Interview by Joel Magalnick
In an effort to showcase some of the success stories in Edmonton’s tech innovator ecosystem, E-RIN, the Edmonton Regional Innovation Network, teamed up with one of those innovators to use the product she developed to tell those stories. Emily Craven, founder of Story City, is using her app to showcase seven local startups with a goal of showcasing not just the businesses themselves, but how Edmonton was the best place for these companies to set up shop.
Can you explain to people who might not be familiar with Story City a little bit about what Story City is?
Story City is essentially an interactive storytelling platform. The idea behind Story City is that it only opens when you're standing in the right location and it takes you on an interesting experience through the city that you're exploring. We have been known to do entertainment things from real-life Choose Your Own Adventures, where you're a part pirate treasure, to puzzle trails, where you're trying to solve clues to be able to solve a mystery. But this type of technology can be used to tell any sort of story in location, and one of the really interesting things about experiencing stories in the locations where they're set is that most of the stories that you remember in your life are very location specific—like where you might have asked someone to marry you or where you learned to ride a bike. So when you actually put stories in a location, the type of empathy you get from that story and the type of interest and memory and excitement and interaction that you actually get with experiences is so much more heightened as a result of moving through physical space.
I’m picturing both of those experiences just as you said that.
That's the power of location, right? You can see a photo of the Eiffel Tower a million times, but if you go to Paris, you're still going to go see the Eiffel Tower because that's the draw of location. And it's the same thing in any kind of city. I come from Brisbane in Australia. When we were considering, why does someone set up in a new place and particularly set up a company in a new place, a lot of people are like, “Oh, you know, it's all about the incentive in the taxes or X, Y and Z.” But a lot of the time, like 60 percent of the choice, is an emotional one. You pick a place, sure, because it's beneficial to your business, but you also pick a place because it is beneficial to you. And you can see yourself living in that place, raising a family in that place, and all of those kinds of things. So when we proposed doing this project with the E-RIN, that was my argument. If you want more people to set up in the city, you need to tell them stories of the community, the locations that people love in the city, why they're still here, how they built a life here, and tell them about your innovative companies—all of those kind of things. What's going to be the real drivers are people talking about why they love the place.
And so how does that manifest itself in the E-RIN?
We essentially did an origin story for each company. We interviewed all of them to find out: How did that idea start? Where did it germinate? How did it then grow? And what were the different significant locations in the city that contributed to that formation, whether they'd met at the U of A or they used to work in the same space, or whatever that might be. What was the genesis of that? What did they love about the city? And how did the city help them grow as a person, as a business? From there we actually selected locations that were significant to how they ended up getting started. So Future Fields is a cellular agriculture company, they provide the growth medium for lab-grown meat. They really focused on food insecurity and making sure that we don't have that as an issue in the future.
The guys from Mach 32 who make emergency medical trauma devices met at a spray park. And so we did this story at one of the spray parks in Strathcona.
2S water, they filter and find contaminants in water. So we put them within the River Valley where you could see the water treatment plant and the beautiful river valley. We determined where those locations were and we took those origin stories and we made three-minute video clips that took people through the origin stories of the companies.
Where did the ideas come from and why did they decide to build that in Edmonton? What was it that made them either build here, or in the case of like really massive companies like Jobber, stay here? So we made these little vignettes of their origin stories. And then we geolocated them in the streets of Strathcona, into a three-and-a-half kilometer walk that you can do in about 90 minutes. You can go in this immersive walk where we filmed those origin stories and each of those locations that had some sort of significant tie to that company. And you can hear and be inspired by how they began and why they stayed here.
Is this going to be an ongoing thing?
We hope so. It was a funded project from the Edmonton Regional Innovation Network. We produced the videos with an all-female production company based out of Edmonton. So a lot of news media, all women, and absolutely fabulous. They essentially acted as producers for the project.
