There’s a default position in Canadian business that goes unchallenged.
Canadians aren’t innovative. Canadians aren’t productive. Canadians aren’t inventive.
The mantra is repeated in northern Alberta. Our economy doesn’t “do” research and development. We’re scared of risk and the fear of failure associated with new technology, new processes. We’re too used to the easy life produced by an endless gusher of oil and gas.
I’ve had the opportunity to explore this intriguing topic, working a few days a week as an adviser to TEC Edmonton, an incubator and accelerator of technology-intensive startup businesses.
The business gurus have got it all wrong. This city and region should proclaim itself just as techno-savvy as “knowledge-based” cities like Boulder, San Antonio or Kitchener-Waterloo.
Four events will counter the perception of Edmonton being ho-hum in “conventional” technology — the Analytics, Big Data and the Cloud conference, April 23 to 25 (abtech.ca), the 10th annual TEC VenturePrize Awards and Dinner (ventureprize.com) April 26, the soon-to-open permanent home of Startup Edmonton (startupedmonton.ca) and the second annual Alberta technology community’s ACCELERATE ALBERTA (thec100.org/accelerateab) conference, May 30 and 31.
We are doing very well with “conventional” technology.
But making northern Alberta a world-class innovator is technology that nobody talks about.
More than anybody else in the world, we know how to (sustainably) get at energy once irretrievably locked into the earth, in what the oil patch calls heavy, tight, or shale oil and gas.
There’s a total disconnect between the energy innovators and the downtown business crowd. Why would they bring their trucks downtown? Where would they park? They have no idea where the CBC is on their radio dial, but they love Danny Hooper on CFCW and Chris Scheetz on CISN.
These are the men who figured out the oilsands.
These are the men who figured out horizontal drilling and multi-stage fracturing.
These are the men who test laboratory ideas from the U of A in real-life conditions. Coming at us, for instance, in the oilsands: waterless bitumen production and underground combustion.
These are world-class, brand-new technologies! Technologies that will ensure the oilsands grow more and more green, improve cost-effectiveness and so on.
These are the Nisku-based companies exporting made-in-Canada oil technology around the world.
Years ago, an oilpatch welder named Laurie Venning invented a slotted (or perforated pipe) for the oilsands that lets oil in and keeps sand out.
Today, his company Regent Energy of Nisku is projecting 2013 revenues in the $100- million range, producing slotted pipe and other equipment for hard-to-get-at oil.
The world is running out of the easy-to-get oil. And Regent holds a major key to unlocking the harder-to-get-at stuff.
In the city itself is an invisible yet vital high-tech infrastructure supporting the likes of Regent. TEC Edmonton, for instance, helps young companies making products the oilpatch must have — specialized software, geomatics, inventors with better pumps. What industry is the biggest user of the mega-data that the Big Data conference is all about? Oil and gas exploration.
To praise our world-class industrial technology is not to deny other sectors.
“We do have a strong extraction sector,” says the incoming chair of the Edmonton Economic Development Corporation, scientist, academic and entrepreneur, Peter Silverstone. “But we can’t put all our eggs in one basket. We need to build a culture of innovation.”
To which I’d answer, we’re well on our way.
At the University of Alberta, an attitudinal revolution is happening. Academic researchers no longer see “commercialization” as a dirty word. An entrepreneurial attitude has crept into young Edmontonians that has rarely been so visible in the past.
The city’s bigger companies tend to buy off-the-shelf technology. I suspect that will soon change, and research budgets will grow. The world is too competitive to stand still, and Edmonton has the brains.
Still, the backbone of this thing is oil and gas.
We’re the global leader in prying hard-to-get-at energy out of the earth in sustainable ways. The world is begging for our expertise.
And that is why Edmonton can consider itself a hotbed of technology.
HOW NORTHERN ALBERTA TECHNOLOGY ADVANCED THE OILSANDS
1929: Chemist Karl Clark at the Alberta Research Council patents a means to unglue oil molecules from sand molecules using hot water.n 1959: Esso starts using steam-injection for its heavy oil deposits at Cold Lake.
Early ’60s: Husky Oil develops condensates or diluents to blend with heavy oil, allowing the product to flow through pipelines.
1967: The Great Canadian Oilsands Company (now Suncor) develops performance technologies to mine oilsands on a commercial scale.
1978: Dr. Roger Clark at AOSTRA (the Alberta Oil Sands Technology and Research Authority) discovers SAG-D or steam-assisted gravity drainage. SAG-D comes into widespread use to extract bitumen by 1999.
2000: Syncrude opens its Aurora mine and reduces energy and water-use in oilsands processing by 40%.
2010: Seven major oilsands companies and government form the Oil Sands Tailing Consortium to pool research to speed up tailing pond reduction and reclamation efforts.
2012: Petrobank Energy and Resources’ patented Toe to Heel Air Injection underground oilsands processing method is poised for commercialization.Between Leduc and Edmonton lies one of the great think-tanks of North America
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