Paul Singh brings tough love to Edmonton’s startup community

Paul Singh is a well-known entrepreneur, investor, and speaker based in Washington, DC. For the last few years, Singh and his partner Dana Duncan have travelled around North America visiting startup communities “that other investors weren’t visiting.” Along the way they’ve interacted with thousands of founders, investors, community leaders, and elected officials, and have seen first-hand what nearly 100 cities are doing to try to grow their startup ecosystems.

ScaleUp YEG brought Singh’s North American Tech Tour to Edmonton this week. He participated in a number of events on Thursday and Friday in addition to one-on-one meetings with local entrepreneurs to provide “mentoring and support” (and presumably to look for investment opportunities). I saw him speak on Thursday afternoon at the Edmonton Innovation Ecosystem Community (EIEC) meeting hosted by EEDC.

Paul Singh

“It’s not better anywhere else,” Singh told the room. “We could pick this room up and put it down in any other city and we’d have the same conversations.” Entrepreneurs would complain that there’s not enough money, investors would complain that there aren’t enough quality companies, and bureaucrats would complain that they’re being overlooked compared to others.

Singh lamented the fact that entrepreneurs see investors as individuals with power that need to be won over, referencing Dragon’s Den and Shark Tank tendency to focus the camera on the investors as the popular reinforcement of this idea. He suggested investors are just like entrepreneurs, with a business to grow. Still, he didn’t hold back when it came to his advice for the entrepreneurs in the room.

“If you cannot build a business in Edmonton, moving is not going to help you,” he said. “The internet has made place less relevant.” Singh argued that because the barriers to entry are so much lower now, it’s most often entrepreneurs themselves that get in the way of success. “Most entrepreneurs underestimate the value of just getting started,” he said. “We have a lot of wantrapreneurs.”

When asked which cities he has come across that are successfully building startup communities, Singh cited Kelowna, BC and Lincoln, Nebraska. But he quickly turned back to Edmonton. “I feel like Edmonton’s worst enemy is the people that already live in Edmonton,” Singh observed. “You guys are awful to yourselves.” He noted that in today’s world, ambition and access to information are both fairly evenly distributed. “It’s visibility that is not equally distributed,” he said. And that’s what Edmonton should focus on.

“If you want to make Edmonton better, you don’t need collaboration,” he said. Instead, entrepreneurs need to pick up the phone 200 times a day and sell, investors need to just focus on making more money (wherever it comes from), and government officials need to drive visibility.

“The only thing stopping more billion dollar companies from being here in Edmonton is the entrepreneurs not doing it,” Singh said.

Controversial criticism

One of the other events that Singh participated in during ScaleUp YEG was a session called Customer vs Investor Presentation: Knowing How to Pitch to Your Audience:

“Local ScaleUp dealcloser will share their sales and investor presentation for feedback from our experts Carey Houston, Paul Singh, & Kristina Milke on what makes for a good presentation for each audience. You’ll leave understanding the differences between a sales and investor presentation, what makes a good pitch, and understanding the needs and motivations of your audience.”

Amir Reshef, co-founder and CEO at dealcloser, gave the two presentations on stage in front of a crowd and received feedback from Singh, Houston, and Milke. I was not at the event, but understand that Singh did not hold back in his criticism and that Reshef, while expecting constructive feedback, was taken aback at the approach that Singh took. This led Alex Putici, founder of Work Nicer, to write a blog post explaining that Singh would not be welcome to participate in upcoming events at the coworking space. He wrote:

“A community member was participating in a pitch event and was thereafter “roasted” and “humiliated”. Tough truths, direct feedback, and criticism is important. But it must be delivered respectfully while helping the individual and encouraging the community around them. This balance can be tricky, but it’s culture setting.”

Both Singh and Reshef have since responded on Facebook.

“I apologize for making you feel roasted and humiliated — I’m sorry,” wrote Singh. “My understanding of that particular event’s goal was clearly incorrect, I believe the organizer has conveyed that to you.” He said that he and his partners enjoyed their time here in Edmonton, adding that “we’ll be doing our best to invest more of our time and money in promising entrepreneurs here.”

“Overall, it was not a fun experience and while I do not begrudge Paul giving honest and blunt feedback, I would have preferred not to be the person at the receiving end of that feedback in such a public manner,” wrote Reshef. “When the organizer of ScaleUp YEG asked me to present, I was told it would be a very positive and friendly presentation. It did not pan out that way.”

I understand that Singh, Reshef, and Putici have all spoken with one another and are ready to move on.

My Thoughts

So why mention the controversy at all? Two reasons.

First, I think it is a reminder that people are generally making good faith efforts toward a common goal and that they really do care. Singh was not out to get anyone, the organizers did not intentionally mislead anyone about the intent of the session, Reshef did not complain or ask for the removal of Singh from Work Nicer, and Putici was acting in the best interests of the community he’s responsible for. I believe they all genuinely want to see Edmonton’s startup community succeed. The fact that they care so much is what makes incidents like this seem bigger than they are.

Second, it does present an opportunity for everyone in the local startup community to reflect on the type of community we’d like to have. If we want a respectful, constructive, and accountable community then we need to be intentional about building it that way.

Paul Singh

I really enjoyed Singh’s talk. Though I am sure he has delivered the exact same message to countless other cities on his tour, he seemed genuinely interested in Edmonton’s startup community and attempts to improve it. I appreciated his reminder that often the grass is not greener on the other side, as well as his observation that Edmontonians spend too much time worrying about how we’re doing rather than just getting on with it.

A little perspective goes a long way.

UPDATE: The pitch event took place at the Edmonton Convention Centre not at Work Nicer Beaver House as originally stated.

Recap: DemoCamp Edmonton 42

Edmonton’s 42nd DemoCamp took place last night at the Centennial Centre for Interdisciplinary Sciences (CCIS) on the University of Alberta campus. You can see my recap of DemoCamp Edmonton 41 here.

DemoCamp Edmonton 42

If you’re new to DemoCamp, here’s what it’s all about:

“DemoCamp brings together developers, creatives, entrepreneurs and investors to share what they’ve been working on and to find others in the community interested in similar topics. For presenters, it’s a great way to get feedback on what you’re building from peers and the community, all in an informal setting. Started back in 2008, DemoCamp Edmonton has steadily grown into one of the largest in the country, with over 200 people attending each event. The rules for DemoCamp are simple: 7 minutes to demo real, working products, followed by a few minutes for questions, and no slides allowed.”

Here’s my Twitter thread for the event. We had six demos, in order of appearance:

The first demo of the evening was from the team at Gabbi. Sherman and Bryan showed us the app which helps real estate agents organize their messages and collaborate with their team. Like the rest of us, real estate agents are always on their phones and Gabbi can help them respond to messages, transfer conversations between agents, and more. Building on top of that foundation is an AI assistant, to “get the agents to the next level.” Gabbi uses Microsoft’s LUIS behind-the-scenes for understanding intent. Essentially, they’re building an AI-assisted CRM for real estate agents. Neat!

Next up was Permit Tool, which is a Microsoft Power BI-based data crunching tool that can help you visualize and understand development permits in the City of Edmonton. Brandon wanted to build the tool to help him apply for a job in the commercial real estate industry, and once he found the data available in the Open Data Catalogue, he was off and running. “There’s so much interesting information that we didn’t even know existed!” During the demo, Brandon used the tool to filter for people that had applied for permits to build hot tubs. “Go make friends with these people,” he joked. In addition to being a useful tool, his approach worked: he got the job!