We want to keep adding stories and doing other routes, like particularly I think it would be really great fun to have a medical one and then a machine learning one and actually have different industry-related books, particularly with all of the conferences that end up coming in through Edmonton. It's just about the economic development departments recognizing how helpful that is for the promotion of the ecosystem and being able to put some funding behind that. But the awesome thing is that after we did this, a first round of companies in Edmonton actually have provided the funding for us to enact the third phase of this plan, which is to create a series of portraits for each of these companies, which are going to be tourable, so you can take them to innovation conferences, you can hang them up gallery-style within innovation spaces. And the idea is that you can attach the videos to these portraits so people can come up to the portraits. They can watch the short video that's related to that company in that portrait and meet the innovation ecosystem, even if you're not in Edmonton.
That's really interesting for attracting outside funding or outside interest or maybe even getting people to want to come to Edmonton to start their businesses.
One hundred percent. The main point of it is that not only do we want to explore these very fun locations in a particular area, which includes everything from the beautiful parks in the River Valley and all of those kind of things, but also to allow that by allowing that to be durable, with each video being in a specific location, us showing off the locations in Edmonton while you're showing off the companies in Edmonton. By showing the city and the companies and the ecosystem, you give this beautiful rounded view of what it's like to build in a place like Edmonton.
How many stories do you have on this right now and what would it look like to you to have full tours to the larger ecosystem?
At the moment we have seven companies. We very specifically chose them from different industries and different stages. They range across industries from medical to AI to hardware to online education. And they've gone anywhere from being super-early-stage seed companies that developed during the pandemic to your Jobbers, who raised $70 million. We really wanted to give a very broad cross-section of the ecosystem. What we're really hoping, and when you do these kinds of tours is, you kind of want generally between five to eight companies within a walk or two. I can see this being particularly helpful with specific industries.
We'll see more and more of happening, because not only can you then take somebody on a tour, but you can then use these mini-stories as drivers for that. A lot of people previously have explained the tax incentives, the amount of skilled workers you have, et cetera. But they really lose out on that opportunity of “let's sell the city.”
I can also see economic development departments using this and being like, here's a tour of some of the most interesting places in this city: we have festivals here, we have concerts there. Here is the food that you can eat. You're showcasing the life that you could have in a city. Experiences are going to be just as important in this distributed world where you can have remote workers anywhere.
Being a startup yourself and a part of this ecosystem, where do you see this particular project taking you, taking Story City as you move forward?
I really hope that it shows the power of creative storytelling, not just in terms of entertainment, but in terms of being able to drive real behavioral responses to stories. This type of storytelling can be used as a driver of empathy and change for anything. What I'm hoping is that projects like these will get people to think outside the box when they think about their content strategies and how they engage people, because social media gets more and more saturated and more and more crowded as you pump more and more money into it. I think that these types of new media formats can help people really stand out and connect using that technology rather than being disconnected because of technology.
If somebody wanted to see and take the tour of entrepreneurial Edmonton, how would they do that?
They would download the Story City app so they can find the links for that story. If they’re not in Edmonton, they can turn on spoiler mode in the app and they can they can tap through the map and do it from the comfort of the couch at home and check out those origin stories, so they still get that lovely feeling of Edmonton and the areas in and around Edmonton.
In July, commercial real-estate company CBRE released its 2021 Scoring Tech Talent report, in which Edmonton cracked its top 50 tech markets (at #38!) for the first time. Many founders, either regrouping after a layoff or deciding to leave a job, embraced entrepreneurship. But as much as founders can put in the sweat to build a product and a company, there needs to be investment that gives the visionaries the runway to realize their dreams. Startup TNT, with its Thursday night meetups and biannual investment summits, is working hard to take the lead in bringing investors and founders together. The Rainforest spoke with Startup TNT founder Zachary Storms about his vision for building up the investor community through education and, of course, investing.
Interview by Joel Magalnick
As you were starting Startup TNT a couple of years ago, what was your goal for getting people involved as investors?
I look at what we're doing as a Startup TNT community, and I really think this is our core mission: to be the best angel investors that we can be and build the best angel investment community that's supporting our strong community that we can possibly build. So having the happy hour every Thursday is about bringing entrepreneurs together, bringing members of the community together. But it's also about ensuring that investors are part of that community and view themselves as part of the same community as the entrepreneurs, and getting a lot more people that have the means excited and involved and more sophisticated in raising capital. When I look at the happy hour plus the summit and the summit program, it mixes those two things together really, really well. Building community, building sophistication, and then raising money.
