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Author: Sherri Bouslama

Alberta – lowest corporate tax rate in Canada

The Alberta government has announced a Job Creation Tax Cut aimed at making Alberta a magnet for new business investment. This corporate tax cut will bring the provincial corporate tax down to 8% which is the lowest tax rate in Canada by far. British Columbia’s corporate tax rate, at 12%, is 50% higher than Alberta’s. 

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This announcement makes the Edmonton Metropolitan Region one of the most attractive regions in North America for employers to locate. It sends a clear message to international investors that Alberta is serious about being the most competitive jurisdiction to invest and do business in as our economy recovers from the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. The new corporate tax rate also means that Alberta will have the 7th lowest corporate tax rate when compared to the American States.  

This announcement was part of the provincial government’s Alberta Economic Recovery Plan announced on June 29, 2020. The initiatives announced also include a focus on the technology and innovation sectors which are primed for growth in our region.  

“We applaud the Government of Alberta on its technology and innovation focus which will help to position Alberta not only for recovery but increased competitiveness as a location for innovative companies and entrepreneurs,” said Adam Legge, President of the Business Council of Alberta in a statement following the Provincial announcement. “This is about building on Alberta’s natural strengths, and also accelerating diversification of the economy by support start-ups, technology, and innovation”. 

The tech industry has the ability to help all our key sectors rise. From life sciences and manufacturing to energy and agriculture, a focus on technology innovation will lay a framework that industry can use to scale up.  

U of A researcher to test whether COVID-19 antibodies provide long-term immunity

A study analyzing thousands of blood samples to determine whether having COVID-19 antibodies confers long-term immunity is one of 13 U of A research projects sharing $11.3 million in new federal funding for a rapid response to the pandemic. (Photo: Getty Images)

Study among 13 U of A projects receiving $11.3 million in federal funding for rapid research response to pandemic.

It’s not clear whether people who have recovered from COVID-19 are immune to the coronavirus that causes it, but a new research project at the University of Alberta will examine whether the antibodies their immune system produced to fight off the disease provides them with long-term immunity.

“There is some evidence from the literature that immunity is probably happening and we know now that this is probably reducing viral loads in individuals who are infected,” said Steven Drews, a microbiologist in the U of A’s Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology

“But we really don’t have a good sense of what the presence of just having antibodies means and what levels of antibodies we need to be protected.”

To gain some insight into immunity levels of resolved COVID-19 infections, Drews will lead a team in a year-long study analyzing thousands of leftover blood samples from Canadian Blood Services donors looking for the presence of COVID-19 antibodies, and then analyzing antibody concentrations and how effective the antibodies are in preventing this specific coronavirus from infecting a host cell.

It’s one of 13 research projects for which U of A researchers received $11.3 million in funding from the third round of the federal government’s Rapid Research Funding Opportunity created to aid in the battle against COVID-19. Through three rounds of funding, 24 U of A research projects received $17.2 million in grants.

“Once you’ve been infected, you can’t stop that, but having enough pre-existing antibodies could blunt that infection and reduce your chances of having a severe disease or reduce the chance of having the virus, for example, move deeper into your respiratory tract,” explained Drews, who is also associate director of microbiology at Canadian Blood Services.

He said the body’s immune response to viruses is immensely complex. There are people who could have antibodies to the virus that still won’t neutralize the virus. Others will have a good neutralizing response. Some people may generate antibodies to different antigens on the virus. Then there are some individuals who become infected and will mount a cell-based defence.

“There’s a variety of immune responses that are probably happening when people become infected,” said Drews.

“Maybe there’s a special antibody out there that, although it might not be at a high level, could act as a neutralizing antibody and you need a more sensitive system to measure that.”

While Drews doesn’t necessarily think a therapeutic will emerge from the research, understanding what immunity looks like at a population level and how it holds up over time will help researchers develop better, more efficient tests and refine estimates of immunity in the population, which is fundamental to formulating public health policy.

“We will then pull in our epidemiologists, led by Dr. Sheila O’Brien at Canadian Blood Services, to help understand whether there are different regions in Canada that have different exposure levels, and maybe those populations, because they were impacted at different times, have different antibody responses,” said Drews.

“This work will potentially guide our way forward if there are future waves in the pandemic, and possibly how to adjust for policy decisions and help educate the public about what these immune responses really mean.”

Third round of CIHR grant recipients from the U of A

Steven Drews, Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry
Population-based seroprevalence of prior infection with COVID-19 in Canada: implications for testing, economic revitalization and population health.
$1 million

Joanne Lemieux, Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry
Optimizing polar, small inhibitors of a viral cysteine protease to identify a lead for an oral COVID-19 treatment

John Lewis, Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry
Rapid prototyping and deployment of a therapeutic pan-coronavirus fusogenix DNA vaccine engineered to eliminate ADE
$4.23 million

Shannon MacDonald, Faculty of Nursing
Vaccination in a pandemic: The impact on routine vaccinations and future COVID-19 vaccine acceptance

David Marchant, Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry
Broad-spectrum antiviral nasal spray to prevent and treat infection by SARS-CoV2 and seasonal respiratory viruses in high-risk patients and health-care providers

Katerina Maximova, School of Public Health
Weathering adversity: Toward mitigating the impact of prolonged school closure and social isolation on mental health and lifestyle behaviours of elementary school children

Patrick McLane, Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry
Equity in emergency department utilization in Alberta for priority populations during the COVID-19 pandemic: Exploring impacts of changes to health care and health-care utilization through administrative data analysis and nominal group techniques

Candice Nykiforuk, School of Public Health
Public health response to COVID-19: Addressing financial strain-related health impacts of the pandemic

Xiaoli Pang, Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry
Detection and quantitation of SARS-CoV-2 in wastewater to conduct surveillance on burden of community infection, identify outbreaks and support public health decision-making on control measures for transmission of COVID-19

Ian Paterson, Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry
MOIST study: Multi-organ imaging with serial testing in COVID-19 infected patients

Sangita Sharma, Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry
Capturing the anticipated/unanticipated consequences of COVID-19 and prevention, management, and treatment strategies among Indigenous peoples in Arctic communities
$1.52 million

Lorne Tyrrell, Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry
Characterization of interferon-lambda 1 as a treatment for COVID-19

Lorne Tyrrell, Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry
Advancing a potent inhibitor of SARS-CoV-2 3CL protease into clinical trials

Alberta built an artificial intelligence powerhouse. What’s next?