Our third demo was from the team at What’s The Deal?, a web app that tells you about happy hour deals nearby. The site lets you view deals by day, or you can use the search feature to filter by characteristics like whether or not there’s a patio or free Wi-Fi. The website is built on WordPress but is really more of a proof-of-concept; they’re planning to launch a native mobile application next month. Currently the team manually curates all the data, but they hope to have restaurants take on that role themselves in the future.

Next up was Brendan who shared yegsecrets.ca. He got the idea for the site after participating in a Reddit discussion about the hidden gems in our city. “It really bugs me when people say Edmonton is boring or ugly or Deadmonton!” The site is basically a big map full of pins that represent interesting locations. You can click on a pin to see a brief description and photos of the location. There are no plans to add businesses to the site, because there’s already a lot of places to find those. The idea is to showcase great views, inspiring art, that sort of thing. Brendan, who took part in Startup Edmonton’s Summer Student Program, has seeded the locations based on input from others, and there is a suggest feature if you know of a hidden gem.

DemoCamp Edmonton 42

Our fifth demo was from Dean who showed off Forkdrop.io, which is an information and educational resource for Bitcoin holders. And specifically, forks or projects that give value to holders of Bitcoin in the form of newly created coins. The site contains a giant table with the latest information on all of the different projects, but also features in-depth guides for people to follow. Since launching the site has attracted about 28,000 users and has received a bunch of press in the Bitcoin industry. It’s all open source too.

The final demo of the evening was from Dana who showed us Tadum.app, a new app that helps you have more effective meetings. The name “Tadum” works two ways: it sounds like the noise a to-do list might make when you complete a task, and it’s an acronym for the key features of the app: To-Dos, Actions, Discussions, Updates, and Metrics. Dana said his experience has shown that the best meetings follow a routine, have a structure, and have forced accountability, so those are all aspects of the way Tadum works. It will work best if you buy into the process. Dana and the team have focused on ensuring the agenda experience is great, but have plans to add integrations in the future.

All of the demos went fairly smoothly! As an Edmonton fan myself, I love the spirit of yegsecrets.ca, and as someone who has had my share of bad meetings, I’m intrigued by what Tadum offers. And yes, I’m always interested to see how others are using open data, so I found Permit Tool pretty cool as well.

Here are the events and other announcements that were mentioned in-between demos:

  • You can now pre-order Nathan Youngman’s new book, Get Programming with Go. He had a couple of signed copies to show off last night. Congratulations Nathan!
  • Preflight is Startup Edmonton’s flagship program and it helps entrepreneurs “reach a global market, harness your ambition, and structure your business to grow right from the start.” New sessions are starting in October and November.
  • Edmonton Startup Week takes place October 15-19. Launch Party Edmonton 9 will take place on October 18.
  • If you’re a student, be sure to check out the free Student Membership from Startup Edmonton.
  • Save the date for the Student Development Conference, taking place March 23, 2019 at the Shaw Conference Centre.
  • There are plenty of other upcoming community meetups listed at the Startup Edmonton meetup site.

You can also check out the Tech Roundup for the latest headlines & happenings in Edmonton’s technology community every Tuesday. Here’s the latest edition.

See you at DemoCamp Edmonton 43!

Mayor Don Iveson calls on Edmonton investors to get in the game

In his State of the City address (available here in PDF) yesterday at the Shaw Conference Centre, Mayor Don Iveson said there are four crucial “pipelines” that must be established in order to actively shape Edmonton’s economic future. The “export” pipeline, the “investment” pipeline, the “talent” pipeline, and the “innovation” pipeline are what we need for growth in Edmonton.

2018 State of the City Address

Most of what Mayor Iveson told the packed room was simply a rehash of ideas he and other local leaders have been sharing for years, updated to use the startup language of the day. What was different this time was the very specific audience he was speaking to. It wasn’t a speech for all Edmontonians, or for community leaders, or even for the business community. Yesterday’s speech was targeted squarely at local investors.

“As it stands right now, we don’t have enough local investment committed to our local innovation ecosystem,” Mayor Iveson said. He noted that too much local money is being sent out of the city to be invested elsewhere. “I’d like to change that dynamic.”

We need Edmonton’s investor class to get engaged

Mayor Iveson started by describing Edmonton’s investor class:

“It doesn’t always look like one might expect. It’s not always dressed in bankers’ suits. It’s not always flashy like in other cities. It’s more reserved and quiet. But it’s deeply committed to this community.”

“A lot of you are in the room today,” he said. “You’ve built your companies in dynamic and creative ways, you employ thousands of Edmontonians and you are proud to call this city home.” Mayor Iveson outlined three key reasons why the investor class should invest locally:

  1. “This is very doable,” he told them. “A lot of early-stage companies in Edmonton don’t require cash in the millions.” Instead, typical seed funding requirements are in the tends of thousands.

  2. “More local, private investment will give our innovation ecosystem more rigour.” Compared to institutional investors, private investors put “a premium on commercial viability and outcomes.”

  3. “Investing in the growth of local companies means actively shaping Edmonton’s economic future.” He appealed to their love of Edmonton. “You care about what happens to this community over the long run.”

“There must be a willingness from our community to place some bets on local innovations, on local entrepreneurs, on local talent,” Mayor Iveson said.

There are billions of dollars under management right here in Edmonton, but startup funding remains elusive. As one example, AngelList currently shows 16 investors from Edmonton with only 11 of those having actually made investments. Mayor Iveson mentioned just one seed fund by name, Panache Ventures. The situation is much better than it was back in 2006, but to say there’s room for improvement would be a huge understatement.

“I recognize I’m asking a lot of you, especially in this fragile economic climate,” he said. “But this is Edmonton’s moment, and your city needs your engagement and support more than ever.”

We need a bigger startup funnel

Noting that Startup Edmonton currently assists about 65 companies per year in their startup phase, Mayor Iveson said “we need to drastically increase the number of companies coming into the ecosystem funnel.” By this time next year, the mayor wants “to at least double the number of start-up companies that are assisted on an annual basis.” To do this, he will be asking City Council and both public and private sector parterns “to make sizeable investments” to help expand the size of the startup funnel.

This is a familiar refrain locally, especially in the tech sector. Increasing the number of startups in Edmonton is of course the whole reason for Startup Edmonton, an initiative that Mayor Iveson has long been a supporter of. Many other initiatives in recent years have focused on increasing the number of local entrepreneurs. Even in last year’s State of the City address, Mayor Iveson talked about the need “to focus on how we take local start-ups to the next level — to zero-in on adopting a scale-up mindset and build a scale-up community that helps our small enterprises grow confidently.”

This time, Mayor Iveson reiterated the importance of local investment. Edmonton needs more than just more companies, he said. “It also needs larger amounts of early-stage capital to help our entrepreneurs go from start-up to scale-up and beyond.”

Mayor Don Iveson

We need to hustle

One of the key messages Mayor Iveson focused on was the need to hustle. “Edmonton has experienced incredible external pressures before, and we have always managed to adapt and get by,” but that’s not good enough anymore, he said. Recent trips to San Francisco and Asia showed the mayor just how hard we need to work just to keep up, let alone get ahead. “From the moment you hit the ground in these places, the hustle is on.”

