Local entrepreneurs celebrated with first Alberta Tech Week
It's one of the city's economic bragging points: Calgary has the highest number of corporate head offices per capita within Canada, and ranks among some of the world's major oil and gas centres.
Small businesses appear on an almost weekly basis to help service the needs of Alberta's sprawling energy industry, ranging from construction to environmental assessment to transportation.
Yet for those looking to try their entrepreneurial hand at something not directly tied into fossil fuels, the challenges become far more daunting.
"High tech entrepreneurship is a viable career path here, but most people choose the safe and traditional career path that exists in oil and gas," said Sean Collins, vice president of partnerships at Startup Calgary.
"We live in a provincial economy that is totally resource based, and we do a really poor job of diversifying ourselves into the industries that are taking over the world." Collins added.
While Collins said that Alberta "tells the story of the oil and gas industry really well," the province is neglecting its achievements in technology: "The guy that invented the USB key lives in Calgary, the guy who invented Swype typing lives in Calgary. One of the world's largest stock photo companies came from Calgary."
The challenge, as Collins sees it, is presenting to Albertans that there is a vibrant high tech community in Alberta. "Oil and gas are cool," said Collins, "but tech is cooler."
Lighting the Entrepreneurial Fire
"We live in a provincial economy that is totally resource based, and we do a really poor job of diversifying ourselves into the industries that are taking over the world."
–Sean Collins, vice president of Startup Calgary
Collins said the entrepreneurial bug bit him when he was fresh out of school and living in Edmonton. Along with three of his friends, Collins created a Facebook group planning application called PlanHero. "In the process, I got really passionate about the tech community that was being built in Alberta," Collins noted.
In 2012, Collins ran the Accelerate Alberta conference, which brought in nearly 500 attendees from around the province and North America.
After the successes of the 2012 event, Collins decided to turn 2013's "over to the community, to a large extent.
"Any time you enable a community to take over, it creates way better outcomes, even if you have no idea what those outcomes are going to be. So I put out a call to the community, asking them to put on other events that were important and relevant to what we're doing."
In the end a dozen events compounded together with the 2013 Accelerate Alberta conference, becoming Alberta Tech Week in the process.
"There were several social events, parties, meet-up groups, a PR workshop, a Startup Weekend event, a Microsoft Visualization group event... a tonne of different, random events that took place over this one week."
In total, Collins estimates over 1,000 entrepreneurs participated in the event, an impressive feat considering it ran alongside the Calgary Stampede.
"It was a great draw for people coming in from outside our province," Collins noted, adding that, for Alberta, it was, "by far, the largest tech event that has ever happened."
One Weekend To Start A Company
The concluding event of Alberta Tech Week provided a chance for participants to put the knowledge and skills they had learned to the test at Calgary's fourth Startup Weekend.
Nearly 100 entrepreneurs were given 54 hours to form, validate, and present a potentially-viable company to a panel of industry experts.
"The goal is not to create a venture-fundable business," said Lloyed Lobo, one of the event's organizers. "It's really to find out who your market is, if there's potential, and build a minimal functioning product that you can take further.
"It's a good first step into entrepreneurship."
Justin Nowak and Devesh Dwivedi were the original organizers of the Calgary branch of Startup Weekend. Having moved to Calgary from other cities where Startup Weekends were major components of the tech community, Dwivedi said he found it "odd" that it wasn't already taking place in Calgary.
The pair held the first Startup Weekend in 2010. "With the very first one we held, it was a new concept for Calgary and only 33 people showed up" said Dwivedi. "Since then, we've really been embraced by the community, and become an established part of it."
Nowak added that the event has become an important networking opportunity for Calgary entrepreneurs. "Events like this bring together people who wouldn't normally get together for an event and exposes them to this world."
"It gets out of the inertia," said Dwivedi. "In just one weekend, you can see companies ready to launch."
"It's really nice to get that validation," said envData's Adam Martinson, which won the prize for Best Energy Startup. "It was pretty intense, even though it's only a weekend long."
He said he was really passionate about starting up his own business, and the event provided him an opportunity to "meet a lot of developers and designers and these other incredibly skilled people who I'd otherwise never get to meet."
Martinson, who works as an environmental consultant for oil and gas companies, said the idea for envData came to him two days before Startup Weekend, as he was compiling together an environmental assessment. "On Friday we pitched it, and on Sunday we won."
While Accelerate Alberta will rotate back to Edmonton in 2014, Collins said that Alberta Tech Week will likely take place in both cities simultaneously.
"We want to have a bit more of a Calgary and Edmonton dynamic," Collins noted. "We've even talked about a shuttle bus that goes between the cities."
Though events, and even dates, are so far "preliminary," Collins said that the second Alberta Tech Week will "definitely happen."
"Calgary plus Edmonton creates a tech community one tenth the size of New York," he noted. "If we're going to start swinging a bigger stick, we have to show a unified provincial face."
Meanwhile, Calgary's fifth Startup Weekend is planned for Nov. 8.
- By BAJ VISSER