Alberta’s innovation minister wants province to be a “dominant player” in Canadian tech

Alberta’s minister of innovation wants to make the province’s tech sector a dominant player in the Canadian innovation arena, and he believes the ecosystem has the chops to make that happen.

“We want to become a dominant player in the whole innovation space in Canada.”

In an interview with BetaKit, Doug Schweitzer, Alberta’s minister of jobs, economy, and innovation, spoke about how the province’s tech sector has matured in recent years. His comments follow a report recently released by Alberta Enterprise Corporation, which found that the Alberta tech ecosystem is showing signs of momentum.

The report identified 3,083 tech companies in Alberta in 2021, compared to 1,238 companies in 2018. Not only is the number of tech companies growing, but so are the sizes of these companies. According to AEC, almost 40 percent of local tech companies surveyed have revenues exceeding $1 million, a 66 percent increase since 2018.

Speaking with BetaKit, Schweitzer echoed that Alberta’s ecosystem is showing positive momentum.

“For years we’ve been talking about the emerging tech sector in the province of Alberta,” Schweitzer said. “I think we’re beyond that now. We’re at the point where it’s really maturing to the point where it’s sustainable.”

“We don’t want [Alberta] to just be a player,” the minister added. “We want to become a dominant player in the whole innovation space in Canada.”

Schweitzer was appointed to his role in August, previously serving as Alberta’s justice minister and solicitor general. At the time, his position was newly-created by the province, replacing the Minister of Economic Development, Trade, and Tourism.

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Schweitzer told BetaKit, from day one of his appointment his priority was to focus on the tech sector and its role in Alberta’s pandemic recovery efforts. Not only does it diversify the economy and create jobs, he said, but it also provides opportunities for young Albertans wanting to stay in the province.

Schweitzer said his legal background exposed him to the role technology can play in the future of every industry, which is why tech is a cornerstone of his strategy.

“It’s not just an industry on its own that stands by itself, it has applications across all of our traditional economic drivers in our country,” he added. “So, I understood the importance of the tech sector and we really needed to make sure we focused on it and [encourage] the venture capital habit.”

Alberta’s tech sector growth in recent years comes amid a shift from an energy-focused economy to one that embraces its tech ecosystem. Even amid a global pandemic, Alberta tech companies had a record year for venture capital, doubling the amount invested in 2019.

According to the CVCA, Alberta reported a record year of $455 million in venture capital investment in 2020. Hockeystick’s latest ecosystem report indicated that Calgary’s tech startups had a solid year of venture activity, with dollars raised and deals closed growing by 88 percent and 26 percent, respectively, from 2019.

“For years we’ve been talking about the emerging tech sector in the province of Alberta. I think we’re beyond that now.”

Last year also saw two local tech companies, Symend and Neo Financial, raise the largest Series A and B rounds in recent Alberta history. Attabotics also raised a significant Series C round of financing, and more recently partnered with AltaML and the Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute to develop AI solutions for supply chains.

Schweitzer said activities like these have all helped Alberta’s tech sector “hit its stride” and fuelled tech’s ascension in the broader economy.

“We’re also seeing the sophistication of investors grow in Alberta as well,” he added. “Success builds further success in many respects in this industry, and we’re seeing people that were conventional investors potentially in other industries that are now understanding the opportunities that are there in the tech industry and they want to be a part of it.”

Earlier this month, Schweitzer acknowledged the province needs many more startups at the start of the funnel and needs to scale up more of those companies. The comments came some weeks before Hockeystick’s Calgary tech report found a potential gap in Alberta’s early-stage venture activity, which would support the notion that the province needs more support at that stage.

RELATED: As Alberta’s tech sector matures, rate of new startups is slowing

Some of the province’s strategy around the tech sector was revealed in its 2021 budget, which noted the government’s plan to adopt a “smart approach” to innovation in order to make Alberta an attractive and competitive landscape for global tech investment.

Key highlights from that budget included increasing Alberta Innovates’ operating expenses to $15 million this year, earmarking $166 million for its Innovation Employment Grant, and targeting the creation of 900 new tech companies and 20,000 new jobs by 2030.

Another way the Alberta government is hoping to support its innovation sector is through post-secondary institutions. This week, the government published its Alberta 2030 skills report, a 10-year strategy focused on post-secondary education. One of the key components of the strategy is to create an intellectual property (IP) framework for Alberta. The government appears to be following in the footsteps of Ontario, which revealed plans to create an IP framework of its own last summer.

“Intellectual property is among the most important assets in the knowledge-based economy, and fostering strong linkages between our world-class research institutions and innovative companies is important for ensuring that ideas and technologies developed in Alberta turn into intellectual property that benefits the Alberta economy,” commented Bronte Valk, practice lead for Alberta at the Council of Canadian Innovators.

Earlier this month, Alberta Innovates, the crown corporation for the Government of Alberta that promotes innovation in the province issued a request for proposals for the development of new business and technology accelerators in the region, in a move to usher more early-stage support into the province. Schweitzer said the province intends for this to be an open process, noting that the RFP could lead to an expansion of what Alberta has at the local level when it comes to accelerators, or it could mean bringing in national or international organizations.

Schweitzer said his priority going forward will be to help Alberta become a dominant player in Canada and ensure a smooth economic recovery for the province. He called the Alberta tech sector a “huge part” of his strategy.

Image source Marie Armstrong via Wikimedia Commons

Isabelle Kirkwood

Isabelle Kirkwood

Isabelle is a Vancouver-based writer with 5+ years of experience in communications and journalism and a lifelong passion for telling stories. For over two years, she has reported on all sides of the Canadian startup ecosystem, from landmark venture deals to public policy, telling the stories of the founders putting Canadian tech on the map.

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