We have heard this before. When Brad Ferguson took over as President & CEO of EEDC in 2012, he was already sounding the alarm about complacency, calling it “our number enemy.”

This time though, the mayor got a bit more specific. “Today, we have one of the best AI research institutions in the world but we risk being outspent and out-hustled by other provinces and other cities,” he said. While there’s a role for government, “there’s also a significant role for local investors and philanthropists.”

We’re a world leader in the science of artificial intelligence, and we need to aggressively build on that.

We need a bigger talent pipeline

More talent is going to be critical for Edmonton’s growth. “We know we have work to do in terms of developing skilled talent — both locally grown, and talent that we attract from elsewhere,” Mayor Iveson said.

Again, this is not new. At the EEDC Impact Luncheon in January 2016, Brad Ferguson told the crowd that “the most important thing we can do is continue to invest in talent.” In September 2014, the Edmonton in a New Light event touched on the same ideas – be less humble, go tell the world, attract people and investment – but used different language. “The opportunity before us is to let the rest of the world in on the secret of why we’re all here,” Mayor Iveson said at the time.

The mayor did announce yesterday a new partnership with EEDC and LinkedIn “to do a deep dive on Edmonton’s talent landscape” to better understand “the kinds of skills we’re missing to grow our innovation ecosystem.” Based on that, the City will craft “an Edmonton story that is compelling, honest and attractive” and that highlights “the incredible quality of life we have here.” Plenty has been written about our city’s branding efforts and missteps, so while I applaud a more data-driven approach, I find it hard to believe this time will be different.

2018 State of the City Address

We need to sell to the world

Mayor Iveson said that for sustained growth in Edmonton, we need more businesses with a focus on exports. “Companies that aren’t satisfied to stay local, but want to scale up and take their product or service to customers around the world,” he said, and cited Stantec, PCL, Yardstick, Showbie, and BioWare as examples of local companies that “opened global markets through relentless quality and ambition.”

This focus on global should be very familiar by now. Shortly after he won the 2013 election Mayor Iveson started using some new language, “innovative” and “globally competitive” in particular. And even then Mayor Iveson was talking about solving local problems and exporting the solutions to the world:

“As problem solvers, we can do our business cleaner, greener, cheaper, faster and safer – and sell those solutions to the world. This is how we will ensure that Edmonton will compete globally, and endure long into the future, no matter the price of oil.”

He mentioned the new direct flight to San Francisco as one of the ways to enable more exports. “Although we’re in a digital world, the face-to-face meeting is still a vital commodity when it comes to engaging advisors, connecting with partners and making deals,” he said. The flight will be “a tremendous enabler for more Edmonton-made businesses, with global ambitions, to reach beyond Canada.”

We need to use the City as a lab

After talking about the challenges the City faces, Mayor Iveson said “I want to take the burgeoning community of technology minds in our backyard and unleash them on those City problems.” Earlier this month he introduced a motion to have City Administration outline a draft policy or program to make this a reality. And he said he would pursue a “Startup in Residence” program to connect startups with local government.

As early as 2009 the City was trying and failing to accomplish this goal, first with the Leveraging Technical Expertise Locally program. In his 2015 State of the City address, Mayor Iveson talked about Open Lab, “a new partnership with Startup Edmonton that aims to solve municipal challenges in a more entrepreneurial way.” It sounded promising, but it has gone nowhere, and the City even took down its web page about the program.

“Let’s actively shape Edmonton’s economic future by leveraging our local tech talent to help make our established companies become as competitive and innovative as they can be,” the mayor said. He talked about his idea for an “Innovation Hub” downtown, a place to bring together “entrepreneurs, service providers, mentors, investors, talent and business experts in an environment specifically designed to encourage the creation and growth of companies.” In contrast to the manufactured office parks seen elsewhere, the mayor promised it would reflect “Edmonton’s lifestyle where innovation, entrepreneurship, the arts, creativity and vibrant urban life intersect.”

Mayor Don Iveson

Growing Edmonton’s economy is the focus

Mayor Iveson made growing the economy a key election promise last year, so it makes sense that economic development was his focus for this year’s State of the City. Earlier this month he released a report on the Mayor’s Economic Development Summit, and his remarks yesterday built on that. Again, none of the ideas are particularly new, but perhaps by better involving local investors they’ll have a much greater chance of success.

“Edmonton is ready for this,” the mayor said. “Ready to get off the bench and play at a global level.”

Recap: AccelerateAB 2018

AccelerateAB 2018 took place in Edmonton on April 24. The sold-out conference explored the theme of artificial intelligence and machine learning. As A100 Executive Director Cynthia van Sundert said in her message to attendees:

“Our province is home to some of the world’s leading thinking, research, and startups around A.I. It is fortuitous that this year’s event is being held in Edmonton, where the world famous Alberta Machine Learning Institute (Amii) – the global academic leader in A.I. – is located within the University of Alberta.”

The annual conference alternates between Edmonton and Calgary, and always draws an interesting mix of leaders, investors, influencers, and entrepreneurs. The 450-ish in attendance at the Shaw Conference Centre this year were treated to an opening keynote from Scott Penberthy, Google’s Director of Applied AI, a series of AI-related panels, and a closing keynote with Dr. Richard Sutton, a Research Scientists with DeepMind at the University of Alberta.

AccelerateAB 2018
Photo by Pinstripe Productions

EEDC’s Cheryll Watson brought opening remarks, and encouraged everyone to “think of ways for Edmonton and Calgary to work together.” She spoke about having “an Alberta mindset” to be more competitive globally than just thinking about the two cities independently.

Rise of Software 2.0

Scott Penberthy opened his talk with some personal history, telling us how he was inspired by Marvin Minsky and Richard Stallman. It wasn’t long though until he was talking about scalars, vectors, tensors, matrices, and more. It was a bit technical for some in the audience I’m sure, but it served as a nice setup to the central premise of his talk: what if you could do math on thought?

“Artificial intelligence is an over-hyped but under-appreciated change,” he told the crowd. Noting that computing power has improved by a billion-fold since 1958, Penberthy highlighted some of the key advances in AI in recent years, including beating humans at image recognition in 2012 and winning at Go in 2016. He cited Ray Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns to help illustrate why further advances in AI will come more rapidly (and mentioned this video about a rock). Penberthy talked about AutoML, which is basically AI creating AI, as one such advance. He also showed some charts from the popular and accessible Wait But Why series on AI to really drive home the possibilities before us.

AccelerateAB 2018
Photo by Pinstripe Productions

“AI is going to be like having a database,” he said. “Soon every business will have this.” Penberthy devoted a good chunk of his time to explaining how AI will help businesses to be more competitive. He touched on TensorFlow, Google’s open source library for dataflow programming, and encouraged the audience to just start playing with the great tools that are now available. “Don’t build it from scratch, leverage existing AI technologies so you can focus on your differentiation,” he said. Kaggle is a good place to start, he suggested.

I appreciated Penberthy’s overview of AI, and also that he called out the success we’ve had here in Alberta in the field. “Canada saw it when no one else saw it.”

