Edmonton Tech in 2009

What another fantastic year for tech in Edmonton! I think 2009 had an excellent mix of events, product launches, company successes, and much more. Below I have tried to recap as much of it as possible. I did my first recap post like this last year – you can read it here.

STIRR in EdmontonCrazedCodersFree beer! London PrideDemoCampEdmonton9Start Me UpENTS Grand OpeningLeveraging Technical Expertise Locally

Events

Again we had a great year for DemoCamp, with five events (five, six, seven, eight, nine). The year started off with STIRR, a networking event for tech founders, funders, and others. In early March, the Alberta Entrepreneurs Bootcamp took place at the University of Alberta. Our second BarCamp event was held in June. In July, Edmonton’s first UXCamp took place. The annual Edmonton Code Camp took place in September. Though it wasn’t exactly a tech event, open data played a large role at ChangeCamp which took place in October. That same weekend, Flash in the Can (FITC) brought Flash developers together. November started with the annual ICE Conference, featuring a new startup focused event called Start Me Up. A couple of weeks later, the Leveraging Technical Expertise Locally open house took place – the pilot will get underway in Q1 2010. Also in November the City hosted an Open Data Workshop, another big step on the path toward open data in Edmonton. The month finished off with the iPhone Dev Camp. The year finished off with the first Startup Drinks, put on by Digital Alberta and Startup Edmonton. Watch for much more from them in 2010.

There were many active tech groups in Edmonton this year. The Social Web Meetup continued going strong. The Edmonton Flash User Group held a number of monthly events, in addition to FITC. Agile Edmonton had a great second year, with regularly monthly events. Other active groups included the Edmonton .NET User Group, the Edmonton Microsoft User Group, the Edmonton Web Design Meetup, and TechWing Wednesday.

With 2009 being the breakout year for Twitter, it’s no surprise that the service featured prominently in Edmonton’s tech scene this year. The first Photography Tweetup took place in April, and the group met a few more times later in the year. Also in April was EdmontonTweetup4, and in June we held EdmontonTweetup5. We held two Twestival events this year, in February and September. In November, the community once again got together to wrap gifts for Santas Anonymous. The last major tweetup of the year, the Holiday Tweetup, took place in December. There were many other smaller tweetups throughout the year. I’ll have more on Twitter in Edmonton in 2009 next week.

News

It’s hard to keep track of all of the news that happens in a year, but here are some of 2009’s most interesting Edmonton tech stories:

And here’s the collection of Edmonton Startup Index posts at Techvibes:

2010

I’m really excited for 2010. I think we’ll see accelerating growth and change in the tech community, based upon the strong foundation laid during the last two years. Here are a few things to watch for:

All the best in the new year!

Have another event, story, or link that should be included above? Let me know in the comments or via email. Thanks!

Recap: Leveraging Technical Expertise Locally Open House

Last night was the open house for the City’s new Leveraging Technical Expertise Locally (LTEL) initiative (you can read my previous coverage here). The event was meant to provide more details to the community, and to introduce the people behind the scenes. David Faber from the Deputy City Managers Office, Kamren Farr from TEC Edmonton, Keith Chorley from CoE IT, Bruce Beecher from CoE IT/Transit, and Cam Linke were all on hand to introduce the idea and answer questions. Roughly 25 people attended.

Leveraging Technical Expertise Locally

David began by giving the pitch, essentially providing the same information he shared with me last week. He stressed that this is a pilot program, and that it’s okay to fail. The City of Edmonton is hoping to learn from the experience, and will be reporting back to Executive Committee with the results. David highlighted the intent of LTEL:

  • To communicate the services that the City of Edmonton provides.
  • To build bridges with the local community, to enable small tech companies to use the City of Edmonton as a sandbox.

Next up was Bruce, who provided some information on the challenge – creating a replacement for Edmonton Transit’s Lost & Found system. The current database was built with Access 97, and the IT branch is keen to replace it with something more modern. A few details on the system:

  • Roughly 1700 items are tracked per month
  • Items are stored for 30 days, and if not retrieved are then donated, auctioned, or otherwise disposed of. Passports, for example, are returned to the government, and cell phones are returned to the carrier.
  • Items are stored tagged in bins in a storage room that is roughly 20 feet x 20 feet.
  • Most wallets, cell phones, backpacks, and purses are collected within 2 days.

The basic business processes are:

  1. Enter articles – start tracking lost items
  2. Search articles – when someone calls with a description
  3. Claim articles – individual signs the tag upon retrieving the item
  4. Purge articles – items removed from database after retrieval or 30 days

Some of the opportunities identified include:

  • Improved security and access control
  • Multiple item search (currently you can only search one item at a time)
  • Track people inquiring about items
  • Enhance reporting
  • Potentially something generic enough that other CoE departments could use it

Kamren was up next, to provide the preliminary market assessment. He talked about the “lost and found” industry, and highlighted solutions at TransLink and the New York transit authority as best-of-breed. There are four existing types of lost and found systems:

  1. Public – transit, etc.
  2. Private – hotels, etc.
  3. Return service – you pay for tags or some incentive to return
  4. Online classifieds – lost and found posters, basically

He went on to talk about market segments, and highlighted some of the market drivers, opportunities, and challenges.