Illustration by Mike Kendrick

Just off Highway 60, a short jaunt south of Devon, sits one of the most celebrated pieces of industrial equipment in the country. 

The collection of steel lattices has a name: Leduc #1, the derrick that struck oil south of Edmonton more than 70 years ago. On a cold February evening in 1947, the tower ushered a new industry into Alberta with a belch of flame and a column of thick smoke and transformed the province’s identity. It’s been dismantled, restored and dismantled again before finally ending up at its current home in a museum for the energy industry.

Half a century later, in the early 2000s, Alberta was changing again. This time, there wasn’t any smoke or fire to announce the shift. Instead, it was happening in the halls of the province’s legislature and the labs in its universities. Quiet investments were being made that would turn Alberta into a beacon for some of the top minds in artificial intelligence and machine learning. 

There aren’t any museums or eye-catching steel towers that mark the birth of the artificial intelligence sector in Alberta. But the province has something much more important: a head-start in a sector that is quickly becoming a worldwide obsession. 

“There is a pipeline of talent that exists in Alberta right now, because of that early investment,” says Cory Janssen, the founder of AltaML

The company aims to commercialize the pioneering work done by AI and machine learning researchers in Alberta, translating it into something that can aid industry in the province. 

Twenty years ago, artificial intelligence was the farthest thing from a sure bet. Save for a few researchers who were pushing the boundaries of how machines “think,” most people saw it as the stuff of sci-fi.

But some could see what it was going to become. In 2000, the Alberta government set aside a $500 million endowment to create the Alberta Ingenuity Fund (also known as the Alberta Heritage Foundation for Science and Engineering Research).

One of its early programs was a competition to establish research groups for promising scientific fields. Among those created was what would become the Alberta Innovates Centre for Machine Learning, later the Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute (Amii). 

The research group had an audacious goal: to attract and recruit some of the world’s top AI researchers to work at its universities. 

“Back in 2002, very few people were really considering artificial intelligence and machine learning to be important areas [of research],” says Kirk Rockwell, current COO of Amii. “That’s what really gave us the advantage. 

And then over the next 16 or 17 years, that funding continued to flow to the university to create this world-class research centre.”

Rockwell says that one of the vital decisions Alberta made was to put up the resources to support high-quality research. It’s an expensive endeavour, but it has a multiplying effect. The promise attracted some of the pioneering researchers of the day. 

In machine intelligence, like other research-heavy fields, talent attracts talent. For many, the question of where they will end up working is heavily influenced by who they will be working with. Alberta’s initial investment started a snowball effect, drawing more talent to the province. 

Not only that, but it kept them from being lured off when competing organizations with deep pockets came calling.

“There was enough going on that when people came knocking on the door to poach them for Silicon Valley or Google, there was enough to say ‘no, I’ve got world-class peers here, I’m going to stay,’” he says.

Richard S. Sutton was one of those early researchers to bring his work to Alberta. The pioneering machine-intelligence researcher had spent two decades working in artificial intelligence and reinforcement learning at centres in Massachusetts and New Jersey. In 2003, he headed north to work at the University of Alberta.

“I came to Edmonton because of the three P’s,” he says. “The people, the position and the politics.”

The politics referred to his growing unease with the direction that the United States was going under then-President George W. Bush. Most interest in AI research in the country was geared towards military applications (a trend that continues to this day), which didn’t interest Sutton. That, combined with the promise of a role where he could explore his interests and talented peers to work it, lured him north. 

“They made some big hires here. The province had a lot of foresight to invest in [machine intelligence]. Gradually AI became popular, and now it is very popular,” he said. 

As that popularity grew, others began to see the value in Alberta’s artificial intelligence hub. The federal government began to provide investment in the province, as well as in Canada’s two other major AI centres in Montreal and Toronto. 

But in those early days, Rockwell says the funding that came through Alberta Innovates was instrumental.

“Before the federal government began contributing significantly in this space … Alberta Innovates offered $40 million in funding,” he says. 

“I can’t say it wouldn’t have happened without it. But it wouldn’t look like it does now, no way. We wouldn’t be this far along, we wouldn’t have been able to keep the people we have.”

Alberta Innovates is still a major contributor to Amii’s funding.  But in an era of belt-tightening and so many different demands on provincial coffers, there’s worry about what future support will look like. 

The province’s AI industry also faces a unique challenge: it’s not really an industry. At least, not in the traditional sense.

AI’s greatest impact isn’t creating things on its own. It doesn’t build mines and factories. It doesn’t fill up warehouses and train cars with products, not directly.  It does its best work in the background, making incremental changes that buoy other sectors of the economy. Right now, Rockwell points to things like using AI to identify options for preventative maintenance to save costs, or reducing emissions and energy use in industry. Other times, it can be about making scheduling work shifts more effective or anticipating the number of healthcare workers needed during a certain period.