Key Takeaways: Panel Sessions

There were two AI-themed panels throughout the day: The Fundamentals of Artificial Intelligence and An Entrepreneurial Journey with Artificial Intelligence. Here are some key takeaways I noted:

  • AI is a very broad term, and machine learning is just one technique.
  • AI is at the nexus of many disciplines and fields, and provides us with techniques for intelligently making decisions using data.
  • Machine learning is useful when it is impossible to hard code a decision or when things are constantly changing, like in the real world.
  • Machine learning will find patterns in your data, but you can’t make inferences about the data that you don’t have.
  • You need to know why the data is important for the decision you’re trying to make.
  • Successful AI projects need both a well-defined problem and data in a usable format.
  • Opportunities include biomedical advances and personalized medicine, automation of boring, repetitive, and dangerous jobs, and ways for humans and machines to work better together.
  • The reason we have so much opportunity is because of the hardware – we simply didn’t have the power in the past.
  • Edmonton is the best place in the world to start a machine learning company!

AccelerateAB 2018
Photo by Pinstripe Productions

In the afternoon, the always popular Scaling Eff-Ups panel took place. Some key takeaways from that session:

  • Building a business is one of the most intense things you can do.
  • If you’re not making mistakes then you’re not reaching high enough.
  • Every industry is surrounded by patents so you need to do your homework.
  • Pay attention to the people around you and take action, but know that loyalty can be good too.

Much of the insight from the final panel could actually be boiled down to team selection. Many of the “eff-ups” the entrepreneurs discussed involved a member of the team who was selected hastily or who otherwise was not a good fit for the business.

Startup Pitches

The afternoon featured the startup pitch competition, a staple at the conference. There were pitches from 8 startups this year:

  • Fitset: “Experience fitness freedom with easy access to just about every studio & gym in Edmonton with Fitset.”
  • IronSight: “A service-hailing technology that strengthens the link between B2C through data-driven dispatching.”
  • MicroMech: “Redefining the auto service industry by sending auto mechanics directly to a customer’s door.”
  • Mikata Health: “Built a system sing machine learning that helps doctors and their administration teams to eliminate 1-2 hours of data entry each day.”
  • Paytickr: “A cloud-based service for small business that has combined time tracking and payroll distribution services into one platform.”
  • Skillpics: “A rich networking community where students can showcase their experience, portfolios, resumes and skills to potential employers.”
  • Symend: “A FinTech company that is successfully implementing recovery strategy by combining workflow and campaign automation with proven approaches in behavioural science.”
  • ShareSmart: “Mitigating costly healthcare data breaches with a system that allows healthcare professionals to take and share patient information securely.”

Each entrepreneur had a few minutes to deliver their elevator pitch, followed by a few minutes for questions from the three judges: James Keirstead, Kristina Milke, and Peter Calverley.

AccelerateAB 2018
Photo by Pinstripe Productions

Congratulations to ShareSmart on being named the winner! They took home more than $15,000 in cash and prizes, including a $10,000 micro-voucher from Alberta Innovates.

Wrap-up

I previously wrote about Dr. Richard Sutton’s closing keynote on how Edmonton is a world leader in the science of artificial intelligence. You can also check out this Twitter thread on his talk fro Alex Kearney.

Our city’s leadership position in the field (and indeed, Alberta’s) is a key strength that we need to be proud of, and to leverage. It was great to see AccelerateAB shine a light on this. You can find out more about Edmonton’s AI pedigree at Edmonton.AI, a community-driven group with the goal of creating 100 AI and ML companies and projects.

AccelerateAB 2019 will be taking place in Calgary. Follow them on Twitter for updates!

Recap: DemoCamp Edmonton 36

Edmonton’s 36th DemoCamp took place at the Centennial Centre for Interdisciplinary Sciences (CCIS) on the University of Alberta campus tonight. Here is my recap of DemoCamp Edmonton 34 which took place in February. I missed #35 in March, but you can see the lineup here.

DemoCamp Edmonton 36

If you’re new to DemoCamp, here’s what it’s all about:

“DemoCamp brings together developers, creatives, entrepreneurs and investors to share what they’ve been working on and to find others in the community interested in similar topics. For presenters, it’s a great way to get feedback on what you’re building from peers and the community, all in an informal setting. Started back in 2008, DemoCamp Edmonton has steadily grown into one of the largest in the country, with over 200 people attending each event. The rules for DemoCamp are simple: 7 minutes to demo real, working products, followed by a few minutes for questions, and no slides allowed.”

In order of appearance, the demos included:

We had some really great demos, with a nice mix of apps, websites, and hardware projects. The demo gods must have been in a good mood tonight, because everything went fairly smoothly!

Blocky McBlockface is a side-project of RUN-WithIT which launched at Launch Party 7 back in October. Myrna and Grant showed us how they have used Google’s Blockly to help simplify their automation without needing to know how to code. They demoed using Selenium recorder to capture a test that could be triggered through a Blockly add-in they wrote which is a bash generator. Definitely the most nerdy demo of the evening, but interesting to see the attempt to turn programming and automation into a Lego-like experience.

Curtis and Jesse showed us MapsUp, which is “a drop in HUD for cars that requires no variation from traditional navigation workflow once setup.” It is designed to get directions from your phone to the hardware that sits on the dash which displays them off the windshield, giving you a transparent heads up display. It has the ability to automatically adjust for ambient light, so it works during the day too. Future improvements will focus on notifications and enriching what is displayed. They were inspired by an app that was doing this with the now-dead Pebble smartwatch and they built it in a 36-hour hackathon and said Bluetooth was probably the most painful hurdle to overcome. Very cool stuff.

Next, Eric and Nathan showed us Traktion, which attempts to improve the experience of both promoting and finding local live music. The site lets you browse performances, venues, artists, and more in your area but the current version is really targeted at organizers and performers. They can use the site to create attractive profiles, request and book events, and sell tickets. Traktion aims to let performers “create a profile in 30 seconds or less” by pulling in data automatically from Facebook, Instagram, Spotify, and other services. They hope to add additional APIs over time and to improve the listener experience. The backend of the site is written in C#, while the frontend is using Aurelia.

DemoCamp Edmonton 36

Bootmark is an app that aims to make it easier and richer to share your favorite locations with friends. When you make a post, you pick a specific location on the map, and then you can share a note, photo, or video. You can follow other users and they can follow you. The app is in alpha right now in TestFlight while they are working to build out the functionality further. In the demo, they dropped a pin on Hudson’s Bay and uploaded a photo of the room, illustrating that there’s no restrictions on where you are when you make a post. Interestingly they positioned this as a way to tackle privacy concerns. The app is currently on iOS and they’ve started porting it to Android. They hope to work on integrations with Foursquare, Instagram, and other services in the future.

Gordon showed us iSports Live, an iOS app that delivers highlights for your favorite professional sports to your phone. When you open the app it shows you a list of games for today. Simply choose which ones you want to be notified about, and the rest happens behind-the-scenes. The web spiders that power iSports Live (built in Python) will look for highlights and deliver them as notifications to your device. In the future, Gordon hopes to expand from general game highlights to filtering notifications for specific players. He’s also starting to take advantage of iOS 10’s richer notifications.

Ryan introduced Full Circle Visuals’ demo as something “fantastically complicated, which is why its cool”. To succeed in 360 video he told us, you need a camera that can capture very high resolution video. They have built a rig with six Sony DSLR cameras outfitted with fisheye lenses. Software then “magically” takes the six videos and stitches it into a sphere, which you can look at inside the Oculus Rift or other devices. But that’s an individual experience, so Ryan has been working on projecting the video instead, and that’s what he showed us. Five years ago this would have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to get all the equipment, but thanks to Moore’s Law that has come down dramatically. Ryan predicts that in the next five years or so you’ll be able to buy a 360 projector that you can install on your ceiling specifically for 360 video. It was an impressive demo made stronger by Ryan’s clear passion and energy for immersive video!