The challenge was eventually described as:

Use technology to reduce costs for the customer (City of Edmonton) and increase recovery rates for users (people who have lost things).

All of this information will be made available on the LTEL page. The only other pertinent detail is that the upper limit for the budget is $75,000. Technical requirements and other details will also be posted on the website.

Leveraging Technical Expertise Locally

My Thoughts

I talked with a number of people after the session to get their perspective. Most folks seemed excited about the idea. Andrew from dub5, in particular, said he was impressed that the City of Edmonton took the time to get this pilot started, and suggested that it was a big step in the right direction. Bruce Winter echoed that sentiment, but like me, was hoping for something a little more visual.

Here are my thoughts on the open house:

  • The City needs to do a much better job of spreading the word. I realize they wanted to manage expectations, but I don’t think enough people knew about last night’s event.
  • I would have loved to have seen the format of the event mimic DemoCamp. Instead of slides full of bullet points, why not demo what they currently have?
  • I get that a lost and found database isn’t particularly exciting, but that doesn’t mean that the presentation can’t be. Instead of telling us there’s a 20×20 room packed with items, why not show a photo?
  • This is going to sound harsh, but Kamren’s presentation wasn’t much more than a Google search. Very basic business concepts (competition, market segments, opportunities, challenges) and nothing more than the names of some other lost and found systems. I’m still wondering what exactly TEC Edmonton and EEDC bring to the table, besides a couple more names?

My biggest concern however, is related to the very first question I asked. I wanted to know if there were any technical requirements, and specifically, if the application had to be on-premise (meaning the City of Edmonton hosts and manages it). Keith answered yes, tech requirements would be provided, and that yes, the solution needs to run in the City of Edmonton’s existing infrastructure. One of the stated goals of LTEL is to expose the City of Edmonton to some of the innovative ideas of the local tech community, so this seems like a big step in the wrong direction. Maybe there’s a good reason for this particular solution, but if so it was not made clear. I think putting up big restrictions like that right from the start limits the potential solutions the City could learn about. (Also, I was under the impression the City wanted to get out of the tech business, by not doing custom development and reducing the burden of hosting and managing systems.)

This criticism is meant to be constructive. Overall I think LTEL is a good thing, and I want to see it succeed. I look forward to the rest of the process!

Stay tuned to the website for updates and an application form. Companies interested in developing a solution have until December 15 to express interest.

Leveraging Technical Expertise Locally – Open House on November 17

As you may have heard by now, the City of Edmonton is hosting an open house on Tuesday, November 17 (on ShareEdmonton) at City Hall to present a pilot project to interested members of the local tech community. The initiative is known as Leveraging Technical Expertise Locally (LTEL), and the open house follows on the report that was presented to Executive Committee back in August. I’ll get to some of the event details in a second, but first I want to offer some background.

I heard about the open house late on Monday afternoon, and immediately posted a tweet. You might think that the City’s IT department would be behind it, but many of them only learned about it because of my tweet! And that’s where things get interesting.

I had the opportunity this week to sit down with David Faber, one of the folks making this initiative happen. David is the Executive Director of Enterprise Strategic Management in the Deputy City Managers Office. His involvement means that this initiative is happening at a level slightly above IT, as David is (along with his team) charged with strategy, direction, accountability, and stewardship for the entire City of Edmonton, not just IT. David’s job is to bring the City’s Vision and Strategic Plan to life, and LTEL is just one of the ways in which he’s doing that.

As you might expect, David oozes passion for Edmonton. He’s been with the City of Edmonton for 12 years now, and even spent some time working in IT, so he has some experience in the field. For David, the LTEL initiative is about innovation and economic development, as well as the opportunity to simply connect with startups and other small tech firms in Edmonton. He outlined a few key goals of the initiative:

  • To bring the community together with the City, and to open the door at CoE for smaller companies.
  • To build shared learning by using the City as a sandbox and by not being afraid to fail.
  • To be supportive of the City Vision, which is to say that the LTEL pilot must be repeatable and sustainable.

I agree with Chris LaBossiere – this sounds like we’re on the right track.

I did explain to David that I was highly critical of the original report, and that I along with others in the tech community are concerned about EEDC and TEC Edmonton’s involvement. Unfortunately, David didn’t say much to alleviate my concerns when I asked how specifically those organizations would be involved, suggesting only that they would provide resources. I’m willing to wait and see how things turn out, because it certainly sounds like TEC Edmonton is less central to the pilot than was suggested in the original report.

We’ll learn more about the project at Tuesday’s event, but here’s what we know already:

  • The problem is to come up with a replacement for Edmonton Transit’s current electronic Lost and Found system.
  • Prospective participants must be incorporated companies by February 3, 2010, must have annual revenue of $2 million or less, and must be located within the City of Edmonton’s boundaries.
  • Prospective participants have until December 15, 2009 to express interest.
  • Potential solutions will be presented on January 28, 2010.
  • A selection announcement will occur on February 3, 2010 with the pilot project starting March 1, 2010.

