By GRAHAM HICKS
I surrender. I capitulate.
For the past decade, I have been skeptical about this high-tech, innovation, disruption, knowledge-based business “eco-system” allegedly being built in Edmonton.
Show me the money! Show me the employment! Show me the University of Alberta computer science PhD students staying in Edmonton for career opportunities! Show me the office space leased to these companies!
Well, after a decade of incubators, accelerators, tax breaks, government grants, interest-free loans and wheel-spinning, it is finally happening.
In the last six months, some $40 million in venture capital from around the world has flowed into early-stage high-tech companies based in Edmonton. These guys don’t invest in companies they think will fail.
The number of successful high-tech firms in town has reached critical mass. The U of A’s expertise in computer science — consistently ranked in the world’s top 10 universities for computer science — and the establishment of the research/market-oriented Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute (AMII) is yielding measurable, for-real, concrete results.
At least four global technology giants have quietly set up research laboratories here, seeking to plug U of A’s artificial intelligence (AI) research into sellable services and products. Included are DeepMind (Google), Borealis AI (Royal Bank), MindLab (from Korea) and Noah’s Ark (Huawei). There’s not a lot of employment here — maybe 10 to 20 individuals per lab — but the brainpower is through the roof. And a cluster of world-leading expertise is fast taking shape.
Meanwhile, technology-dominant multinationals like Microsoft and Amazon have research projects happening with the U of A and AMII.
The vacancy rates in older downtown office buildings, as high-end tenants migrate to the new Stantec, Enbridge and EPCOR towers, is being softened by new technology companies moving into the vacated space.
The list of companies — and the exponential growth of that list — is impressive.
From the U.K., London-based Improbable — a global video-games maker — has set up its North American headquarters here. Why? Because of the video-game making expertise made possible by pioneering video-game company BioWare. Improbable has already created 50 jobs in Edmonton and has office space in the Metals Building (104 Street and 102 Avenue).
BioWare itself has moved some 200-plus jobs from the South Side into the new downtown Epcor Building, as has do-it-yourself financial management software firm Intuit Canada, bringing another 100-plus employees downtown.
The former LePage Building, on 103 Street just north of Jasper, is now the fully renovated 103rd Street Centre high-tech hub. Moving in is tech wonder company Jobber, creating administrative software and services for small companies. Jobber has grown from 20 to 180 employees in just a few years.
Taking another floor in the 103rd Street Centre is AltaML (Alberta Machine Learning) a company translating the artificial intelligence breakthroughs from the U of A into practical new AI technology for existing companies. AltaML has gone from two to 50 employees.
Rounding out the next-gen companies in the 103rd Street Centre are administrative offices for Edmonton cannabis giant Aurora — a sector not exactly gobbling up office space pre-legalization!
The number of Edmonton-and-region tech companies past the perilous start-up stage, becoming established with good leadership and good products, is frankly astounding.
Well established and flourishing are companies like exam developer Yardstick, trucking software service developer Drivewyze and retail shopping optimizer Granify.
These are but the very visible tip of the iceberg. Many more up-and-coming companies, maybe hundreds, have made it through what’s called the “valley of death” — where a product is commercially ready, but isn’t (yet) generating enough sales to pay the bills and pay back the investors.
By way of context, these successful companies, representing new wealth generation, are taking up space equivalent to a 22-story office tower.
I wouldn’t worry too much about the Kenney government’s review of the $100 million in high-tech assistance promised by the previous NDP regime. The most ardent free enterpriser accepts there’s a role for government to play in business development. It’s just a question of getting the best societal return for the investment. New government, new ideas … and perhaps more effective use of taxpayer dollars this time around.
For instance, Edmonton Economic Development Corporation and the regional Global Edmonton sponsored a high-tech/AI sales mission to the Far East a few months ago. Out of that trip, says high-tech business advisor, investor and city booster Bruce Alton, came a wave of Asian investors looking for high-tech/AI “deal flow” in and around Edmonton.
“They didn’t come for the weather,” says Alton. “They came because they saw the talent and the opportunity. The most important thing at this point is to keep the flywheel (the spin-off effect, the multiplying of companies, finances, critical mass) going.”