DemoCamp Edmonton 36
Full Circle Visuals’ six camera rig

I think the Full Circle Visuals demo was my favorite tonight. It’s so great to see that we have leaders in this still emerging field of visual storytelling right here in Edmonton. I also really enjoyed seeing MapsUp and Traktion, both of which are going to face a lot of competition but are off to a solid start.

Some upcoming events to note:

If you’re interested in demoing at a future DemoCamp, you can apply here. The next event is scheduled for late summer/early fall, so enjoy the summer break and get working on some cool stuff!

See you at DemoCamp Edmonton 37!

Taproot Edmonton: We’re making progress!

Karen and I have made a lot of progress since announcing Taproot Edmonton nearly five months ago. I’ve been including some updates in my weekly media notes and we have a regular newsletter that we use to keep everyone updated but I thought it would be useful to summarize our progress in one post.

Taproot Edmonton

If you want to skip all of this and jump right into becoming a paying member, you can do that here. We’d love to have you!

What is Taproot Edmonton?

Here’s how we’re answering that question today:

Taproot Edmonton is a source of curiosity-driven stories about our city, cultivated by the community. We are building a new way to do local journalism, and a new way to fund it. We don’t sell eyeballs, and we don’t put up paywalls. We enlist our members to tell us what they’re curious about, we commission writers to explore those questions, then we publish the story for all to see.

We recently put together a video outlining what Taproot is and what we’re working to achieve:

As anyone who has tried to craft an elevator pitch knows, it’s not easy! We continue to iterate on the best way to communicate what we’re all about.

Members

Without our members, there is no Taproot. They give us the fuel we need to publish great local stories. Members share their curiosity with us and their questions are the starting point for our writers. In that way, members act as our assignment desk. They also provide us with the financial resources we need to pay writers fairly for the work they do.

We are very thankful to the more than 50 members who have joined us thus far – your support is making Taproot happen! But we need our membership to grow in order to continue moving forward. A Taproot membership is $100/year or $10/month. We hope you’ll consider joining us to help build the future of local journalism in Edmonton!

Story Garden

The Story Garden is central to how Taproot works. It’s the place that members go to post their questions, to comment and vote on other questions, and to interact with one another. In the early days we prototyped the Story Garden using online forms (we used Typeform) and we learned a lot through that process. It was a free, simple way to validate some assumptions and it allowed us to keep moving forward.

In August we launched the first version of our real Story Garden. We have big ambitions for the site but it’ll take time to achieve those. Our first version is a solid platform to build upon and we’re improving it as we learn from our members. We showed off the Story Garden on September 22 at DemoCamp Edmonton 32 and received some great feedback from the crowd there too.

Stories

We have published two stories so far:

I’m incredibly proud of both! Mel and Anna did some really great work and we have two high quality stories as a result. I hope you’ll check them both out if you haven’t already.

It took quite a bit of effort to get our first stories published. We had to make our theoretical process real and there was a lot to figure out and setup along the way. Now that we have, we are working toward ramping up our production of new stories. We’re not the kind of place that you’ll find ten new stories a day, but we would like to publish more frequently than once a month.

Future of Local Journalism

We are building Taproot because we know that the business model that used to support local journalism is broken. We want to find a new, sustainable approach that can ensure quality local journalism will exist in Edmonton and beyond. We know we’re not the only ones experimenting in this space, and that’s a great thing. We want to learn from others, collaborate when appropriate, and do our part to push the industry forward.

That’s why it was important to us to be a part of this list of 30+ examples of Canadian media innovation. And it’s why we wanted to be at Hacks/Hackers Connect in Toronto last month. Organizer Phillip Smith posted a recap of the event today, saying “we knew that by bringing participants together from coast-to-coast we had a unique moment to start some critical conversations about the shifting landscape of media facing Canadians in the next months, and years.”

What’s next?

We are thrilled to be one of the presenting companies at Launch Party 7 on Thursday evening. If you’re curious about Taproot and want to learn more, please come and talk to us about it.

Next month we’re going to be attending the People-Powered Publishing Conference in Chicago. We’re excited about the opportunity to connect with others working on innovative new approaches to participatory journalism.

We have a number of stories in the works and we can’t wait to share them with you! We’re working with some great local storytellers and our members have given us fantastic questions to explore. We’re also focused on improving the Story Garden and adding new value to our members.

You can help us do all of this by becoming a Taproot Edmonton member today. Thank you!

Recap: DemoCamp Edmonton 31

Tonight was robot & games night at Edmonton’s 31st DemoCamp which took place at the Centennial Centre for Interdisciplinary Sciences (CCIS) on the University of Alberta campus. After missing the last two, it was great to be back to see some inspiring new projects and entrepreneurs. You can read my recap of DemoCamp Edmonton 29 here.

If you’re new to DemoCamp, here’s what it’s all about:

“DemoCamp brings together developers, creatives, entrepreneurs and investors to share what they’ve been working on and to find others in the community interested in similar topics. For presenters, it’s a great way to get feedback on what you’re building from peers and the community, all in an informal setting. Started back in 2008, DemoCamp Edmonton has steadily grown into one of the largest in the country, with over 200 people attending each event. The rules for DemoCamp are simple: 7 minutes to demo real, working products, followed by a few minutes for questions, and no slides allowed.”

In order of appearance, tonight’s demos included:

DemoCamp Edmonton 31
Bento Arm

Rory & Jaden showed us the latest version of Bento Arm, a 3D printed robotic arm. It features pressure sensors in the finger tips, servo motors that track velocity and other metrics, potentiometers, and even includes a camera embedded in the palm. The idea with having all of those sensors is to use machine learning to improve its capabilities over time (for instance the camera might recognize objects to help the arm pick them up). The demo showed how the hand could be controlled using a joystick, moving the arm around, and opening and closing the fingers. Bento Arm runs on the Robot Operating System and the team plans to open source everything, hardware and software. To the end the demo, they played rock-paper-scissors against the Bento Arm, which won. Welcome to the future!

DemoCamp Edmonton 31
vrNinja demo

Nathaniel & Alexendar were up next and they showed us vrNinja, a ninja simulation game built for the Oculus Rift VR headset. In the game you are a ninja and you must learn and use new weapons as things get faster and faster. The game features positional audio and requires you to move quite a bit in order to play (so be careful what’s next to you). The team are hoping to release it in the Oculus store in the next month or so, and they have plans to look into the HTC Vive VR headset as well. If you’d like a closer look, you can check out the game this weekend at GDX Edmonton.

DemoCamp Edmonton 31
Anthrobotics

Next, Ian & Evan showed us what they have been working on with Anthrobotics. The idea is to build robots that do all the boring, redundant tasks that we all need to do each day. They showed three prototypes. The first was an anthropomorphic named Robio who sat in a wheelchair. Unfortunately the demo gods got the better of him and the speech demo didn’t work. They said they liked the humanoid form (even though it is difficult to build) because they think it has the greatest potential for being useful in our world. The next two prototypes were a hand that featured and opposable thumb and a leg that could move both entirely and just the foot. They are using Arduino boards right now but have plans to add Raspberry Pis in the future. Their robots are very much in the prototype stage, but if this is what they’re doing in high school, I can’t wait to see what they build in the future!

