Hicks on Biz: Future is now for Edmonton innovators BY GRAHAM HICKS FIRST POSTED EDMONTON SUN: FRIDAY, MAY 26, 2017
Everybody moans and groans about Alberta’s economy being too dependent on oil, coal and gas.
Everybody keeps talking as if “diversification” and “innovation” are things of the future.
But there are names they should know: Ceapro. Radiant. Localize and Forge Hydrocarbons and Magnet Tx and Alberta Craft Malting, and on and on and on.
The list of Metropolitan Edmonton companies keeps growing.
Mayor Don Iveson gave his state-of-the-city speech at a Chamber of Commerce luncheon on Wednesday. It was – as befits a mayor still in his 30s – a rousing speech about Edmonton’s spirit of invention and culture of innovation. But always as if it’s around the corner, still to be grabbed, not here yet.
They are here! They are today!
Economic development people, without realizing it, tend to describe a bleak present but paint a rosy future, providing, of course that their agencies are funded and that they are paid.
Business Link, Startup Edmonton, TEC Edmonton, Bio Alberta, Alberta Research Park, Alberta Innovates, NABI, NAIT’s Productivity and Innovation Centre, eHUB at the University of Alberta, provincial and federal agencies … with so many not-for-profit business-assistance agencies, one can be forgiven for thinking consultants outnumber entrepreneurs.
But somebody has been doing something right.
Over the past 20 years, accelerating in the past 10, these new companies are showing themselves to be transformative, disruptive and leading edge. Not only surviving, but prospering.
The thing is there’s no one or two “unicorns” in Edmonton, no massive, highly publicized, high-tech or IT company with 400 or 500 well-paid employees. No one technology campus exists in which the city’s top tech/IT companies are situated.
We have had unicorns like Bioware, Saville Systems, Upside Software and Matrikon. But rather than grow into global titans, shareholders chose to sell rather than expand, taking an “exit strategy” as it were. The same thing has happened to many regional energy companies.
Which is not necessarily a bad thing: The buyers, for the most part, have kept the operations in Edmonton. But as branch plants, they have little or no local presence. Few of you know, for instance, that global pharmaceutical company Gilead Sciences has a top-level laboratory in Edmonton employing 400 scientists.
We also forget that local founders who sell their companies usually stay in Edmonton. Often they turn around and start new companies. Or off they go to do charitable good works.
Innovation/transformation/disruption is somehow seen as the domain of the small – the mice running round the dinosaurs’ feet. But former University of Alberta Dean of Engineering David Lynch convincingly argued most of Alberta’s new jobs and wealth came out of joint research with major energy companies.
The innovation and environmental gains made by oilsands companies has been mind-boggling and continues to accelerate, not slow down. The still-under-construction Sturgeon Refinery near Fort Saskatchewan has state-of-the-art technology to cut greenhouse gas emissions to near zero.
Edmonton’s biggest and best known companies like Stantec and PCL Construction didn’t reach global status without being the best of the best in their respective businesses. Of course Northern Alberta companies were given a boost when so much business was happening on their doorsteps. The smart ones have not only diversified their products but diversified their client base.
There’s never enough money to support small, struggling high-tech companies. Founders live off government grants until illusive “angel” investors can be found. Go back to the beginnings of most huge companies and there was usually some determined founder who juggled credit cards for five to 10 years until revenues went from a trickle to a flood.
So it’s time, Edmonton, to accept and celebrate that we have – right now, here today — a bustling high-technology innovative business sector. And our legacy companies are changing before our very eyes. If they don’t innovate, they die.
That we don’t see our business community as high-tech and innovative in the here-and-now has to do with lack of measurement and analysis. Nobody quite understands how deeply innovation has worked itself into the city’s economic fabric. The companies themselves are too busy to blow their own horns.
These are the tenants that will fill the office and commercial space opening up in Edmonton as the ICE District towers go up. It’s these companies – along with the provincial public sector – that continue to hire, or at least not lay off, employees. They’re the major reason our regional economy has continued to chug along, despite $50 barrel oil and the recession in Calgary.
Before our eyes, diversity is happening.