You talked about the people with means, but there are a number of people here who are at the start of an investor journey and being more active in not just the startup community, but understanding some of the pitfalls of investing, and some of the risks. Because clearly there's a lot of risk.
At the moment, there are still financial thresholds set by the Securities Commission that we have to follow in terms of who can invest with us. However, I am 100 percent of the belief that there's a lot more people out there that don't currently meet the definition of an accredited investor that absolutely should be part of the investor community. They can totally have the means to write a $5,000 or $10,000 check once or twice a year.
Even people with the means, angel investing is a pretty big deal, like even if you're writing $25,000 or $50,000 checks into a single company. Through Startup TNT you're getting a taster of the full experience and writing a $5,000 check, which is a much more approachable number for most people.
What does that look like from an education perspective and how you're trying to teach people to be investors?
We are firm believers that the best education for this type of activity is hands-on, experiential trial by error, trial by fire. Get in there and understand it. We do some classic workshops and more traditional academic-type of settings or book learning, like here's some references, here's some workshops. We'll come together, we'll have discussions. We include for the investors about to eight hours of formal workshops. But a lot of the education is really peer-to-peer, happening as issues come up and we discuss them as a group. Every time you negotiate a deal with these companies, it's a unique experience. There's a set of conditions where, well, because of X, Y, Z, the founder doesn't want to have this type of clause or they're not sure if they want it to structured as convertible notes or straight equity, or there's one investor that wants to win and they really like equities, so now it’s an equity deal and that’s the way we're doing it because they're going to write the biggest check and they want equity. All those negotiations are best learned and taught by just practicing. It's a continuous experience.
From the feedback that you've gotten, what have people been learning? Like from the complete dummy who knew nothing about investing and got involved?
We actually launched this ambassador program specifically for just those people. We call it the Startup TNT Ambassadors, and they're basically investors that are really enthusiastic, who believe in the mission, who want to put in a little extra time, who want to become prominent local investors in our community. And that's what this is really all about, building sophisticated investors that understand and are confident negotiating an early-stage deal, and then can bring other investors along. That's actually the really challenging part, is finding that person that can negotiate the deal has respect and they'll be like, “OK, this deal is kind of the terms are set. We can all go in it now.”
What does sophistication look like to you? What does that mean?
That's a great question, Joel, because I've been investing as an investor myself for a number of years and I'm not sure if I would call myself sophisticated. To me I would define sophistication in this sense that angel investing as an individual is like a part-time hobby. But as an industry, it's kind of like a professional sport. There's lots of terminology that most people don't understand. You have to get in there to learn it. What does this mean? What are the impacts, these decisions? So people that really understand the differences in the deal structures, the ins and outs of due diligence, what are you really looking for. As an angel investor that has a regular job and is doing things on the side, can you look at a deal with the same quality and sophistication as a professional investor that is a venture capitalist and does this full time? The answer is probably no. But as a group, our goal is to be equal to those sophisticated investors by sharing the work and sharing the knowledge.
When people are investing as a group, do they decide among themselves different roles that they're going to take on?
Oh, absolutely. That's one of the beauties of investing as a group. We have some pretty impressive people that joined the investment team. Some of these people have built a traditional business, some of them are franchise owners that now own 15 restaurants, or some of them have made a lot of money in real estate. They've done massive real estate development projects, or some of them are recently exited entrepreneurs that just sold the business. So a lot of them actually have finance backgrounds. But it's great to have these different perspectives coming in. We have a list of about, I don't know, 65 points that you might consider in due diligence. You probably don't have time to look at each one of these points in extreme detail. But what are the major ones that we want to cover and who is best positioned to cover this for us? One of the most interesting calls I was on was with somebody with an H.R. background that just went really deep into the whole hiring process and how the founder thought about hiring and their people experience in relationships. I think a lot of other investors wouldn't feel comfortable doing that. But this person has a deep background and it just brought out a whole new aspect of the experience, which was really cool.
What kind of role do investors at higher levels take in mentoring some of the people coming in or even some of the people who might have been investing for a while but trying to get to that higher level?