DemoCamp Edmonton 31
Hugo, the Twitter-powered robot

Jeff and couple of his colleagues from Paper Leaf were up next to show us Hugo, the Twitter-powered robot that you probably tweeted inappropriate things to last year when it launched. The way it works is you tweet something with the hashtag #hugorobot and Hugo will speak it aloud. You can read more about Hugo here. Hugo was a big success, and even helped Paper Leaf to win an ACE Award. At the experiment’s peak, Hugo was receiving 3100 tweets per hour and more than 7000 people watched the livestream. Hugo was posted to Reddit, 4chan, and 9gag, all of which meant that the team had to work hard to keep the blacklist updated. It’s a fun project and Jeff says you could apply the same concepts of social media and crowdsourcing elsewhere.

Our final demo of the evening was from Matt & Logan who showed us RunGunJumpGun. It’s a 2D side-scrolling “helicopter-style” game that they first prototyped at least year’s GDX Edmonton. Now a year later, they have improved and refined the game, and plan to release it this summer. The game features 40 levels that increase along a difficulty curve so that as you progress you should master the skills needed to win. Though honestly the last level looked impossible to pass! There’s a certain amount of frustration that comes along with the style of play, but it also has a high degree of replay-ability. They plan to launch an iPhone version at some point too.

DemoCamp Edmonton 31

Some upcoming events to note:

  • Monthly Hack Day is coming up this Saturday at Startup Edmonton
  • GDX Edmonton takes place Saturday and Sunday at the Robbins Health Learning Centre downtown
  • Preflight Beta takes place Tuesday at Startup Edmonton and “helps founders and product builders experiment and validate a scalable product idea”
  • The full Preflight program started today!
  • The next ROS Robotics Meetup takes place on May 19 at Startup Edmonton

Over 150 meetup events took place at Startup Edmonton last year! Keep an eye on the Startup Edmonton Meetup group for more upcoming events. They have also added a listing of all the meetups taking place at Startup to the website. You can also follow them on Twitter.

See you at DemoCamp Edmonton 32!

Ward 12 by-election confirmed, Jobber secures $8 million, EndPoverty Edmonton extended

I’m trying something new, where I share some thoughts on a few topical items in one post. Less than I’d write in a full post on each, but more than I’d include in Edmonton Notes. I’ll organize them here. Have feedback? Let me know!

Ward 12 by-election confirmed

We now have a date for the Ward 12 by-election to replace Amarjeet Sohi! Thanks to a 30 day extension from the Province, the by-election will take place on Monday, February 22, 2016. That means Nomination Day will take place on January 25. The results of the election will be made official on February 26 by noon.

As Dave noted earlier today, there are seven candidates who have announced they’ll run in the by-election so far. The successful candidate will be sworn in at a special City Council meeting on February 26 from 1-2pm. Then they’ll face an aggressive orientation and training period from February 29 to March 4.

Amarjeet Sohi - Ward 12
Amarjeet Sohi on Nomination Day in 2013, photo by Dave Cournoyer

The City’s estimated budget for the by-election is about $300,000. That includes $130,000 in wages and salary, $90,000 on communication and legal advertising, and $55,000 on technology. As for what it’ll cost to run, there could be quite a range. Back in the 2013 municipal election, winning Councillors spent between $31,000 and $106,000 with an average of about $73,000. Amarjeet Sohi raised more than $130,000 and spent $85,105.03 to win his seat. My hunch is that less will be spent in the by-election.

As I noted earlier this year, the last by-election on Council took place more than 20 years ago. You can find all the relevant information on the City’s Election page. I guess I better get to work on the dashboard!

Jobber secures $8 million

Local startup Jobber announced on Monday that it has raised $8 million in a Series A round led by OMERS Ventures, with participation from existing investors, Version One Ventures and Point Nine Capital. Founder Sam Pillar wrote about the news on the Jobber blog:

“Jobber’s customers are currently servicing over three and a half million home owners and businesses all over the world, from Vancouver to Toronto, San Francisco to New York, and Johannesburg to Melbourne. It’s amazing to think that our little startup from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada is now being used in over 35 countries to help build better businesses.”

They started just four years ago so it’s pretty incredible to see what they have accomplished already. According to the news release, “more than three and a half million customers have been serviced by businesses using Jobber, with invoices totaling over $1 billion” since they launched back in 2011.

As Eric remarked to me today, there seems to be something about that roughly $8 million mark here in Edmonton. Back in 2012, Mitre Media raised $8.6 million. In 2013, Drivewyze raised $7.5 million in its Series A round. And earlier this year, Granify announced it had raised $9 million in Series A funding.

Congrats Jobber! Another great example of local entrepreneurs building great companies.

EndPoverty Edmonton extended

One of the things Council approved yesterday was an amendment to Bylaw 16765 to “provide additional time for the Task Force for the Elimination of Poverty to fulfill its mandate.” The original deadline for the task force to provide its final report was December 31, 2015 but now they’ve asked for more time “to test the ideas in the Strategy prior to returning to City Council with a comprehensive ten-year implementation plan.” The new deadline will be July 31, 2016 but the task force anticipates reporting back in April. The bylaw expiry has also been changed, to December 31, 2016, to account for time required for questions.

Now let’s tie this back into the first item above! The EndPoverty Edmonton strategy identifies “Make it easier to vote and participate in elections” as “one of the starting points to ending poverty in Edmonton.” In order to get started on addressing that, the City is hosting an online survey to better understand voter needs. Very timely with a by-election coming up in a few months, so take a few minutes to have your say!

You can learn more about EndPoverty Edmonton here. Be sure to follow them on Twitter too.

Preview: Launch Party Edmonton 6

Tomorrow evening is Edmonton’s sixth Launch Party, part of Edmonton Startup Week (get tickets here). Launch Party has become our city’s flagship startup event and “gives you the opportunity to meet our city’s brightest entrepreneurs, demo their products, and celebrate everything that our startup community has to offer.”

edmonton startup week

There’s an impressive list of Launch Party alumni in Edmonton, including Granify, Mover, Yardstick, Poppy Barley, Jobber, and Pogo CarShare. Here’s my recap of Launch Party 5. Now we get an opportunity to see another ten grow and hopefully succeed!

