking for a great topic related to podcasting, let me suggest one! I’d love to go to a conference about business podcasting. How are businesses using podcasting? How could they use it? That sort of thing.

Corel to go public

Post ImageCorel is one of those companies that never seems to die, nor does it ever do anything amazing. As Seth Godin would say, they need a purple cow! The Canadian company (and I’ll be honest, the fact that they are Canadian is the only reason I care about this at all) has decided to go public, apparently to pay off some debts:

Canadian software maker Corel filed with U.S. regulators on Tuesday for an initial public offering of up to 8 million shares at $18 to $20 a share.

Corel estimated that it would generate $82.9 million in net proceeds from the offering and an additional $90 million from a new credit facility. According to the offering document, Corel intends to use the combined proceeds to pay off $144.9 million in existing debt and financing fees.

The company strikes me as one without focus, or at least, too many different focuses. CorelDRAW and WordPerfect Office do not seem to be complimentary products. Seems to me there wouldn’t be a lot of synergy between the two. I guess what I mean is that there can only be one Adobe!

Read: CNET News.com

Paramagnus Press Coverage

Post ImageWe’ve received a lot of great press for our business plan competitions lately. Of course, we were in the Ottawa Citizen the day after the Wes Nicol competition, and today we were featured in the Edmonton Journal:

Mack Male and Dickson Wong’s disappointment at not winning this year’s TEC Edmonton VenturePrize melted away 24 hours later when the University of Alberta students won a national business plan competition in Ottawa.

Unfortunately you need an account to read the entire article online, so go pick up a physical copy. There’s a great picture of us in there too, page G3.

We’re also featured on the Innovation Alberta website. There is text, audio, and an image:

One of the two runners up in TEC Edmonton’s VenturePrize Competition was Paramagnus Developments Inc. Paramagnus deals in podcasting software Tools, and is the brainchild of Edmonton computing science students Mack Male and Dickson Wong. Here’s what Mack has to say about being a finalist in VenturePrize.

And there’s more on the way too! If you run across something I haven’t, let me know.

Edmonton's Next Generation

Post ImageWe hear lots here in Edmonton about how our city needs to improve, but less about what is being done. I got an email recently about a survey from the Next Generation Task Force. If you’re in Edmonton, you might be interested in this:

The Next Generation Task Force is a temporary committee of Edmonton’s City Council. Chaired by Councillor Kim Krushell, it is charged with providing recommendations to City Council, on making Edmonton a more fun, attractive, and pleasant place to live. It is composed of twenty Edmontonians from diverse backgrounds and walks of life. Over the upcoming months they will be inviting public input on the six broad themes they have chosen (listed here in alphabetical order): Arts and Culture, Business Opportunity, Edmonton’s Image, Human Capital, Sports and Recreation, Urban Living Environment.

They have a ten minute survey up on the website that you can use to offer your opinion on these topics.

Read: Next Generation Task Force

Paramagnus Finalists in Wes Nicol Competition!

It’s been a great week for Paramagnus! On Wednesday it was announced that we were semi-finalists in the VenturePrize competition and last night we found out that we were selected as finalists for local part of the Wes Nicol Entrepreneurial Award, also a businss plan competition!

The Wes Nicol Entrepreneurial Award is a national non-profit competition designed to promote entrepreneurship with Canadian University students. Now in its 9th year, the program is launching its second national Wes Nicol Entrepreneurial Award ceremony, to be held March 23rd, 2006 in Ottawa.

We present to the judges on Saturday, and if we win the local competition we get to travel to Ottawa to compete against the rest of Canada. Needless to say, we’re pretty excited!

If you’re going to participate in a business plan competition, you might as well compete in another. There ends up being quite a bit of overlap in terms of the work you need to do, but you meet different people and learn different things from each.

Hopefully a week from now we’ll be making travel arrangements for our nation’s capital!

UPDATE [10:02 PM]: I fixed this post to say “semi-finalists in the VenturePrize competition” as I had erroneously put “finalists”. I’m getting ahead of myself 🙂

Read: Wes Nicol

Paramagnus selected as VenturePrize semi-finalist!

I am really pleased to announce that Paramagnus Developments Inc. has been selected as one of six semi-finalists in this year’s VenturePrize Fast-Growth Enterprise Award category. As some of you may know, Dickson and I have been working on a business plan for Paramagnus for the last four or five months, and we submitted it to the VenturePrize business plan competition at the end of January. From the press release:

These six semifinalists will present their concepts to a judging panel who will announce the final three contenders at a March 6 special reception. These three finalists will then make a final pitch to judges and a sold-out audience at the Edmonton Economic Development Corporation (EEDC) Annual Luncheon on March 22, 2006, where the grand prize winner will be crowned.

“This is an exciting group of contestants representing a range of innovative business opportunities,” said Jay Krysler, VenturePrize Program Manager for TEC Edmonton. “The business plan screening panel, who are business and finance industry professionals, certainly had a difficult time selecting only six from so many great business concepts. Alberta will be well-served when all these plans move forward.”

It feels very good to have your business receive validation and recognition from some very smart people. We’ve learned a lot throughout the process so far, and I know there’s far more learning ahead.

We’re really excited about making it this far in the competition, and we’re going to do our best to blow the judges away with our presentation. If all goes well, I’ll be posting again on March 6th that we made it to the final three! No matter what happens, I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished already, and I am eager to see the feedback on our business plan.

