Alberta’s Growing Innovation Ecosystem
- Alberta has a strong history of economic excellence, with key established talent and infrastructure setting the province up for continued excellence in the future economy.
- Alberta’s high concentration of quality post-secondaries supplies the province with reliable and skilled talent for key emerging industries.
- Alberta is investing significant research and funding into the key ingredients of the future economy, from technologies such as artificial intelligence to new resources such as hydrogen.
Alberta is continuing to grow their innovation ecosystem to prioritize the critical ingredients needed to succeed in the future economy. By focusing on emerging sectors such as artificial intelligence, hydrogen, cleantech, and more, Alberta can become a world leader in the push against climate change.
How would you describe Alberta’s approach to innovation and entrepreneurship?
If you go back to the beginning of Alberta as a province, it has a history of generations of innovators. When my ancestors came, they set up in the homestead up north in Peace Country—that was innovation. They figured out how to survive those long cold winters and how to clear the land. Plus, the history of our resource-based economy and energy industry is founded on pure innovation, from unlocking the oil sands to developing steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD), carbon capture, horizontal drilling, and more. Our history is based on innovation. We are really starting to see the next generation of entrepreneurs today in Alberta hit their stride in new areas from agriculture technology to fintech. It is really exciting to see the future growth of Alberta and innovation is the key to all of it.
How and why is Alberta’s innovation ecosystem different from other provinces and territories in Canada?
Alberta has been an innovative ecosystem for decades upon decades. We are known as an entrepreneurial-capitalist hub of Canada. We went through a period of about five to seven years of figuring out the path forward for Alberta, and in the last year or two, we have started to see the next generation of entrepreneurs figure out what that path looks like. We have gone from about 1,200 tech companies in 2018 to over 3,000 in 2020. We have also seen venture capital grow rapidly in Alberta from an investment standpoint. On top of that, we have seen the energy industry figure out what its path forward looks like, with massive clean hydrogen projects being announced in Alberta. Alberta is leading the country in renewable power investments that are private sector driven and is looking at where the opportunities are globally.
There are a lot of reasons to be excited about the future of Alberta, which is based on the work of decades of entrepreneurship. In the last five to seven years, we had to reinvent ourselves a little bit and figure out what that path forward looks like, but it has been really encouraging over the last few years to see Alberta start to hit its stride.
What is the composition of Alberta’s innovation landscape?
There are a lot of different areas to focus on. We have amazing post-secondary institutions: the University of Alberta, University of Calgary, University of Lethbridge, Olds College, and more. All across the province, we are starting to see many different areas of strength. One example is Olds College, where they have a Smart Farm that they use for agriculture technology research. They are partnered with major telecommunications companies to work on using 5G networks in farming. At the University of Alberta, they are at the forefront of vaccine development. The Li Ka Shing Applied Virology Institute there has a Nobel Prize winner, Dr. Michael Houghton. The University of Calgary is at the forefront of quantum technology and the University of Lethbridge is leading Messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine development. Alberta has lots of amazing post-secondary institutions that are providing the talent pool that we need to build on for the future.
When it comes to big companies, Calgary has one of the highest concentrations in the country of head offices. The Edmonton region has massive facilities for petrochemical and hydrogen. A lot is being built out in that area. If you want to do anything in Alberta, it is here for you. We are also seeing big advancements in the fintech space. We have Benevity, our own unicorn, as well as Neo Financial. We have robotics companies like Attabotics and companies like Jobber in the Edmonton region. There are many reasons to be excited, from a whole range of industries, about why Alberta has a bright future ahead.
What is Alberta’s innovation strategy for building a more resilient, innovative, and diversified Albertan economy?
Alberta has talked about diversification for decades. In the last two years alone, diversification has become a material part of Alberta’s economy. We have gone from 1,200 to over 3,000 tech companies. Not only are there more companies, they are also larger. They are raising more money and hiring more people, and the percentage of them that are going to get to that unicorn stage is encouraging. Many of them are already on the brink of becoming unicorns with billion-dollar valuations. We are really starting to see that tangibly. We are also growing our film and television industry. We fixed our Film and Television Tax Credit, which resulted in huge growth for the film and television industry.
Diversification is real in Alberta. The next generation of entrepreneurs wants to make sure that they go forward in those areas. They want to have those opportunities that are not necessarily just in energy or agriculture. They are looking at opportunities in a whole range of industries and it is really encouraging to see that growth trajectory.
“Alberta captured 10% of the market share of deal flow and dollars in 2020.”
Alberta captured 10% of the market share of deal flow and dollars in 2020. We are really starting to get our per capita trajectory and put Alberta on the map. Going back a year ago, if you talk to people in Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, or other international markets, they would not necessarily have known that Alberta was on the rise. Fast-forward a year later, they definitely know now that Alberta is on the rise when it comes to the tech innovation space.
In addition to government policy, another key piece of growth is talent and talent generation from post-secondary institutions. There is a global race for talent. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, people are much more comfortable working remotely, so we have to make sure that we can attract people in Alberta. We have a very affordable province in comparison to many other places. Housing prices have priced people out in many other marketplaces. Affordability is key for young Canadians and Alberta has a very affordable housing market, way of life, and cost of living. There are many reasons to bet on the future of Alberta in this space.