The Lost and Found system was selected for two important reasons: it’s tangible, and already has funding attached. Representatives from IT, DCMO, ETS, and TEC Edmonton will be on hand to provide more information.

I’ll be there on Tuesday to learn more about it, and I hope you’ll consider attending as well.

Taking Edmonton’s Technology Community to the Next Level

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

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

Leveraging Technical Expertise Locally

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next, the two sessions are defined as follows:

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is bad for two reasons:

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

TEC Edmonton Background

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

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

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

The Problem With TEC Edmonton

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

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

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

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

What We Really Need

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

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

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

Final Thoughts

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

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

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

Edmonton Tech in 2008

Now that 2008 has come to a close, I think it’s safe to say that the Edmonton tech scene has had a fantastic year. It feels like the community grew tenfold, but I know that’s probably not true. Instead, I think the community just became more integrated and public. We had far more events than ever before, which resulted in lots of opportunities for everyone to meet one another.

DemoCampEdmonton2DemoCampEdmonton3Cam LinkeEdmontonTweetup2Lined up outside the Apple StoreNAIT Digital Media ExpoNew Future Shop in Edmonton

Geoff Hayward, DataGardensnovaNAIT Challenge 2008Local Twitterers!Lift Interactive OfficeReg assembles the agendaFree Wifi @ DemoCampEdmonton3EdmontonTweetup

There were many tech groups active in Edmonton this year. We held four DemoCamp events (one, two, three, four), and one BarCamp. It was great to see attendance increase with each one. In November, we held the 3rd annual Code Camp event for developers. We also held three Tweetup events (one, two, three) this year. The Edmonton .NET User Group, Edmonton Microsoft User Group, and Edmonton Flash User Group all held fairly regular meetings throughout the year. The Agile Edmonton User Group was established this year and held a few meetings. A few other meetup groups got started toward the end of the year, and should be quite active in 2009 – Edmonton Web Design Meetup, Edmonton Social Web Meetup. There were a number of other tech events that took place throughout the year as well, such as the ICE Technology Conference, Moonlight in the Meadows, and the NAIT Digital Media Expo.

Here are some of the year’s most interesting Edmonton tech stories from my blog, Techvibes, and elsewhere:

And here’s the collection of Edmonton Startup Index posts at Techvibes (prior to September all of Alberta was grouped together – yet another sign Edmonton is getting stronger):

I’m really impressed with the way Edmonton’s tech scene grew both larger and stronger this year, and I think 2009 can be even better. Thank you to everyone who helped make it happen.

Edmonton Technology Startups

Post ImageWhen it comes to technology startups, it seems as though Edmonton can’t hold a candle to Toronto, Vancouver, or even Ottawa. Very rarely in my travels, physical or virtual, do I hear about really interesting tech things happening in Alberta’s capital city. Yet I know there must be. I mean, surely we aren’t the only ones, right? Nah, there’s others…we just need to help each other become more visible.

So the first step is to identify all the interesting tech startups (or established but relatively small companies) based in Edmonton. I’ve started tagging some, such as Zigtag, Nexopia, and ProExams, at del.icio.us using the tag edmontontech. I encourage you to do the same! Or, if you’re not into the social bookmarking/tagging thing, leave me a comment or email me with your Edmonton-based tech companies.

I suppose step two would be getting together with some of the companies to see what kind of interest there is in making our neck of the woods more visible to the rest of the world. I’d like to start changing Edmonton’s image with respect to tech startups. We have a great economy, relatively low living expenses, and lots of smart people. We’re just not regarded as all that great a place to start a tech company.

But first, step one. What Edmonton-based tech startups do you know about?

NAIT to be Canada's largest tech school

Post ImageAccording to an article in today’s Edmonton Journal, it appears that the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology is planning to spend a ton of cash in an effort to become one of North America’s largest technical schools. The project sounds fairly ambitious:

A brand-new campus twice the size of the current main campus will be built somewhere in the south side, and the main campus in north-central Edmonton will be expanded to include a “student village” with residences and possibly an LRT station.

Over the next 25 to 30 years, NAIT’s other eight locations in the Edmonton area, such as Souch campus at Gateway Boulevard and 71st Avenue, will be consolidated into the two main sites.

The $750-million project will attempt to increase enrolment to 95,000 students from the 65,000 to help in easing Alberta’s “critical shortage of skilled workers.” One of the highlights is a new Centre for Health and Wellness, to be completed as early as 2009, that will include a fitness centre, aquatic facilities, and a health clinic.

I admit I was a little surprised when I first read the article, but I think it’s great that all of our educational institutions are expanding, and not just the University. This project probably wouldn’t have been possible a few years ago, when the south LRT extensions had not been approved – the south side campus is a reflection of the direction Edmonton’s growth is heading, and in fact has been heading for quite some time.

I’m looking forward to seeing how this project unfolds. It’s too bad they didn’t announce it a couple months ago, when they could have been featured in some of the Edmonton real-estate and growth publications!

Read: Edmonton Journal