The agriculture sector is also poised to benefit from AI advances. Even as global food demand increases, farmers across Canada are seeing shortages in two of their most important resources — labour and farmland. Smart farms, like the one set up at Olds College, allow researchers to literally field test technologies like automated soil monitoring and data-gathering combines with the goal of higher yields. 

“We are trying to lift our entire economy, not just create a sector,” Rockwell says. 

“What we’re not trying to do is replace anything. We’re not saying that everyone who works in the oil sector will be working at Facebook. We’re not trying to put oil and gas out of business. In fact, our goals are aligned.”

It’s effective. But often invisible. And for the people working in the sector, they worry it might not be clear to governments and businesses how important it is. 

“With an oil and gas company, you can see when they build a huge facility. Or even something like Shopify, which is creating thousands of jobs. You can see that. We don’t have our own Shopify, not yet,” says Janssen.

“That doesn’t mean it isn’t there. It’s the food courts in downtown Calgary and Edmonton, which are full of young workers, people who are buying houses and getting mortgages. We are in that awkward phase that you can’t see it yet.”

To grow out of that awkward invisible stage, Alberta’s AI industry needs a healthy balance between research and application.

When all the pieces are in place, both of those sides fuel the other. Researchers find breakthroughs, which companies find real-world applications for. The profit from that allows those companies to expand and reinvest in research, attracting new talent and leading to further discoveries.

“Right now, we’ve got the scientific side in pretty good shape,” Sutton says. “Now, we need to build up the applied side.”

He says Amii has an important role to play in encouraging more real-world AI use. The organization offers a range of advisement, training and talent acquisition services to empower AI adoption across economic sectors. But a lot of it also needs to come from outside the organization, both from new companies and long-established players. 

So far, many traditional industries have been hesitant to adopt new AI. Embracing machine intelligence is a risk, just like any other major change. And many private industries in Canada don’t see the benefit in taking a risk when the more traditional methods are still working. 

The same goes for finding private investment in AI. With its impacts not always being as visible as other new technologies, it can be hard to understand how much potential artificial intelligence holds.

Sutton says that hesitation is understandable. But it is also a mistake. Work must be done to keep hold of the advantage that Alberta has been quietly building for the past two decades.

“If we wait, we will by necessity fail. We will lose that efficiency we have now,” he argues.

“I think as Canadians, we can be humble. But we can also be very ambitious. We need to find a mix of the ambition and the humility. And right now, is the time to be ambitious.”

AltaML’s Cory Janseen agrees. He argues that Alberta gained a great headstart with its early investments. But things have changed over the past 20 years; the rest of the world has “woken up” to the economic and social benefits that machine intelligence can promise. 

Countries like China and the United States are now putting big money behind their AI industries. While they might be joining later, he says they are quickly catching up. Public funding, in addition to private investment, is still vital, he argues.

“Let me use this analogy: let’s say that there is a factory that produces the most desirable product in the world — I think it is fair to say that’s what AI is, or will be,” he says.

“Say this factory takes a billion dollars and five to 10 years to build. There are maybe 10 of these factories in the world and Alberta has one of them.  [Other countries] are out there and they’re just starting to build their factories. China, the United States are building them. 

We already have that factory and we’re not even doing the maintenance on it. We’re not even slapping a coat of paint on it.”

Edmonton’s Future

New Regional Development Agency Challenges Edmonton businesses to act globally

If you want to know the future of Edmonton’s economy, a good place to start is with a question: What challenges does the world face and what does the Edmonton region have to offer as solutions?

Emerging markets need food for their burgeoning populations and energy to power their economic growth. The Edmonton Metropolitan Region and the rest of Western Canada produce food and energy in abundance.

Healthcare providers around the world need to find more cost-effective ways to care for aging populations while also providing better preventive health outcomes for the young. Leading innovators such as the pediatric surgeons at the U of A Stollery Children’s Hospital are collaborating to bring forth innovative — and scalable — new strategies in healthcare.

Economies around the world need to confront slowing growth and productivity. The region’s tech researchers and entrepreneurs are among those leading the way in bringing to market powerful new technologies such as machine learning and the internet of things.

“We have a great story to tell, but we don’t sell ourselves well enough,” says Malcolm Bruce, a retired senior military officer who is the CEO of Edmonton Global.

With a blue-chip board and staff with broad international connections, Edmonton Global works for the region’s 15 municipalities and in partnership with more than a dozen economic development agencies and educational institutions to help push the message out to the world.

Edmonton Global represents 15 regional municipalities

Take for instance the region’s petrochemical industry. “We already have the largest petrochemical cluster in Canada with $40 billion in infrastructure and the potential for another $30 billion investment over the next 10 years,” says Bruce.

This isn’t pie in the sky stuff. Two polypropylene plants currently under construction are worth a combined $8 billion and they are prime examples of what people in Bruce’s business mean when they speak of “adding value” locally to Alberta’s resources. It means getting all the parts of the economy to work together, in this case turning petroleum byproducts such as propane into more valuable products.

Once those big plants begin producing millions of tonnes a year of plastic, the next step up this “value chain” is to upgrade plastic pellets into marketable materials, such as the clear wrap used to keep food fresh. Montreal-based Polykar is building a $30 million plant to produce packaging materials in the Discovery Business Park north of Edmonton International Airport. The company is one of several manufacturers investing in the regional value chain.

Amir Karim, President & CEO, Polykar Inc.

We aren’t done yet. We can apply the same idea to agriculture and upgrade Western farm commodities to higher-value products. How about a packaging plant to serve agri-food businesses in the area? Or a pulse fractionator to extract proteins from crops grown in Alberta? These things are coming.