What is the relationship between sector innovations and the overall Albertan economy?
With the price disruptions in the marketplace and challenges in getting their products to market, energy companies in particular over the last five years have had to become far more efficient overall. They are investing in artificial intelligence and looking at machine learning. They are bringing these technologies into their day-to-day operations to become more efficient. Right now, with the rebound in prices, energy companies are becoming very profitable, generating a significant amount of cash.
When we take a look at the marketplace, there are still a huge number of head offices in Alberta, particularly concentrated in Calgary. Technology companies like mCloud have moved their head office from Vancouver to Calgary. They are artificial intelligence-driven and efficiency in energy is one of their main focuses. They are looking for clients to serve and we are starting to see growth in that area.
Another sector that is really interesting for us is cleantech. There is a new platform called Avatar Innovations. They are partnering with major energy companies, pipeline companies, and even Microsoft, to try and find solutions to big global challenges around carbon emissions, water purification, and a whole bunch of different areas. That innovation is happening in Alberta.
When it comes to that global push on climate change, Alberta is finding its position as a world leader. We are always hearing about environmental, social, and governance (ESG) practices. Innovation is going into the energy sector to allow Alberta to be a world leader on ESG and play a significant role in the future of energy.
The University of Alberta is one of the top institutions in the world when it comes to artificial intelligence and machine learning. It was one of the reasons why Google DeepMind came to Alberta and set up in the Edmonton region. There is also the Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute (Amii), another amazing platform that works with Alberta Innovates, that helps make sure we develop talent here in Alberta.
“Artificial intelligence is a big piece of our economy locally and a big piece of our talent generation. There is also a huge global marketplace for it.”
Historically, a lot of that talent would leave the province for other marketplaces. Now, there is a growing demand for tech talent and people that have that skill set. The emergence of our innovation ecosystem and the maturing that is happening rapidly across Alberta has created a demand for talent and those jobs are now here in Alberta, which is encouraging to see long-term. Artificial intelligence is a big piece of our economy locally and a big piece of our talent generation. There is also a huge global marketplace for it. It is all about talent and finding those efficiencies in big as well as small businesses, and Alberta companies need to be at the table in those areas.
How high of a priority is cleantech for your ministry and for Alberta going forward?
When it comes to energy and resources, there is going to be a massive demand for different types of minerals going forward for clean technology—EVs, batteries, rare earth minerals for smartphones and more. Alberta is very well positioned in this area. Alberta Innovates is also doing a big project around Bitumen Beyond Combustion because the minerals that are in a barrel of bitumen are actually worth more than a barrel of oil. It is really a matter of how we extract those resources in a responsible way. Similarly, companies like E3 Metals are taking lithium right out of active wells in Alberta. Lithium is a huge part of the future economy with massive growth potential.
“China controls about 80% of the rare earth minerals market. This raises issues around stable supply and national security. Alberta has an opportunity to build supply chains and be a big part of that future economy.“
Alberta has a history of responsible resource development. There is no reason why we cannot continue to play that role, especially considering the tensions between China and the US. China controls about 80% of the rare earth minerals market. This raises issues around stable supply and national security. Alberta has an opportunity to build supply chains and be a big part of that future economy.
When it comes to cleantech, Alberta is leading the country in renewable power investments in solar and wind. We are seeing Tesla batteries going to our grid. We are really at that forefront of innovation with a very unique private sector-driven power market in Alberta, which is different from every other jurisdiction in Canada. This allows for critical innovation to happen and for industry to keep up with the speed of innovation in the field. There are many reasons for us to be at the forefront when it comes to clean technology in many different industries.
We need to position Alberta as a clean hydrogen leader going forward. There have been major announcements from Air Products, Suncor, and ATCO, and we are anticipating that there could be a few other hydrogen announcements for Alberta.
Hydrogen has been talked about for decades but it is really starting to get to a critical mass where the policies around the world are aligning to allow for the development of hydrogen. Alberta is one of the best places in the world for hydrogen from a geography standpoint, talent perspective, infrastructure perspective, and R&D history such as our work on carbon capture in other areas. Hydrogen is an opportunity for Alberta to continue to be at the forefront of innovation in energy and play a big role as the world makes a big push on climate change. There is a great opportunity for us in hydrogen. Less than a year ago, people were still wondering which jurisdiction in the world was going to move first on hydrogen. Now, we are starting to see Alberta attract global investment into the hydrogen space.
Where do you see Alberta’s economy going in the next 100 years?
It is difficult to say where even the world is going to be in 100 years. There will be advancements that we have not even dreamed of. My hope is that Alberta and the next generations will have a bright future. What got me into politics was that I was unsure of the future of Alberta’s economy and what the job opportunities were going to be for the next generation. With that said, particularly in the last 6 to 12 months of the COVID-19 pandemic, it has really been encouraging to see entrepreneurs, thought leaders, and business people across Alberta figure out what the path forward is, and innovation is at the core of it. Seeing that development and application of technology towards the big issues facing the world gives me hope that Alberta will continue to take on those major challenges facing the world and succeed. It is really encouraging to see that momentum happening in so many different industries in Alberta.