There's two main ways for them to get involved. One is through those education sessions where we do workshops with the investors. We've done a couple where we basically bring in seasoned, professional investors from VC firms to share their process and answer questions, have a discussion with us, just straight up participate as an investor. But they also realize that this is a big part of the learning opportunity for the entire group. So they are there as a resource and have knowledge for everybody, as opposed to too strongly expressing their opinions, letting the group work through things. These seasoned investors have to be a little bit careful, because they know that if people know they're seasoned, whatever they say they could have an outsized influence on the group. So to find that balance, listen to all voices. And often what we find is that the new investors have significant insights. They have a good understanding of what makes for a good deal, what to think about. It's a lot of that nuance around negotiating things like valuation, deal structure, where that extra sophistication comes in.
Has Startup TNT, being only two years old at this point, seen any successful exits, or seen any spectacular failures?
As one investor said to me, we're in the honeymoon phase still because the investments are all recent enough that everyone's still excited about them. Some of the key metrics for success at this point is that they're hitting new milestones, they've increased revenue, they've increased the number of employees. Other investors have co-invested with us. As a group, we've invested in some of the same deals that very prominent local investors have invested in. Some of them have actually graduated from Y Combinator. We ran a deal before Y Combinator invested. And that's all really exciting. And that's why I would say it's a honeymoon phase, because no one's gotten any money back yet. But these are all confirmations that we're interesting. Other sophisticated investors out there like these deals, too. The deals that we've invested in have raised over $10 million in follow-on funding outside of our group. So these are all credibility signs for now that give us confidence. But to your other question, no, we haven't had any actual exits yet. And honestly, a quick exit might be three years. It's like five to 10. So time will tell. Time will tell.
I've often thought about investing and the level of patience that investors have. And are you seeing at this point, especially from the first summit [in February 2020], we're about a year and a half after that, do you see any signs of impatience or are investors feeling like they're in it for the long haul and coming back to do more deals?
We get quite a few repeat investors at the moment. So people enjoy the experience. They come back. At this point, I think that people are still excited about what we're doing and I hope they stay excited to get more excited. I do think that if we do this for a long period of time and no one's getting a return on their investment and then five years goes by, a decade goes by, yeah, that becomes a problem. But honestly, you need to do this to test this whole process out properly and see the impact. You have to be in it for the long haul. So you have to have a 5-to-10 year vision. Some people say you have to have a 20-year vision. We try to discuss being realistic in your expectations and really understanding that it is a 5- and 10-year game at the minimum, not a 1-to-2 year game.
Are you seeing specific types of companies arise, especially in light of the pandemic? There was a lot of pivoting and a lot of rethought on directions people wanted to go, from what I’ve read.
We've invested in a lot of different types of companies, anything from some deep hardware companies to health, tax and medical device companies. Quite a few B2B SaaS companies, even some B2C companies, which also makes us pretty interesting as a group, because a typical VC will be a little bit more focused for the most part on a specific general vertical or sector. I view this as a focus on Alberta and the Alberta community, although we're trying to grow into becoming a larger brand than just Alberta.
Do you have any last thoughts on where you see the investment programs going and where you hope to see Alberta on the map three years, five years from now?
My ultimate goal is that we have Startup TNT and we here, more broadly speaking in Alberta, are actually pioneering a different approach to angel investing, into venture finance in general, that becomes recognized around the world as a uniquely awesome approach to raising a lot of capital, especially for jurisdictions like Edmonton that are less visible on the global stage. We're definitely growing. I see the reports coming out there that we're getting a little bit more visibility, but we're still an up-and-coming smaller ecosystem. So what is the appropriate way to build a great startup community and ecosystem like that and raise money for your local community? I think Startup TNT is positioned, if we do it right, to become a global leader. That's my long-term vision.
Edmonton celebrated its women entrepreneurs — let’s work to give all women the same opportunities
By Joel Magalnick
Edited by Aaron Budnick
COVID-19 has certainly been tough for everyone. It interrupted best-laid plans, turned our worlds upside down, and created uncertainty that will have a generational impact, in particular on women and minorities. According to a study by Statistics Canada, between March and October 2020, 46% of people in Canada with incomes lower than $40,000 lost income compared to 27% of Canadians with incomes over $40,000. Many people in those lower income strata are women. So what can we as an innovation community do to let in the women who have otherwise been unable to find support that can lead to reasonable chances of success?