Don’t forget, Bruce adds, the “incredible innovation” that will make the region’s new petrochemical facilities cleaner and more efficient. Green tech and skills developed locally will likely find markets around the world. As that happens, it will signal a major cultural shift for Alberta business.

If you exclude raw commodities, “Up to five years ago, 80 per cent of everything that was built or serviced in Alberta was consumed in Alberta,” Bruce says.

“This regional culture of export, getting out in the global world is not something most businesses had to think about. We’re harnessing all the partners in the region to help us identify companies that are ready for export.”

To attract more foreign direct investment, Edmonton Global has two priorities. One is to find opportunities to grow existing industries in which the region has an advantage, such as energy and agriculture.

Another is to position the region on the ground floor of emerging technologies.

Good things happen when you put the two together: applying technology to make industries cleaner and more productive. He cites numerous examples. Robots developed in Edmonton take people out of hazardous, menial jobs such as cleaning gunk out of petrochemical holding tanks. Drones help to keep airports safe and secure. Technological curiosities of a few years ago, such as 3D printing, are being put to work in Edmonton’s metal fabrication shops. Work done in Edmonton labs in the reinforced learning branch of artificial intelligence will help lead the way to autonomous vehicles and many other uses. Local startup AltaML is working with some of Edmonton’s largest companies to develop machine learning applications in healthcare, finance and other industries that will find markets all around the world.

In agriculture, the expanded Alberta agri-food incubator at Leduc is the largest lab of its kind in North America. It is helping to bring nutritious new products to market and finding ways to extract valuable proteins from pulses and other crops. An R&D lab in Morinville employs PhDs to develop premium products for Champion Pet Foods, a billion-dollar company that is building new production lines in the Edmonton region and Kentucky. By focusing on health-conscious consumers, The Little Potato Co. has grown sales to more than $200 million a year, boosting efficiency by selling production waste to a mushroom grower and a craft distiller.

Edmonton Global, which got up and running last year after a couple years of planning, is supported by the 15 communities of the Edmonton Metropolitan Region. While it was developing its business plan, it did a benchmark study with the Conference Board of Canada that compared Edmonton among 22 global cities.

Bruce describes the survey results as “good news, bad news.”

Most respondents were neither negative nor positive. A few thought the region is in the energy business, is remote and disconnected and that it’s cold in the winter.

“The bad news is they don’t think about us, but the good news is we don’t have to change the narrative because they don’t have a narrative anyway.”

Bruce dismisses the perception that the region is disconnected with the world. The reality is that Canada is a major trading partner with global business connections.

“We’ve got a trade agreement with every other G7 nation and we can trade with 1.5 billion people through these agreements,” he points out. “Canada can do a better job to harness those trade agreements and fully exploit them.”

Alberta and Canada maintain official trade presences worldwide backed by export and development banks. Individual Edmontonians have business and professional networks worldwide. Bruce wants them to be on the hunt for new opportunities as they travel the world.

“Our goal now is to weaponize everybody as an ambassador for the region.”


Concordia University of Edmonton and Adventus LifeFoods Inc. announce new residency through BMO-CIAR

Concordia University of Edmonton (CUE) is proud to announce a new residency with Adventus LifeFood Inc. (Adventus) within the BMO Centre for Innovation and Research (BMO-CIAR).

Adventus is joining the BMO-CIAR as the first resident in its state-of-the-art lab, working to develop premium quality multi-functional health food ingredients, nutraceuticals, and a range of natural health products. Through this residency, CUE and the BMO-CIAR will be providing resources, support, and opportunities for Adventus to take the next steps towards commercializing products.

“The BMO-CIAR was designed to be a place for industry and academia to come together and discover what is possible when we work together,” said Dr. Manfred Zeuch, Vice-President External Affairs and International Relations at CUE. “Our doors are open. We are excited to welcome Adventus, and look forward to supporting other local innovators seeking to develop world-class products and services.”

The BMO-CIAR strives to advance industry and community interests by building and strengthening connections between CUE and external partners to turn knowledge and ideas into solutions. From research commercialization to intellectual property protection and business incubation, the BMO-CIAR offers businesses of all sizes opportunities to scale up and drive innovation.  

“Working with CUE and the BMO-CIAR gives us the opportunity to do research, explore market opportunities, and commercialize products that have the potential to change lives,” said Dr. Hassan Qureshi, Co-founder and Chief Scientific Officer at Adventus. “We know there is a demand for the kind of health products we are seeking to produce to combat lifestyle diseases like obesity and type 2 diabetes, and we are looking forward to accelerating our development through this residency.”

As a resident at the BMO-CIAR, Adventus will have access to laboratory infrastructure, business development support, and mentorship, as well as opportunities to connect with CUE researchers and partners.

“We believe Alberta is the best place to start and grow a business,” said Dr. Zeuch. “We are proud to be part of our province’s innovation ecosystem, and are looking forward to continuing to collaborate with entrepreneurs, businesses, and industry stakeholders to turn ideas into global success stories.”

Covid-19 sparks growth for Edmonton education tech firm

More than 3 million teachers in 136 countries are finding the Showbie products invaluable in their shift to online learning 

In 2012 Edmontonian Colin Bramm was working on providing pragmatic solutions to problems that existed around implementing technology in the classroom when he appeared on the radar of an Apple executive.  

At that time, schools were just starting to introduce the use of iPads into their classrooms and Colin saw some of the unique opportunities and challenges that existed around these new technologies. 

Allan Gauld was an account executive with Apple at the time and was actively promoting Apple products to schools in Alberta. 

