Apr. 20, 2013/ Troy Media/ – The tech community in Alberta is like a playground.
While the word playground immediately triggers visions of happiness and fun in a sun-kissed Norman Rockwell world, this picture is not reflective of Alberta’s tech community, at least not entirely.
Ours is a playground with a few nice rides but lots of unfinished areas and zones with equipment that get put up and then taken down again. Some kids look quizzically upon two identical pieces of equipment erected side by side. There are hazards and big piles of dirt. There are people running around with plans everywhere and lots of talk at the truck.
Most of the kids at play are getting the most they can out of the experience but some just stand around and criticize the equipment and talk about how the playgrounds in faraway places are so much better.
The majority, however, are simply hard at work making things better and getting things done. They keep their heads down building castles and waiting their turn at the slides.
The critics seem to believe nothing has changed and no one is doing anything useful. But what they seem to miss is that a lot has changed, making the community much stronger than it was 10 and 15 years ago. Real, sustainable, substantive change happens slowly.
In the mid-90’s, there was barely even a playground. It consisted of a tow rope and an untethered swing set: financial support was limited, educational programs for company building were nonexistent, finding experienced tech entrepreneurs who might provide advice was nearly impossible.
By the middle of the next decade, things started to change. There were two angel investment groups in the province: Calgary Technologies was providing a lot of educational programs and Banff Venture Forum was beginning to attract increasing numbers of investors who would also venture in from outside the province.
Today, TEC Edmonton, Innovate Calgary, SAIT and NAIT are providing educational programs for entrepreneurs and world-class Entrepreneur in Residence programs. Alberta Enterprise Corporation (a short but wildly popular ride), with its $100 million fund of funds, has established a local presence for many venture capital firms from outside the province and country. That investment has resulted in a multiplier effect of funding in Alberta, building companies and creating jobs. They’ve also created the Accelerate Fund to support angel investors in technology deals. They’ve revived the Venture Capital Association of Alberta and supported the tech ecosystem.
Think it all doesn’t matter? Think it’s all a waste? Your wrong and you need to look again. Alberta’s economy is not diverse. It depends on a healthy price for a barrel of oil. Go ahead and pretend that your life and livelihood in this province is not dependent upon the price of oil.
Alberta is like 1970s Texas. In the 1970s, Texas economic diversification looked reasonably similar to where Alberta is today. Over time Texas diversified, and no longer experiences the budgetary whipsaws from fluctuating commodity prices. Perhaps a vibrant technology sector could help Alberta accomplish the same task here.
I got into an argument with a Calgary lawyer last year. He pointed at the glass towers of beautiful downtown Calgary and stated that tech just doesn’t matter here. “Money spent in tech is money wasted,” he said.
Look into the moneyed corridors of Calgary’s elite and you will find a large throng of people who have done exceedingly well following the tried and true path of drill and thrill Alberta.
But there was a time when conventional oil and gas itself was considered risky. At one time farming and ranching were considered the stable businesses. Drilling for oil was for the renegades.
But despite this history, Alberta’s tech community still tends to believe there is a silver bullet that will instantly create a thriving technology sector. In fact, a thriving industry of industry roundtables and consultations exist to identify exactly why we are not yet thriving as a sector. But there is no silver bullet.
The Alberta tech entrepreneur is the new wildcatter. Things are getting better, substantially better, but we have to understand that it takes time. It’s an evolution.
I have seen over 1,000 deals in the past decade and have to say that the deals we see today are infinitely better, on average, than the deals of five to 15 years ago. A company in which we recently made an investment is selling product. They signed an agreement with Innovate Calgary for Entrepreneur in Residence (EIR) services. That EIR has a lot of experience building technology companies in this province. He structured the deal, brought on investors, provided guidance and governance support.
Ten years ago, this would have been a very different story. The founder likely would have over-valued the company. His lawyer would have likely convinced him to hide the IP in a separate company. He wouldn’t have had the benefit of advice from experienced people and his deal would not have had a chance. All of the good things that have happened in this company are the result of a smart entrepreneur who is taking advantage of the resources that exist today that simply were not there before.
Things are moving in the right direction.
Texas, here we come. This article originally appeared in Troy Media.
In : Business