Here are the presenting companies for Launch Party 6:


CareNetwork.com

@carenetworkcom
TWO WORDS: Doctor Collaboration
WHAT: “CareNetwork.com is the easiest way for teams of hospital doctors to stay in sync. With teams working in shifts to provide around the clock care to dozens of patients with complex problems it is incredibly challenging to stay organized. CareNetwork.com helps these doctors to keep track of who their sickest patients are, what their patients’ stories are, and what needs to get done now. Collaborating through the CareNetwork.com app ensures this typically ephemeral information gets shared during shift change. Happier doctors, safer patients.”
KEY PEOPLE: Dr. Noel Gibney, Kyle Fox, Emmet Gibney

Chitter

@trychitter
TWO WORDS: Social Education
WHAT: “Chitter is a mobile social media app that gives college and university students a digital way to engage with each other and keep up with what is going on around them in the fast paced environment of higher education.”
KEY PEOPLE: Mark Galloway, Tamara Bain, Kyle Kaiser, Ben Lavin, Sabby Choudhary

Evented

@evented_ca
TWO WORDS: Event Planning
WHAT: “Evented is a web-based platform geared towards serving the event industry. Evented works by offering people who are planning events a consolidated, comprehensive, and current directory of local vendors who can service their events. Users can use features such as sorting filters and user reviews to make finding and finalizing vendors a more streamlined and efficient process. Evented is also able to eliminate the need for vendors to advertise on multiple platforms by providing a marketing tool that specifically targets their intended audiences. Evented works to create something useful for you; your city’s essential event vendor directory.”
KEY PEOPLE: Ramneek Purewal, Avneet Purewal

Fitset

@fitsetpass
TWO WORDS: Fitness Membership
WHAT: “Fitset is a single membership to thousands of group fitness classes every day in 5 major Canadian cities — including yoga, spinning, obstacle course training, dance, boot camps, ballet barre and so much more. Our membership gives you the ability to try a new workout every day or visit each partner studio up to three times per month — for $99/month. Whether you are looking to diversify your workouts, discover your next favourite studio, or just explore your city, chances are we have studios close to wherever you live, work, and/or play. We aim to make fitness exploration as simple and convenient as possible.”
KEY PEOPLE: Tim Gourlay, Jake Stief, Raj Gandhi, Leila Panjvani, Bindesh Rach

Home Tribe

@home_tribe
TWO WORDS: Real Estate
WHAT: “Home Tribe is a technology driven real estate team dedicated to creating a more personalized real estate experience. We do this by combining traditional real estate services, technology, Big Data and Analytics. Our first technology application, “Home Tribe Match” helps buyers find the perfect home based on their lifestyle needs. We take into account safety, commutability, neighbourhood dynamics and more to determine the homes currently for sale on the market that are most desirable to a buyer. This time-saving, easy to use app makes it simple for a buyer to move through the buying process.”
KEY PEOPLE: Elisse Lara Moreno

InstaMek

@instamek
TWO WORDS: OnDemand Mechanic
WHAT: “instaMek removes the hassle and struggle associated with traditional automotive service and repair by making the process as simple as ordering a book online. Within seconds this on-demand service allows car-owners to request and schedule a fully certified mobile mechanic (“Mek”) to their home or workplace – all at a price up to 30% cheaper than a shop. All work is guaranteed with a warranty on parts and labor and Meks are reviewed after every job to ensure top notch workmanship. Since its launch in February, instaMek has serviced over 500 vehicles and currently operates in 11 different cities across Canada.”
KEY PEOPLE: Asem Alsaadi, Uzair Ahmed

PFM Scheduling Services

TWO WORDS: Intelligent Scheduling
WHAT: “PFM is a company that came out of Alberta Innovates Center for Machine Learning (AICML) at the University of Alberta after 3 years of ground breaking research. PFM has developed a scheduling product suite that automates schedule production, optimization and analysis for shift workers in complex organizations that contend with sophisticated rule sets such as collective bargaining agreements. Currently, PFM is focusing on healthcare and is partnering with Telus Sourcing Solutions as a distribution channel and United Nurses of Alberta Union and Alberta Health Services as clients.”
KEY PEOPLE: Dale Schuurmans, Csaba Szepesvari, Martha White, James Neufeld, Jason Harder

JumpSeat

@JumpSeat_io
TWO WORDS: Employee Training
WHAT: “JumpSeat is a product of Ten Speed Technologies and transforms how organizations onboard, train and support their employees. By providing in-context, interactive, step-by-step task guidance, users learn what they need to learn, at the moment they need to learn it. Our unique training method keeps the user in the browser, away from your support desk, and since it overlays on top of your existing web-applications, keeps them productive while learning. No code integration is required and no developers are needed to create your interactive guides.”
KEY PEOPLE: Mike Priest, Paul McCarthy, Trevor Dell, Christian Dendy

Varafy Corporation

@GetVarafy
TWO WORDS: Online Education
WHAT: “Varafy gives Educators the power to create an unlimited number of fresh and unique problems and their detailed solutions in minutes versus hours – and have fun doing it!”
KEY PEOPLE: Werner Biegler, Justin Sharp, Ken Fyfe

VR Bike

@vrbikeca
TWO WORDS: Virtual Cycling
WHAT: “MedROAD Inc. is a company designed and formed to act as a portal for delivering to the general community the exciting and state-of-the-art research and innovation developed out of the Advanced Man Machine Interface Laboratory, University of Alberta. These areas of innovation include: 3D virtual reality, telemedicine and enhanced image viewing. We at MedROAD Inc. are very excited to deliver some of the exciting and unique projects we have been worked on at the University; connecting our clients and consumers with the very forefront of research and development.”
KEY PEOPLE: Peter W Wood, Pierre Boulanger, Stephanie Shaeffer, Ga Young Kim


I’m really looking forward to learning more about each one. Here are a few thoughts in advance of the event:

  • What kind of Launch Party would it be in 2015 if there wasn’t “an Uber for” company? That’s instaMek, an Uber for auto mechanics.
  • Home Tribe’s Elisse is combining her experience as a realtor and her experience with Redman Technologies for this new startup. There are lots of tools out there that help you find a neighbourhood and a home, so it’ll be interesting to see what Home Tribe brings to the table.
  • JumpSeat looks like an iteration over TourGuide which was demoed back at DemoCamp Edmonton 26 (Mike Priest was the CTO at Glazr which built TourGuide).
  • Most products in the health care industry seem focused on patients, so it’s interesting to see one that aims to help doctors with CareNetwork.com. They’ve got a really impressive team and group of advisors, including Dr. Ray Muzyka and Bruce Johnson.
  • PFM Scheduling Services is the result of research done at AICML. Great to see that commercialization continuing!
  • I’m not familiar with Evented, but it reminds me a little of MASV from Launch Party 5 in that they aim to connect vendors and customers, but in a completely different industry of course.
  • Chitter is an anonymous post app targeting university and college students. I guess a little like the now defunct Secret app?
  • Fitset is basically an aggregator for fitness classes happening at gyms throughout participating cities. Instead of becoming a member of a specific gym, you can become a member of Fitset and get access to multiple gyms.

Launch Party 6 takes place from 6:30pm to 10:30pm tomorrow, Thursday, at the EPCOR Tower – you can get tickets here. For those of you who drive, the parking is free! Elm Catering will have treats for you to enjoy and The Volstead Act will be making cocktails. It should be fun!

You can see my previous Launch Party posts here: #1, #2 Recap, #3, #4, #5 Recap.

Recap: Ignite Edmonton 2015

A couple weeks ago I had the opportunity to attend Ignite Edmonton, courtesy of EEDC. This was the first year for Ignite, though it’s fair to say the event was the latest iteration of an idea that EEDC has been pursuing for a few years now. How do you host an event to promote creativity and entrepreneurial thinking in a more interesting and engaging way than the typical conference?

Ignite Edmonton Festival

E-Town Festival

Ignite’s roots go back to September 2013, when the first E-Town Festival took place here in Edmonton (which I previewed here). E-Town was “an intensive two-day festival of ideas for entrepreneurial-minded people who get excited by innovation, change and disrupting common thought.” It was also a mishmash of workshops, plenaries with big-name speakers like Chris Hadfield and Guy Kawasaki, a Food Truck Fest, a concert featuring the Barenaked Ladies, and more. The event took place throughout the Shaw Conference Centre, with the big sessions being hosted in Hall D.