“One of the goals that I had in respect to my role with Apple, was to bring a global perspective to the Alberta education system to drive interst and adoption for new Apple products in the region,” says Allan. “As we became more deeply engaged with the Alberta education system, we learned about the incredibly innovative things they were already doing. There was a real sense of forward-thinking, centred around the idea of, ‘What does an educated Albertan look like in 2030?’ It was inspiring. And I kept hearing from thought leaders about this group who were working out of the Alberta Research Park in Edmonton. I wanted to understand what they were doing.”

That group was Colin and his team, who were developing an app called Showbie.  

The introduction of iPads into the classroom meant that students were able to produce all sorts of creative materials but there was no integrated process for sharing that content with their teachers at that time. Colin and his team developed an education workflow app that allowed students to share their materials and allowed educators the ability to provide rich feedback on that work.

“People forget what those first generation iPads were like,” says Allan. “The technology has come such a long way. In those early days, some people had a hard time understanding where the iPad would fit and were even unsure if the product would be successful. The ability of Colin to be forward thinking enough to recognize the potential that these technologies had for learners, to see where the gaps existed, and to create solutions to address these gaps really demonstrates how the Showbie team has always been forward-thinking.”

Bringing a made-in-Alberta vision to the world

Allan was impressed with the work that Colin and his team were doing and recognized a shared vision with what Apple was working towards when it came to integrating technology into the classroom. 

“He [Allan] told me that this was an app that all educators introducing the use of iPads into their classroom would need,” explains Colin. “He invited me to visit Apple headquarters in Cupertino.” 

This was instrumental in expanding Colin’s network and it didn’t take long until Showbie was selected to participate in Imagine K12, a Silicon Valley start-up accelerator focused on education technology. 

Colin spent the better part of a year in California working with the accelerator and credits this program with helping to build their initial success.

Once Colin was back in the Edmonton region, he received support from members of the A100, which helped Showbie acquire seed funding and move forward with product development and sales.

Since then, the organization has grown organically across the world as teachers adopted the app’s free version leading to school administrations eventually purchasing licenses so that their staff would be able to access the enhanced features. 

In July 2018, the company acquired Socrative, an app that allows teachers to deploy real-time quizzes. Together, Showbie and Socrative create a complementary set of assessment and feedback tools for educators and that have been proven to be critical as classrooms all over the world have shifted to an online format due to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Screenshot of feedback capabilities of Showbie app

Why the Edmonton Metropolitan Region?

When asked why he chose to return to the Edmonton region to continue to grow his business, Colin credits the supportive community and quality of life that exists here. 

“It’s a region where you have everything that larger communities like Toronto or Vancouver have, but the cost of living makes it so attractive. This is extremely helpful in attracting and retaining talent,” says Colin. “And from a business cost perspective, it’s more affordable. Especially when we compare ourselves to the US where health insurance costs for businesses are so high.”

How the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated growth

“There are not a lot of businesses right now that would say that the pandemic helped to shift the market in their favour,” says Colin. ”But that is exactly what has happened for Showbie. Since the global shift to online classrooms, we’ve seen tremendous engagement from our teachers. This situation has allowed us to build an even more concrete presence internationally. We’ve been able to harness local talent and a network of big thinkers globally to act as our customer support network”.

This week, Showbie is launching video chat function to its enhanced features. 

Screenshot of Showbie video chat function

“We are always looking for ways to improve the tools that educators can use in the classroom,” says Colin. “Unlike applications like Microsoft Teams or the Google suite of applications, which were developed for a more corporate audience, our products have always been built with the school classroom in mind. We really consider the relationships that develop between a teacher and their students which can be undermined on an online platform. Our product allows teachers to give rich feedback to their students and this leads to better engagement and communication.”

As for Allan, he’s continued to keep an eye on what Colin and his team are doing as they’ve scaled their business and expanded their network to include a global community in the education space. 

“They’ve come a long way from where they started in 2012,” says Allan. “But I firmly believe that for Colin, the best is yet to come. He has the ability to build meaningful connections with people who share his vision and he’s successfully leveraged those relationships to build advocates for his product all over the globe.”

A Look at the Rise of Edmonton’s Gaming Industry

Illustration by Scott Carmichael

From BioWare to Improbable, Edmonton’s gaming industry has seen a lot of growth over the last decade.

When BioWare started making computer games in 1995, Greg Zeschuk was a newly practising doctor. He and his co-founders, Ray Muzyka and Augustine Yip, were on a shoestring budget, so, when it came to finding space to work, the trio took the most pragmatic approach — they set up shop in a cramped room in the basement of Zeschuk’s home.

“The ceilings were so low, Ray would hit his head on a regular basis,” laughs Zeschuk. “But we had space, and we had power, so we made it work.”

It was in that basement they started developing what would become their first game, Shattered Steel, which was created jointly with the Calgary-based Pyrotek Studios and released in 1996.

By that point, BioWare needed more room, so the company moved into the second floor of a building off 109th Street and 88th Avenue, out of which cycling company Redbike now operates on the ground level.

“It’s been renovated since, but at the time it was really run-down,” says Zeschuk, who now runs Blind Enthusiasm Brewing Company and Biera, both of which can be found in Ritchie Market, which he also owns. “There were only four plugs in the wall, so the power would go out all the time. There were about 20 of us at the time, and we all had to turn on our computers in a specific sequence to avoid blowing the circuit breaker for the whole building.”

After six months of frustration, BioWare moved to a location on Whyte Avenue for a few years, eventually landing in a building on Calgary Trail and 45th Avenue, where it remained for over 15 years. Over that time, it released some of the most successful games of all time, such as 1998’s Baldur’s Gate, a smash hit which was credited with saving the role-playing game genre, which later included BioWare games like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and, more recently, the Mass Effect and Dragon Age franchises.