I also can’t wait to get our products and services launched!

Read: TEC Edmonton

Yahoo buying Digg?

Post ImageYahoo keeps going further and further down the acquisition path lately – or at least generating rumors that they are. The newest rumor is that they are set to purchase Digg.com for nearly $30 million. Since the rumor first appeared there have been a number of updates that dispute such an acquisition, but it’s interesting to consider nonetheless. From Kevin Burton’s Feed Blog:

Update 2: The Digg blog officially denies the acquisition. Jeremy was smart enough to have “no comment“… Next time there’s a Digg acquisition rumor you’ll know you’re on to something 🙂

I wouldn’t be surprised if it turns out to be true. Digg would be an excellent addition to the growing stable of apps under the Yahoo umbrella, including del.icio.us and Flickr among others. The other factor to consider in this rumor, which Kevin does a good job of pointing out, is that Digg has insane amounts of traffic, and is going to need either more investment or a suitor with lots of resources to keep pace.

Read: Kevin Burton

More on the oil sands

Post ImageA week ago today I wrote a post explaining how I think Canada should be making a greater effort to develop and benefit from the oil sands in Alberta. Naturally, I’ve been keeping my eyes open for any news regarding the oil sands, and I’ve actually come across a couple things.

First is The Oil Sands of Alberta which aired on 60 minutes on Sunday. A couple things stood out for me:

There are 175 billion barrels of proven oil reserves here. That’s second to Saudi Arabia’s 260 billion but it’s only what companies can get with today’s technology. The estimate of how many more barrels of oil are buried deeper underground is staggering.

We know there’s much, much more there. The total estimates could be two trillion or even higher,” says Clive Mather, Shell’s Canada chief. “This is a very, very big resource.”

Very big? That’s eight times the amount of reserves in Saudi Arabia.

Clearly, there’s a lot of oil there. We just need the technology to be able to get it out of the ground for a reasonable cost! That’s key to my argument – we need to work on ways of fostering that research and development.

“I think it’s bigger than a gold rush. We’re expecting $100 billion over the next 10 years to be invested in this area – $100 billion in a population that, currently, is 70,000 people,” says Brian Jean, who represents the region in Canada’s parliament.

There’s a lot of money coming in too. More than I expected, to be honest. However, I am still not convinced that big corporations are going to be the ones who find a way to improve the technology and thus the ROI. Sure companies make progress in a lot of areas, but more often than not, it’s an individual or smaller group of individuals that find a way. Corporations then either copy or acquire.

For more commentary on the piece, The Oil Drum has a very good post with a ton of interesting comments too.

The 60 Minutes episode makes it seem as though China currently doesn’t have much interest in the oil sands, though not for lack of desire. A press release I found yesterday though tends to suggest that the country is starting to make investments:

What is certain is that global demand for oil – especially from Asia – is far outstripping the ability of companies to meet current demand and replenish their diminishing reserves. These factors are being exacerbated by global political uncertainty. The oil sands are increasingly on the U.S. radar screen as they focus on reducing their reliance on oil producing countries outside of North America. The Chinese have become increasingly involved in the oil sands with the China National Offshore Oil Corp., recently investing $150 million in MEG Energy Corp., a private company engaged in the oil sands.

In a different press release, I learned that Purvin & Gertz, an independent energy consulting firm, made available a study that analyzes the challenges and opportunities presented by development in the oil sands.

Producers face issues of growing existing and new markets for oil sands crudes. The need for diluent to transport heavy crude will increase with bitumen production. Upgrading in Alberta could reduce diluent demand, but requires major capital investment and does not eliminate the market risks associated with marketing SCO.

I’d have thought that with the increasing demand for oil there would be little or no risks associated with marketing synthetic crude oil! I’m not an expert though, so maybe I’m missing something. You can find out more on the study at the Purvin & Gertz website.

I need to dig around a little more, but I would not be surprised if much of the $100 billion that has been announced turns out to be nothing more than a foot in the door for the companies making the investments. If you’re in the oil business, you don’t want to miss out on the oil sands. In order to benefit though, we need to get better at extracting and refining the oil!

I guess one reason Canada wouldn’t be all that interested in sponsoring research and development is that so much of the oil sands has been sold to foreign investment (at least that’s how it appears). Like I said, more research is needed, but if that’s the case, it’s potentially a major loss for Canada.

Disney buys Pixar

Post ImageLast week I mentioned that Disney was in talks to buy Pixar, and today they announced that the deal is done. Disney is paying $7.4 billion in stock for the company, and Steve Jobs will get a seat on the board:

As part of the deal, which is expected to be completed this summer, two Pixar veterans will head Disney’s animation efforts. Ed Catmull, who had served as Pixar’s president, was named president of the combined Pixar and Disney Animation Studios. John Lasseter, the Pixar executive vice president who is widely regarded as the studio’s creative leader, was named chief creative officer. Pixar will remain in its San Francisco Bay Area headquarters.

Additionally, Steve Jobs is now the largest individual shareholder of Disney. I think it’s a great move for Disney, as long as they execute properly – and by that I mean don’t screw things up.

What has been most successful for the two companies? Pixar made the movies, Disney handled the distribution. I don’t see any reason that should drastically change, so I hope the combined company still leaves the bulk of the creative stuff to Pixar.

Read: CNET News.com