By GRAHAM HICKS
Edmonton’s high-tech companies often receive gobs of publicity when they are new-born, touted by government-funded economic development agencies as can’t-miss companies with breath-taking new technology.
The expectation is of instant success.
The reality is most new, innovative companies face 10 years of blood, sweat and tears, are chronically short of investment cash, barely make their payroll and take two steps back for every three steps forward.
Everybody is looking for the next Microsoft, Apple or Amazon.
That’s not going to happen. For most start-up companies, on-going success is A) not going out of business, B) being a sound, small business generating $3 to $5 million in revenues a year, making a niche product with 10 to 50 employees, and C) if a company does shut down, its principal partners – bowed but not beaten – move on to other entrepreneurial endeavours.
What’s happening in Metro Edmonton is most encouraging. But it’s under the radar.
Innovative companies that have been hanging on by their fingernails for five to 10 years are stabilizing. As a sector, these knowledge-based/high-tech companies are reaching critical mass.
BioAlberta (the Alberta Association for Life Sciences Industries) is seeing dozens of food, medical and other niche companies starting to mature, making real, measurable contributions to what new Edmonton Economic Development CEO Derek Hudson calls the “resilient” economy.
It takes years and years.
Scientist and former professor Dr. Jianhua Zhu started the low-calorie sweetener company BioNeutra in Edmonton 15 years ago. He had created a now-patented process to produce natural sweeteners from crops like wheat and barley.
Only now is BioNeutra reaching critical mass, with international sales of $32 million last year and recognition from Canadian Business + Mclean’s magazines the 55th of the 500 fastest-growing companies in Canada last year.
Though headquartered in Edmonton, BioNeutra contracted out its VitaFiber™ production to plants in Indonesia and China. Today, BioNeutra is bringing its manufacturing process back home. Today, the product is being made in a 45,000 square foot manufacturing facility in south Edmonton, once home to the Noodle Time noodle-soup company.
Only now can BioNeutra, with the local plant, provide employment opportunities in town beyond its management/research team. About 40 workers are being hired.
Only now is BioNeutra expanding its sales network globally, with sales in 30 countries.
Only now is BioNeutra introducing VitaFiber as a retail product, being sold through health food stores in Canada and the USA.
These things take time!
Metabolomics Technologies Ltd. — a University of Alberta spin-out company detecting colon polyps through its PolyDx urine test — has been laboring away since 2010. Only now is it making serious sales and serious revenue from North American diagnostic clinics buying and using PolyDx.
For 21 years, Edmonton-based Ceapro has been making specialized health care and cosmetic ingredients (nutraceuticals), extracted mostly from oats, for companies like Dove and Neutrogena through a proprietary extraction system.
Will Is Ceapro ever be a cosmetics giant? Never.
Has it doubled its employment base, from 30 to 60 individuals, when it opened its own manufacturing facility two years ago? Yes.
Since 2001, Exciton President Rod Precht has doggedly stuck with his patented silver-based wound-dressing/healing process. Exciton makes its own bandages and wound-covers at a small manufacturing plant here in the city. Slowly but surely, 17 years later, Exciton is selling its wound-healing technologies world-wide.
All these companies were once flavours of the month, when they were young and fresh and made for compelling news stories.
Now, far away from the headlines, they are maturing, still in business, growing steadily, and actually contributing to the wealth-generating capacity of the region outside of the energy sector.
There are hundreds more like them, slowly making a dent, ever-so-slowly compensating — perhaps a percentage point – for the loss of employment in our carbon-based energy sector.
Much has been made of Nanostics, a new Edmonton company to commercialize Clarity DXProstate™ a new, less-invasive prostate cancer detection kit developed by renowned University of Alberta cancer researcher Dr. John Lewis. Some media coverage breathlessly suggest ClarityDXProstate could reach sales of $100 million in five to seven years.
If horses could fly! Nanostics will go through growing pains, clinical setbacks, chronic cash shortages and investor doubts. It will have to be cheaper, cleaner, faster and more accurate than dozens of competing prostate-diagnosis tests. Hopefully it will be a small but thriving knowledge-based company in the foreseeable future.
Diversification — or growing a resilient Edmonton economy — is happening.
But remember it’s a slow, steady, pennies-on-the-pile process that has taken, and will still take, dozens of years