“Women have traditionally borne greater responsibility for child care and other domestic duties than men and these responsibilities may be exacerbated by the current environment, particularly with school closures and reduced availability of social services, such as child care and eldercare,” the Statistics Canada report noted.
Even as in-person school resumed in September in many communities, “70% of mothers reported that they worked less than half their usual hours compared with September 2019.”
Layna Haley, executive director of the Kaleo Collective, an Edmonton-based nonprofit that serves single mothers and their children, told us that she sees these statistics play out on a daily basis.
“Pretty early on, women were able to keep their jobs,” Layna said. “But as the pandemic went on, companies started to downsize or reduce hours or eliminate positions completely.”
That of course created further financial insecurity and the competition for available jobs has increased—with employment often going to employees without, as Layna noted, “the added pressure of having to be able to be more flexible in her work life, particularly if childcare becomes an issue like when children were taken out of school again.”
We as a community need to model the camaraderie we’ve developed among us to continue to open up opportunities for women and minorities to enter the innovation economy. We’re seeing it already through programs like Ladies Learning Code at Startup Edmonton, for example, but at the same time we need to make room for people in difficult situations not only as a point of entry but as voices that make us think differently. Our economies are strongest when everyone is given an equitable opportunity to take risks, or test innovative new ideas or ways of doing things.
That said, we do have something to celebrate. Recently, a group of local entrepreneurs took it upon themselves to establish and build Edmonton’s first Startup Community Awards. What’s most notable is the representation of women who led the list of winners. In particular, (and somewhat selfishly), we’d like to highlight the Volunteer of the Year. Gail Powley is a member of the Rainforest Steering Committee and a tireless advocate and champion of the innovation ecosystem. Though Gail graciously gives her time to us, she also gives so much to other community initiatives including the Edmonton Regional Innovation Network, the University of Alberta, and TechnologyAlberta where she lead the creation and execution of their FIRST Jobs Program. As a chemical engineer herself, Gail is also a tireless advocate for bringing women into scientific careers.
Other particularly notable winners of the awards include Community Champion of the Year Ashlyn Bernier for her work with EACOS, Laurie Wang as Connector of the Year for her role modelling this important and often undervalued skillset and seasoned leaders such as Myrna Bittner from RunWithIt Synthetics, who won Most Edmonton Startup of the Year. Incidentally, 70% of RunWithIt’s staff consists of women, many of whom are also Black and Indigenous as well. Finally, we should recognize Kristina Milke as Mentor of the Year. None of us can be truly successful without great mentors like Kristina to help make the unknown known and prevent the avoidable.
There’s still plenty of work to be done, but upskilling and technology training programs can help to bring disadvantaged populations to a place where they contribute to and even lead—if we work to actively open those opportunities.
“I feel like there is a path forward there and more flexibility to do your studies at night when [children are] sleeping or to do it if they're in school,” said Layna. “To be able to work from home, to learn from home, has been an advantage right now.”
It’s a good sign of progress toward a more equitable society and ecosystem that helps to create opportunity for anyone, from any background, to prosper right here in Alberta. But we’ve still got a long way to go.
By Ruthann Weeks, Principal Consultant at harmony in the Workplace
You may have heard of the concept of psychological safety and its importance in creating environments of interpersonal risk taking to express thoughts, opinions, and ideas? It is about celebrating mistakes as learning opportunities, without any blaming, shaming or finger pointing. This level of radical trust is imperative in creating improvements and efficiencies. It’s also the breeding ground for the innovation the tech industry thrives on.
The Canadian Mental Health Commission has developed the National Standard, a set of voluntary guidelines for the implementation of organizational psychological safety. One of the standards is psychological support, meaning employees are valued and receive support regarding personal stressors and mental health issues. During Mental Health Week, which runs this Monday, May 3 through May 9, let’s focus on creating organizational cultures that thrive and provide support in practical ways.
