The Future of Calgary’s Tech Scene
- Calgary’s centralized business sector allows investors easy access to a variety of different industries and head offices.
- Government supports and grants have enabled Calgary’s tech industry to gain momentum and move forward with new innovations.
- Calgary provides better access to affordable talent that is just as good or better than that found elsewhere in Canada, which is a massive attractor for foreign investment.
Calgary’s innovation sector is ready to take off because of its abundance of good talent, government supports, cheap office space and tax credits. Moving forward, collaboration and knowledge-sharing between established industry leaders and up-and-coming innovators will be critical.
What are some of Canada’s competitive advantages when it comes to attracting foreign investors?
Talent is number one, and resilience is number two. This country is not short on always wanting to look forward and how to keep moving forward, growing, and attracting new people, new talent to come in, and ultimately, new money to want to be part of the business. To me, those two are really critical.
What would you say are some of the benefits for businesses, particularly foreign, of setting up shop in Calgary and the region?
One key thing about Calgary is when you look at the nature, people, and legacy businesses that have been built— they are very centralized—businesses and business sectors are very centralized so you know exactly the pockets you are about to go into and the businesses you are about to run and play with. There is obviously a significant amount of space that is available from both a housing perspective, whether you choose to live in a tower or a house, and also from a business perspective. The space is really catered to your likes and your needs. If you want to have a super tech and super fun kind of environment, you have those ready to be rented out or to have you as a tenant. Then there are those that are very corporate with the mahogany desk and chair look and feel. For Calgary, it is an incredible place to do business. People are open—they are very transparent, and you have the definition of a handshake deal still being very much alive and being able to go and talk to somebody. I am literally speaking from experience because this happened to me just last week where we made a handshake deal on how we are going to move forward through a process and within the next week, all the documents were completed. Everybody knew that once they got into it that this is what they were going to get and that is what everybody walked out with. It is an incredible city to be in and I grew up in Toronto, so Calgary gives you a different pace of life as well, and that work-life balance is quite incredible.
What would you say to someone who does not know Calgary and says it is just an oil town?
Oh my god, we are so much more than that. If you look at our 10-square blocks downtown, where you see the majority of the energy companies being down there, that is the energy sector. I still believe Calgary has the highest number of head offices per square block in Canada. What is really neat is Calgary is very diverse—everything from tech businesses, textile businesses, agriculture businesses, and food manufacturing—it is a very diverse town. Just because people know us for the energy space, it really speaks to a percentage of, or a large percentage of, but still just a percentage of where we are, and the amount of tech companies that have come out of this city over the last 20 to 30 years has actually been outstanding. The amount of patents in technology that have come out of this city are really outstanding: everything from the universal serial bus (USB) to the original builder and developer of the X-ray machine for your legs, chest, and everything else. We have been very innovative and not to forget about medicine—medicine is a huge kick coming out of Calgary in that space.
“Calgary has the highest number of head offices per square block in Canada.”
Calgary is not a one-trick pony—not just a town that has the energy space. When we cowboy, we really talk about the fact that we go out and we just get things done because they just have to be done. We are not shy of hard work and the many hours it takes to put in that hard work. I was left with this expression years ago from a mentor that said the harder I work, the luckier I get. That is kind of the mentality that you are walking into.
I do notice that out of the innovations that you mentioned you forgot to mention the Caesar.
Yes, that is correct. On 4th Avenue, Downtown Calgary, you do have the invention of the Caesar. Many have taken claim for it but the original is at Caesar’s in the Caesar’s Steakhouse at Calgary.
Can you talk a little bit about the drive for Alberta and therefore Calgary to diversify and the kind of supports that are available to those innovative entrepreneurs?
I will start it from the last word, which is entrepreneur. Alberta is very, very entrepreneurial. Calgary as a city and Alberta as a province are very entrepreneurial. It is built on the back of entrepreneurs—those who were willing to risk it all and try and do something successful, and those who ultimately succeeded. Those who ultimately succeeded have put a lot of money and time back into the local economy through many different ways, from charities to initiation of new programs and so on and so forth.
From an innovation perspective, a great thing to happen to Calgary was Creative Destruction Lab (CDL) coming to Calgary and opening up the Rockies group and showcasing that. We do have entrepreneurship across many different areas, not just energy as a focus. It spurred a bit more of a, “Hey, we should do something different here in the city,” and show that we have the capacity to invest back in the city as well.
“Tech entrepreneurship is now starting to see some new momentum with some of the grants that have been pushed forward.”