Never did Zeschuk, who retired from the gaming industry at the end of 2012, think that the company he started out of his basement would one day occupy three stories in a downtown skyscraper.

Last fall, BioWare moved into a custom-built 75,000-square-foot space in the EPCOR Tower. Aside from the ability to comfortably house its existing 300 employees, the space will allow the company to continue to expand in the coming years.

Its amenities are abundant: In addition to the traditional features, the new office boasts audio recording rooms, an arcade, quiet rooms for employees to take breaks, and a motion-capture studio.

Gaming giant Electronic Arts purchased BioWare in 2007 in a whopping $860 million US deal, but BioWare has continued to operate in Edmonton since being acquired by the California-based superdeveloper, maintaining its roots in the community and its identity.

Although Zeschuk left BioWare almost eight years ago, he’s glad that the company has chosen to reinvest in Edmonton, and downtown in particular.

“I know someone who works at BioWare who decided with his wife to sell their house in Summerside and move downtown,” he says. “There’s a lifestyle factor involved that I think appeals to a lot of the employees who work at the company, and I think it will help them lure talent from elsewhere. It makes the prospect of moving to Edmonton a lot more attractive, especially to young professionals.”

But BioWare isn’t the only gaming company that has recently moved into a new office in town.

England-based technology startup Improbable opened a branch in Edmonton in the fall of 2018, led by Top 40 Under 40 alumnus Aaryn Flynn, former general manager at BioWare who worked at the company for 17 years. Over a third of Improbable Canada’s 70-plus staff is made up of former BioWare employees, and its office in the historic Metals Building is just a few blocks away from BioWare’s new space.

Improbable is known for its SpatialOS, a cloud platform for online games. It allows developers to leverage the cloud to help make their games run faster, look better and feel more realistic. Improbable’s Edmonton team is hard at work on a currently untitled role-playing game that utilizes the SpatialOS platform.

It was the creation of the Interactive Digital Media Tax Credit by the provincial government in 2018 — which offered a 25 per cent refundable tax credit for labour costs — that helped convince Improbable to open an office in Edmonton.

“The door really swung open for investment when the tax credit was brought in,” explains Flynn, who is now general manager, North America, at Improbable. “At the time I was looking to start my own studio here in Edmonton, and Improbable got really excited about the prospect of creating their own games. I was really impressed with their technology, so we were able to come together and start a team here.”

According to Flynn, there are a number of factors that make Edmonton a desirable location for game developers to plant their flags — like the post-secondary institutions that provide new grads, and the city’s multicultural scene. As of 2019, Edmonton was tied with Winnipeg for fourth place among Canadian cities for the most video game companies, following much larger scenes in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, according to Entertainment Software Association of Canada (ESAC).

There are currently 55 companies involved in the gaming industry in Alberta.

“There’s a lot of talent in this city, both technical and creative,” he says. “And there are also favourable economics, like a reasonable cost of living compared to a city like Vancouver or Toronto. Not to mention Edmonton’s revitalized downtown, where a lot of the people who have joined our company from out of town have settled.”

The growth of Edmonton’s gaming industry over the last decade is part of a larger national trend. According to a Nordicity analysis of the Canadian video game industry from 2017, more than 40,000 people were employed on a full-time basis in the video game industry in 2017, up 11 per cent from 2015. In 2017, the video game industry contributed more than $2 billion to Canada’s GDP, as reported by Nordicity.

To help incubate this growth, Alberta’s NDP introduced the digital media tax credit in 2018, but, after just a year, the UCP ended the program, much to the outspoken frustration of companies in the industry.

With the removal of the tax credit, there are fears the Alberta scene might stagnate compared to other provinces, like British Columbia and Ontario, where tax credits and other incentives still exist.

“It was super disappointing to see the tax credit discontinued,” says Flynn. “When you look at the level playing field it made for our business and many other businesses in Edmonton, it made a lot of sense. I think its removal means that we’re less likely to be on any game development or any other creative endeavour’s radar for growth. The business case for growth has become that much more difficult when you can receive great support in other provinces.

“But we’ve got a great blueprint here, we’re happy with the team we’ve assembled, and we’re excited about what we’re building. We’re just one part of a community that together is building a new culture in Edmonton. It’s satisfying that other people are starting to see what I’ve seen in Edmonton for the past 30 years.”

Token Bitters is scaling up and building international export opportunities

Token Naturals is a cannabis company located in the Edmonton Metropolitan Region, focused on extraction and derivative products 

When Keenan Pascal and Jamie Shtay decided to found Token Naturals, a cannabis company focused on extraction and derivative products, they never imagined that they would also become the Edmonton Region’s first local bitters company. They certainly didn’t expect to have a reach that extends beyond the region both nationally and internationally and into markets as far off as Japan. However, that is exactly what they did.   

Initially, the pair was focused on developing their patented extraction process with help from the vast array of talent available from the oil and gas industry that exists in the Edmonton region. Once this was complete, the Token Naturals team found themselves in a bit of a holding period as they moved through the process of licensing phases to sell legal cannabis products with Health Canada. 

A new concept is born 

Keenan and Jamie already had strong ties to the restaurant and bar community in the region and with another founder’s background in chemical engineering and molecular science, an idea was hatched to develop a line of bitters from locally sourced ingredients and the concept behind Token Bitters was born.  

“The process for extraction to produce bitters is essentially the same as the technology we developed for our cannabis extraction business,” said Token Naturals CEO, Keenan Pascal. “We thought this would be a good way to test out and practice our process.” 

What began as a pet project, immediately garnered a positive response within the local region and in just 4 years Token Bitters has resulted in a product that is sold nationally across Canada, exported to Japan, at the precipice of export to Mexico and Europe and has a view to further expansion in international markets. 