With this grueling pandemic disruption, we are experiencing a mental health crisis. Current estimates suggest the stress effects will last three to five years, and longer for some who have lost family members, businesses, and livelihoods. We are all in the same storm, but we are not all in the same boat. While some of us may be living our best lives right now—working from home, avoiding commutes, saving on parking—others of us are trying to work in small apartments around kids sent home from school and partners laid off from their jobs. A few of us might be single, living alone, and struggling with isolation for the first time in our lives.
Although we need to be physically distanced to stay safe, we do not need to be remain socially distant. We can quite successfully check in and stay connected online, by phone, or on text or social media. Let us be intentional about checking in authentically with co-workers, neighbours and loved ones. We are all in this together.
By Aaron Budnick and Joel Magalnick
When building a company, like when building community, trust is often a currency more valuable than money. But trust is a two-way street. In The Rainforest, our culture is defined by the Social Contract. As the social contract states, “I will give trust to others before expecting to receive trust in return.” At the same time, the tenet of honesty also comes into play: “I will be truthful and frank. I will break rules and call out elephants in the room.”
How does breaking the rules lead to a culture of trust? Doesn’t that seem counterintuitive? Well, no. We are innovators—by definition we challenge the status quo to improve the lives of ourselves and others. We don’t do this alone, and we can only succeed by building—and upholding—trust in our circles of engagement with others. The more our own circles can overlap with others’, the bigger our ecosystem becomes, and that creates our culture of trust.
In The Rainforest: The Secret to Building the Next Silicon Valley, authors Victor W. Hwang and Greg Horowitt quote Francis Fukuyama, who wrote that a “modern society may be thought of as a series of concentric and overlapping radii of trust” that can range from friends or friend groups to non-governmental organizations or religious groups: “Traditional societies are often segmentary, that is, they are composed of a large number of identical, self-contained social units like villages or tribes. Modern societies, by contrast, consist of a large number of overlapping social groups that permit multiple memberships and identities.”
Because, as Fukuyama notes, “in-group solidarity reduces the ability of groups members
to co-operate with outsiders,” the “weak ties” among these overlapping segments actually create strong associations to pass on information between one another, allowing for further innovation—and trust.
The ability for an ecosystem like Edmonton’s to create trust among one another allows individual organizations to grow and let in entrepreneurs who may have been previously sidelined. Alberta Enterprise’s just-released 2021 Alberta Technology Deal Flow Study highlights that 27 percent of startups in the province have at least one female founder and half of Alberta’s companies have at least one minority founder. The numbers for women have doubled since the last Deal Flow Study of 2018, which didn’t even include minorities in its statistics. A culture of trust will continue to open doors and reduce marginalization of groups for a more diverse startup ecosystem.
Culture is the foundation of any innovation ecosystem. That culture can be defined by leaders in a community or grow organically—the more strategically and carefully nurtured, the better the results. Any community’s shared values, and the actions of its members, will ultimately determine the success of new initiatives. Here in Alberta, The Rainforest Social Contract sets the expectations for behaviour and is reinforced when each member acts accordingly—that’s why we continue to push for buy-in. While the Social Contract intends to create community, each person signs as an individual, not on behalf of an organization.
Coming back to Fukushima’s concentric and overlapping radii of trust, Hwang and Horowitt write that “the rate of innovation increases when people can create bridges outside of their normal circles of trust, whether across geographies, cultures, social groups, or languages.” The center of that circle would generally be family, extending out to close friends, then the rest of the world, with trust decreasing at each level. They suggest that moving from this simplistic model to overlapping circles creates that potential for a culture of trust we need to grow our ecosystem.
Management guru Stephen Covey makes a similar case of building up trust:
"If I make deposits into an Emotional Bank Account with you through courtesy, kindness, honesty, and keeping my commitments to you, I build up a reserve,” he writes. “Your trust toward me becomes higher, and I can call upon that trust many times if I need to. I can even make mistakes and that trust level, that emotional reserve, will compensate for it.”
Trust removes obstacles. Trust enables greater transactional velocity—a must as we emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic. Trust creates a win-win situation for everyone. We know our province has potential to be a leader on the world’s entrepreneurial stage. We’re beginning to see the fruits of our efforts. Let’s thoughtfully build our culture of trust so we can work together toward a more robust ecosystem.