I am a big fan, and entrepreneurship is very healthy and very well alive within the city. Tech entrepreneurship is now starting to see some new momentum with some of the grants that have been pushed forward. Big groups like the Alberta100, CDLs, Haskayne, and other groups are going out and cherishing what they have all learned, bringing it to the forefront, and getting others to come onboard to join that journey. We are showing that it is about the teamwork, it is about the city, it is about revitalizing, and it is not an easy thing to do. It is a 10-year journey—it does not happen overnight and it is a multiyear journey but it is setting the right precedence at this point in time that walks us through how we are going to get there in those next 10 years.
Can you think of specific benefits, incentives, or other tax credits that are incentivizing companies to set up shop in Calgary?
One of the credits is access to some of the talent that you need. It is not going to be at the prices that you will pay in Toronto with your dollars per hours and such. When we look at incentives, it is not just about getting a rebate back, it is about having access to something that is cheaper here and is as good or better than somewhere else fundamentally. If I look at my business and balance sheet and I am saying if my rent, cost of living, cost of acquisition, and if my cost of employment is cheaper and better or just as good as somewhere else, then that is a massive incentive on its own because my dollar from my investor will go down much further than somewhere else. Programs are programs. We can always go out and create more programs but it is having access to those key components that we can use and depend on, that we can put on our balance sheet and stay strong in front of the investors and say I am going to have this kind of a burn and this kind of a spend but if I would have done it here, it would have cost me this much more.
Can you talk a little bit about the cutting–edge side of the tech ecosystem and what it does to attracting foreign investors?
The ecosystem in Calgary is thriving in a few different areas. We are seeing mixed reality, augmented reality, and virtual reality taking shape in the city with some courses starting to be offered at different post-secondaries, which is incredible. Obviously, we have touched on Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute (Amii) and the work that is being done from an institute perspective and leading the way of thinkers. With Google and DeepMind and other groups in Edmonton, they are really pushing forward. There are guys like Cory Janssen that are pushing super hard on machine learning (ML) and fairly so. It is an upcoming technology that has been proven, that is ready to be deployed, and it is going to make an impact and a difference in a business’ day-to-day operations. Lastly, we talked about Koleya Karringten and the work she is doing on blockchain, and even us as a tech company, as TerraHub, we have been focused on private blockchain for the last four years when it was still young and when it was still considered bleeding-edge. Now, it is going towards leading-edge technology. It is finally recognized by Gartner that it is okay to deploy and use. We are also seeing a lot of support from the Government of Canada and other groups that are recognizing that the talent of blockchain and artificial intelligence does not exist just in the metropolitans—the Torontos, Vancouvers, Montreals, and Quebecs.
“Calgary has always been really at the forefront of this tech and deploying it.”
A lot of great companies have been selected by the Canadian government to work on multiple distributed ledger-based technology projects. Even Seattle, our neighbour next door, has gone in and recruited a bunch of us for one of the blockchain accelerators that came out of the West Coast. We are up and coming as having tech companies, we are leading-edge and bleeding-edge in certain cases, and we also have a big gaming industry where we are doing some really amazing things that people do not talk about or do not really know about.
Calgary has always been really at the forefront of this tech and deploying it. A lot of times, it makes itself in a global space. I do not know if I mentioned this to you earlier but we just launched with a company—tiny TerraHub out of Calgary launches with a global organization where we are now in 30 countries and have 60 offices and we did it all in under three weeks. They saw the value for it and they did not care that we are in Calgary, they did not care that we were in New York, they just cared that we brought good tech to the table that they could deploy. A lot of these stories exist in Calgary and we are all running underground a little bit but once we pop up, we pop up, and we are there to stay.
What do you see on the horizon for Calgary’s economy and what gets you excited and hopeful?
I believe so much in this city. I believe that the city has the grit and resilience to get up and just keep doing it and do something different to grow itself and the younger generation that is up-and-coming. The city has an incredible amount to offer.
“There is capacity and there is value here that everybody can bring to the table. Calgary will be another booming city.”
What is the future of this city? It is going to be a big blend fundamentally. It is going to be a big blend of those who have been here and done it before, sharing their knowledge, background, and some of their success capital by investing it and reinvesting it back into the city and its new companies. I know it is true because we are about a week away from closing our financing round and 99% of it was done out of Calgary and Saskatchewan. We know that there is capacity and there is value here that everybody can bring to the table. Calgary will be another booming city. We are on the verge of going through hard times, obviously, but everybody is willing to change, adapt, and look to the path of a new light. Kudos to Calgary Economic Development (CED) and the push, resilience, marketing, and messaging that is going out. I am so proud to see that coming out of our city because in times like these others could sit back and say there is nothing we can do but here, we are always looking for the future and how are we all going to get there and be brothers-in-arms.