I completely appreciated the opportunity to hear from Chris Hadfield, and I love food trucks more than most, but there was an awful lot going on over those two days. You have to admire the bold vision of the folks at EEDC who organized it though. They wanted to make a statement, and they did.

E-Town

E-Town returned in 2014 for another two-day event that featured speakers like Hayley Wickenheiser, Bob Nicholson, and Raine Maida. It kept the Food Truck Fest, and also had a concert featuring Maida and his wife Chantal Kreviazuk. The event was promoted like this:

“E-Town Festival feeds the mind and heart of people who get excited by innovation, creativity and disrupting common thought. You’ll be immersed in new ideas from thought-provoking speakers, contribute to interactive breakout sessions, connect to other bright minds and be entertained by great artists. You’ll leave inspired, re-energized, smarter and ready to take bold action.”

Again there was a desire to build a “high-involvement, high-energy event” that “wasn’t your typical conference.” But I know more than a handful of people who looked at either the agenda or the price or both and felt it was safe to pass on the event. I think both iterations of E-Town were reasonably successful, but people attending a concert is not the same thing as attendees taking something useful back to their work. I wonder if the right people were in the room.

There were plans for another E-Town, as the website stated:

“Looking to the future, we envision a multi-day, multi-venue festival experience that attracts attendees from western Canada and north-western United States.”

That didn’t come to pass, of course (at least not yet). After having attended Ignite, I think that’s probably a good thing, because I like the new direction they’ve taken.

Break the mold

To me the idea that EEDC has been pursuing first with E-Town and now with Ignite is this: creative, entrepreneurial thinking can help startups, big companies, and everyone in-between, but it doesn’t have to come from the usual suspects or in typical business-conference-fashion.

I think that’s why there was such an interest in previous years to incorporate musicians, artists, food trucks, and other not-usually-seen-at-business-conference-type folks into the event. They all have useful, interesting, and entertaining things to say, things that those of us in business (whether at startups or big companies) can benefit from hearing.

Ignite stayed true to that idea, I think, but with a course correction. Instead of just getting all those folks together in the room and hoping that the cross-pollination would happen, Ignite took a much more intimate and curated approach.

Ignite Edmonton

Ignite was organized by a big team of EEDC staff and volunteers, led by Ken Bautista, Director of Entrepreneurship and Innovation at EEDC. There’s a certain expectation of polish that comes with an event organized by Ken (he’s set the bar high with TEDx, Startup Edmonton, and other events). He delivered once again with Ignite. The website, name badges, program, swag bags, venue, and everything else were attractive, high quality, and cohesive.

This year’s event took place on the Assembly Level in Halls A and B, with coffee, lunch, and social space outside in the common area. That meant everyone was in more or less the same space, which was better for networking and running into people.

Inside the two halls is where the main action took place. I have to completely agree with Neetu’s assessment of the venue:

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The six pavilions – Cocoon, Interlock, Orb, Riverview, String, Transposed Formation – were all designed by local designers through a special design competition setup just for Ignite. Each of the workshop sessions took place in one of the pavilions, which I think it’s fair to say achieved the desired effect of creating “a completely immersive, incredibly inspiring experience.” Everyone was snapping photos and commenting on them! Because of the way the room was setup there was probably more noise bleed than the organizers had hoped for, but I think most people were willing to forgive the excess noise because of the uniqueness/novelty of the pavilion designs.

Instead of bringing in food trucks as was done for E-Town, attendees of Ignite were treated to food created by the Shaw Conference Centre culinary team, led by Executive Chef Simon Smotkowicz. And why not? He’s one of our city’s most accomplished chefs! I thought the lunch options were great, and went back for more than a couple of the tasty sandwiches.

For scheduling, Ignite used Sched. Attendees could login ahead of time and choose their sessions, which produced a completely customized agenda for the two days. Each day started with a couple of main stage talks, which were about 30 minutes in length. The workshop sessions were perhaps a touch long at 90 minutes, but thankfully there was a lot of social time built into the agenda, even on top of lunch and drinks.

On the final afternoon attendees had the opportunity to attend a “studio session” which offered an introduction to “the inner-workings of some of Downtown Edmonton’s most creative offices and workspaces.” Startup Edmonton, Ice District HQ, DDB, and TELUS all hosted field-trips.

Session Highlights

You can see all of the speakers and sessions here.

Just like Nathan, I found the Square presentation by Steve McPhee to be thought-provoking. Be sure to check out his post for more highlights! In terms of main stage sessions, I also really enjoyed both Nir Eyal‘s talk on building habit-forming products (looking forward to reading his book Hooked) and Ted Graham‘s talk on what he learned about innovation by driving for Uber. Their presentation styles were completely different, but both were able to use their limited time to get across some interesting ideas.

My favorite session was a workshop called “Building a Team Culture with Respectful Leadership”. It was led by FC Edmonton Head Coach Colin Miller.

“Colin Miller specializes in the art of respectful leadership. As a coach and former professional athlete, Colin has faced every challenge in the world of teams from both sides of the white line.”

“His leadership style is the crux of a unique approach to team-building which stresses respect and professionalism as the building blocks in pursuit of excellence. Any company can use the respectful leadership model to elevate their team – no matter their size or budget.”

In addition to being an engaging and sometimes funny speaker, I really enjoyed Colin’s approach. He focused on what he knows best and is passionate about, which is football. The insights he shared could of course be applied to business, but he didn’t have to spell it out. That was an exercise left to the reader, and I think made for a bigger impact.

Ignite Edmonton Festival

For Colin, respectful leadership is “in-depth knowledge of your field” and “treating people correctly.” He shared a few key lessons that he has gleaned through his years of working with football players, including:

  • Give time for uninterrupted work
  • Surround your team with pros
  • Expect your team’s respect

I don’t think anything he said was revolutionary, but the way he framed his key points and supported them with examples from his experience in coaching was really valuable. Most importantly, I felt I could immediately take what he said and try to apply it to my own teams. I think that’s what I liked best about Ignite – most of the information seemed actionable.

A solid platform

I understand that through Ignite’s Community Fellows Program, sponsored by nine different organizations focused on entrepreneurs and business, some people in the audience had their attendance paid for (like me). That probably helped the event seem fuller than it would otherwise have been, because I doubt the $449+ tickets sold out (though the content, food, and swag bags make it seem like a pretty good value). My hunch is that EEDC didn’t make any money on Ignite. But I hope that’s not the only measure of success they consider.

Ignite Edmonton Festival

Whereas E-Town seemed targeted to everyone with concerts and food trucks, I think Ignite’s target audience (“teams of entrepreneurs, creatives, builders and change makers”) was narrower and the event was more successful as a result. Instead of talking about the spectacle, attendees were talking about the content. It’s anecdotal, but my conversations with people at the event and most of the comments I saw on Twitter suggest to me that Ignite was not just a fun event that attendees will forget. It was something they got value out of and will take back to work.

I don’t know if Ignite will become an annual thing, but I think if it returns in 2016 using a similar approach to this year, EEDC will have a successful event on its hands.

What’s next?

Ignite 2016, hopefully! But before that, there are a number of other entrepreneurship-focused events coming up:

Thanks to EEDC for the opportunity to attend Ignite. See you at Edmonton Startup Week!