How will you contribute to a culture of trust? A small step might be to sign the Social Contract, but a bigger step is to live it demonstrably. This is harder than it sounds, and every one of us will stumble and struggle at times. The power of the community is ultimately how it helps its members when they are down. Edmonton’s strength has always been the way that the community supports its most vulnerable, it’s most disadvantaged, and it’s members when they are in need. This is exemplified by the staggering number of non-profits and charities in the city provided through ecosystems like our local innovation community—and by the daily conversations that happen, founder to founder, to share war stories, celebrate triumphs, and overcome obstacles through peer mentorship.
We’re proudly Edmontonian, and proudly members of the local innovation ecosystem. We’re proud to work to support innovators in any way we can. If you need help, a shoulder to cry on, or an introduction, let us know. We’re here for you!
By Joel Magalnick
Alberta’s natural resources have long made us the wealthiest province, but it’s very likely we will be overtaken by other provincial economies in the coming years. There are a number of factors for this, but we have another kind of wealth — one in which we can point a straight line from the oil and gas industries to help us get out of these doldrums: that’s the deep scientific knowledge our province has cultivated in chemical, electrical, mechanical, and even agricultural processes.
As the collapse of global oil prices over the past seven years has shown, diversification can help us spread our eggs among many baskets. Whether we’re talking pharmaceutical, geothermal, or even clean tech, Alberta’s deep engineering heritage can and will propel us forward—and it doesn’t have to be at the expense of oil and gas.
Events in the past month show how far Edmonton as a region, and Alberta as a whole, have come in diversifying our economic drivers. On March 11, cleantech took center stage with an investment summit led by Startup TNT and included sponsors such as the Alberta Clean Technology Industry Alliance (ACTIA) and Energy Futures Lab.
“2019 was great, but 2020 oddly enough was even better,” said ACTIA executive director Jason Switzer in his opening remarks at the summit. Alberta’s significant heavy industry and agricultural sectors can take the lead in reducing carbon output, he said. “We’ve got all that it takes to be a global leader in clean technology and we’re going to do what it takes to make that happen.”
Switzer further noted that venture funding has begun to outpace baseline capital, but also cautioned that Canadian start-ups don’t get the same levels of investment as startups in the U.S. and European Union. “That’s a big problem,” he said. “There’s not enough money flowing into these startups, so if they come out, even if they’ve got just as good or even better technology than a startup from California, they don’t have as much money, and that’s oxygen. That’s their ability to fight and win.”
Matt Mayer from Energy Futures Lab noted that reskilling workers in cleantech methods and practices will help to increase Alberta’s standing as a global player. “The lab has been focused on identifying projects that have the potential to significantly shape Alberta and Canada’s energy landscape.”
Some of the emerging companies that participated in the Alberta Cleantech Investment Summit included companies that use AI and machine learning to better understand ground chemistry from space, provide real-time insights on all kinds of data points like weather conditions or IoT device readings to help frontline oil and gas producers become more efficient, and to help manufacturers reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The winner of the evening, SeeO2, epitomizes our province’s deep knowledge and experience that makes it a scientific powerhouse. This mid-stage startup is currently testing a system that reclaims waste gases using specially designed electron-based devices to convert carbon dioxide and steam emissions into carbon monoxide or hydrogen, for example. These gases can then be reused to manufacture highly processed products such as synthetic fuels and construction materials. As SeeO2 ramps up to release a commercially viable product later this year, its reach has the potential to achieve success on a global scale.
As the world eagerly awaits to reopen while we move toward a critical mass of coronavirus vaccinations, pharmaceuticals have become much more visible in the public eye. Our region is clearly playing a role.
“Even before the pandemic, our region had significant assets and competitive advantages for bio tech and biology pharmaceuticals,” Lynette Tremblay, Edmonton Global’s vice president of strategy and innovation, said in the opening remarks of the Commercializing Research and Development panel she moderated on March 22. “The Edmonton region has a strong life-sciences ecosystem that includes chemical and pharmaceutical companies, engineering talent, and all of that manufacturing, early-stage inputs and mid-stage active pharmaceutical ingredients.”