Extending the reach of the Edmonton Metropolitan Region 

Each of Token Bitters products is named after beloved Edmonton landmarks. Strathcona Orange is named after the beloved historic neighbourhood, and Whyte Lavender takes its name from the location of co-founder Pascal’s first bartending job. 

Exporting these products is also sharing the stories of this region across the globe.  

Despite the success found in their bitters line, the Token team has not lost sight of the vision for their cannabis extraction business. 

Banking on the Edmonton Metropolitan Region for success 

Co-founder and CEO of Token Naturals, Keenan Pascal is an enthusiastic advocate for the Edmonton Metropolitan Region and what it has to offer. 

“The Edmonton Metropolitan Region has everything we need to build success for our organization,” says Pascal. “Here, we have access to a skilled, young, and eager workforce with plentiful experience in agriculture, manufacturing, and processing. The provincial and municipal governments in the region have traditionally included some of the most proactive and pro-business attitudes. For us, this has been the perfect culmination of the forces required to lead an industry. It’s my opinion that this is the best city to live in and the best city to work in.” 

The idea behind Token Naturals began in Vancouver, but when it came time to decide where the new organization would choose to invest, the founders decided that the Edmonton Metropolitan Region had what they needed to find success. 

Currently, Token Naturals is a late-stage Licensed Producer applicant with Health Canada. The organization recently began construction of an extraction facility that will have the capacity to process 65,000 kg of cannabis flower each year into extracted and derivative products like oils and edibles. The facility is set to open in August 2020. The completion of the refinery facility will allow Token to move forward with their Licensed Producer application from Conditional Approval to a Standard Processor license. 

“We wouldn’t be about to round this corner if not for the supportive environment that exists in the Edmonton region as well as the forward-thinking policies of the provincial and municipal governing bodies,” says Pascal. 

Alberta Shows Stunning Growth in 2019, Opportunity in 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic is an unprecedented event that has forced all businesses to re-evaluate their markets, risks, and priorities. In this time of volatility, predicting the future of venture capital is admittedly challenging. However, there are encouraging signs in the Alberta tech startup ecosystem that build on recent growth and successes in the province. Several startups are well-positioned to meet the current challenges head-on, while others are recalibrating to new metrics and constraints by pivoting to different models. We can find opportunities in crisis and see encouraging support through the establishment of new government programs and the emergence of new resources from all sides of Canadian tech. In this article, we turn our attention to the startups who are tenaciously striving toward new possibilities, as well as recognize some of the successes in Alberta over the past year.

Alberta Experiences Strong Start to 2020

Alberta Venture Capital investment in 2020 has kicked off to a rousing start with several notable financings, including Calgary-based Symend’s $73 million CAD ($52 million USD) Series B raise led by Inovia Capital’s Growth Fund. Symend is one of many Alberta companies scaling rapidly to serve those financially affected by the current situation through a customer engagement platform designed to better connect with financially at-risk customers. 

Alberta Enterprise portfolio fund companies Showbie, SAM and Dryrun, have experienced exponential growth during the COVID-19 situation. The simplicity of the Showbie and Socrative (acquired by Showbie) applications have shined as countries and education systems switched to distance learning, literally overnight. These technologies have allowed teachers to carry on with their virtual classrooms and have enabled students to learn from home – with Showbie seeing 6x teacher signups and Socrative signups exploding to 125,000 teachers over a one-month period.

Meanwhile SAM, a global disruption monitoring platform leveraging artificial intelligence to analyze social media and deliver relevant news to users, is helping teams make informed decisions with increased speed and accuracy to keep people safe when it matters most. Today, SAM is helping some of the world’s largest sectors stay one step ahead of the pandemic with crisis alerts that notify of new and emerging developments, such as lockdowns, closures, evacuations, and unexpected risks related to COVID-19. Record usage during this time has spurred SAM to raise $3.6M CAD in new funding to fuel growth. SAM is an Accelerate FundI company.

The economic challenges of COVID-19 have made cash flow modelling more essential than ever to inform decisions on managing operating costs, hiring or layoffs, and funding new projects. With so many possible scenarios for lifting of social distancing and available government relief, businesses are mapping multiple models for the months ahead. Dryrun’s flexible and highly visual cashflow modelling software saw a 1,300% increase in signups in recent weeks, with new customers coming from 31 different countries and across 70 different currencies! 

Further encouraging investment news is Alberta Enterprise’s launch of a third early-stage angel co-investment fund, Accelerate Fund III, with a $10 million investment. Accelerate Fund III will provide Alberta technology entrepreneurs with a continued source of startup capital. Fund III will be managed by Yaletown Partners with the support of The A100, the same investment team that oversaw Fund II. “We are excited to announce Accelerate Fund III, especially at such a moment of economic and global health uncertainty,” commented Kristina Williams, CEO of Alberta Enterprise Corporation. “The fund is a great early-stage capital resource for the rapidly-growing Alberta tech sector. With this latest deployment of capital, we invite early stage tech companies to stay and grow here, and to expand Alberta’s technology jobs and innovation.”

Alberta Reports Best Year on Record by 40%

After years of building a solid foundation, Alberta’s tech ecosystem is gathering meaningful momentum. 2019 was a record-breaking year for the province of Alberta, which posted a 10-year high of VC startup investment activity, with a total annual volume of $227 million spread across 39 deals. This was a 40% increase over the next closest year on record ($162 million in 2013) according to theCanadian Venture Capital Association (CVCA) 2019 Venture Capital Overview Report. 