Tremblay said that 17 proposals for Covid-19 vaccines had come out of the University of Alberta alone, and two of those candidates have entered phase-1 clinical trials. “Alberta and Canada really have the opportunity to be at the forefront of this industry,” said panelist John Lewis, founder and CEO of Edmonton-based Entos Pharmaceuticals, one of those two companies hoping to bring the vaccine to market. “We’re hoping that it’s going to be successful and brought to bear on this pandemic for the benefit of Canadians and potentially the world.”
Dr. Jared Davis, president of Providence Therapeutics, the other local company bringing its vaccine to trial, said that the mRNA technology will have important benefits beyond Covid-19—in particular to create personalized cancer vaccines. “In early 2020 we were very close to going into the clinic with a cancer vaccine,” David said. “However, COVID hit. Our plans changed. We very quickly developed a vaccine for COVID using the technology we’d developed over the year for our cancer programs.”
Davis said he expects Providence to complete the phase-1 trial this month.
While we’re still at a point where the innovation coming out of Edmonton and the rest of Alberta is in the tens or hundreds of millions rather than the billions from fossil fuel extraction. But the more we continue to put value on scientific ventures, the more quickly we’ll see exponential investment and growth—and attract more big players. “You look at the big health centers in the world, they’ve got a lot of competitors all in one compact space,” Davis said. “It’s all really helpful. We can feed on each other and grow together.”
This week’s LWOL featured a discussion about the importance of Corporate Governance in startups. You can watch the full recording here and the comment log is available on our Slack channel.
The session was hosted by Calgary Community Manager Brigitte and Co-Hosted by Edmonton's Steering Committee Member and Entrepreneur Ruthann! This happened to also be anti-bullying awareness day and Ruthann was showing her support with a pink shirt; she's always a champion for great causes!
Professor of Entrepreneurial Finance at the U of C and is the Academic Director for CDL Rockies.
CEO of Swirlex, and an MBA graduate from the Haskayne School of Business.
The Rainforest is all about taking risks and learning new ideas and concepts, so take a risk and learn something new today!
This week’s LWOL featured Product Calgary and a discussion about Product Management. You can watch the full recording here and the comment log is available on our Slack channel. The session was hosted by Calgary Community Manager Brigitte and Co-Hosted by Edmonton's Steering Committee Chair and Entrepreneur James!
Martin L’Heureux - Panel Host
Martin is a co-founder of Product Calgary and started his career as a developer with a taste for strategy who moved into business analysis and later product management. He has a passion for understanding customer needs that powers his teams to deliver extraordinary experiences.
Christa is VP of Product at Morgan Stanley where she works with FinTech’s and Non-Profits.
Ali is the Product Management Lead at 7Shifts, a startup that helps restaurant owners manage their shift scheduling.
Miche started her product management career at Alta ML but recently joined Sylvester AI as their Venture Lead. They use machine learning to help identify pain in felines using facial recognition.
Note: We’ll us the abbreviation PM to refer to the career of Product Management, the action of Managing a Product, and the individual with the job title Product Manager. If this isn’t clear enough in context, we’ll write it out.
What is Product Management NOT?
What’s the advice to a founder thinking of hiring a PM?
This post is an aggregation of year in review posts we've made in the past. Read on to see where Rainforest has been and how we've evolved over time in Edmonton!
Orignally shared in the Rainforest Pulse in September 2018, the following post discusses how innovation requires teamwork to make the dream work.
The importance of Teamwork in the Innovation Process
Innovation is not a brilliant idea; it is a process. A brilliant idea becomes an innovation when it is monetized into a product or system that produces significantly improved results for an end-user or customer. The process of innovation takes an idea from a thought, to a commercialized product.
Many organizations fail at innovation because leaders don't understand that innovation is a multi-step process, and the talents required at each step of the process are very different. For innovation to succeed, it needs to be a team-based process.
In the book The Rainforest: The Secret to Building the Next Silicon Valley, authors Hwang and Horowitt describe innovation as "body contact sport". Like any sport, a team wins or losses based on the actions of the individual members, each specialized for their role, and how well they act together towards a shared outcome. Similarly for innovation, where commercialization of an idea requires individuals from diverse backgrounds and with unique skillsets who together can create something greater than themselves. The researcher cannot succeed without the marketing expert, the sales expert, the human resources experts, nor the customer service experts.