 CVCA Venture Capital Overview Report 2019

  • Average deal size in Alberta was $5.8M, higher than the Canadian average of $5.6M when mega-deals were excluded (with Alberta average deal size increasing by 61% over last year’s $3.6M).  
  • Alberta Enterprise portfolio funds Inovia Capital and Panache Ventures were again identified among the most active funds in Canada in 2019 based on number of deals.

PwC MoneyTree Canada Report 2019

  • PwC/CB Insights MoneyTree Canada 2019 reported Calgary startups raised $117 million USD ($157 million CDN) in H2 2019, driven by both larger deal size and an increase in deal activity (which doubled!).
  • Unsurprisingly, the report found that early and seed-stage deals made up 50% of Calgary funding in H2 2019.

Highest Growth Rate: Total Deal Volume & Number of Deals 

Alberta also saw the highest 3-year average growth rate of total VC deal volume in Canada at 84%, when compared with the leading provinces of BC (71%), Ontario (18%) and Quebec (20%), even when mega-deals are included. In addition, Alberta had the highest growth rate for total number of deals, both in 2019 and across a 3-year average, across all Canadian provinces! (St. Johns Newfoundland-based startup Verafin’s $515M raise from September was excluded, as this deal was primarily private equity.)

For the first time ever, Calgary was included as a top 5 city for Canadian VC in 2019, being ranked fourth for total deal volume both in the CVCA 2019 Venture Capital Overview and PwC MoneyTree Reports for the full year 2019. This growth of both total deal volume and number of deals is a clear indication that Alberta’s early stage tech ecosystem is demonstrating maturation. 

Notable 2019 Alberta Investment Deals

  • Ambyint, Calgary/Houston – Provides step-change improvements to oil & gas production volumes and operating expenses with production optimization technology spanning all well types and artificial lift systems. Ambyint utilizes a combination of advanced physics, subject matter expertise, and artificial intelligence to enable full-field visibility, control, and optimization of wells. With deployments in all major North American basins, the company announced a $15 million USD ($19.9 million CDN) Series B funding round on February 4, 2020 led by Cottonwood Venture Partners with participation from Mercury Fund and Ambyint’s management team. Ambyint is a Builders VC investment. Builders VC is an Alberta Enterprise portfolio fund.
  • Communo, Calgary – Operator of North America’s fastest growing talent platform & community- intended to help advertising and digital agencies source talent based on a host of compatibility factors. Communo’s app-based marketplace provides small & large agency owners access to tens of thousands of vetted creative professionals, tens of millions of dollars of project-based work, and valuable training and professional development resources to help firms grow more profitably. In December 2019, Communo secured over $3.3 million in seed funding, bringing their total raised to $4.3M, including investment from notable investors Andrew Kortina – founder of Venmo, CEO of Complex Rich Antoniello, W. Brett Wilson, Kevin Weatherman, Frank Palmer, and ICM Asset Management (Alberta). Communo is a Panache Ventures investment. Panache Ventures is an Alberta Enterprise portfolio fund.
  • Decisive Farming, Irricana – An integrated digital farm management platform solution that connects farmers, farm service and technology providers in one collaborative software platform. The platform acts as the farmer’s primary operating system. It supports everything from planning & budgeting, variable rate fertilizer & seeding, agronomic soil testing, field & inventory management, weather, sensors and crop marketing. Decisive Farming is committed to increasing farmer profitability, sustainability and technology ease-of-use. The platform currently has over six million acres, being used on 40 different crop types in North America and the firm has strategic partnerships with leading distributors across the agriculture value chain.  The company was acquired for an undisclosed amount by TELUS on December 12, 2019. Decisive Farming is a McRock Capital and Accelerate Fund I (AFI) investment, both Alberta Enterprise funds.
  • Ingu Solutions, Calgary – Developer of miniaturized mobile sensors intended to provide oil and gas companies immediate and affordable access to pipeline assets. The company’s inline sensors detect leaks, geometric defects and deposits that threaten pipeline performance and safety with zero-downtime, enabling companies to eliminate human intervention, reduce inspection costs, strengthen preventive maintenance and lower repair and replacement expenditures. Ingu Solutions secured an undisclosed amount of growth capital from Energy Innovation Capital, Chevron Technology Ventures, Bluesky Equities and other investors November 5, 2019.
  • Osperity (formerly Osprey), Calgary – Developer of a cloud-based platform designed to offer intelligent visual monitoring services. The company’s platform detects important operational events, analyzes related images and video with advanced computer vision along with data from other sensors and systems, enabling organizations to remotely inspect facilities and equipment, monitor site activity, optimize labor productivity and ultimately increase and manage more assets with fewer people. The company secured a $6 million funding round from Evok Innovations, InterGen Capital, Shell Ventures and Texas Ventures, closing December 2019. Osperity is a Builders VC investment. Builders VC is an Alberta Enterprise portfolio fund.
  • ParkChamp, Calgary – Parking optimization software using intelligent software solutions that allows any property to offer secure public parking saving properties money and operation costs, secured undisclosed seed funding from Birchcliff Ventures Q4 2019.
  • Smart Access, Edmonton – Smart Access helps large retailers unlock operational efficiencies by empowering their frontline workers with the right information, at the right time, in the right place. On December 30, 2019, they secured $1.5 million CDN in seed funding from Accelerate Fund II, Panache Ventures, Sprout Fund, Birchcliff Partners, Bluesky Equities, and Hummer Winblad. Smart Access is an Accelerate Fund II and Panache Ventures investment. Both are Alberta Enterprise Portfolio Funds.
  • Veerum, Calgary – Developer of an industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) platform designed to increase capital project productivity. The company’s platform uses digital twin technology and artificial intelligence to create a virtual replica of a physical project or environment that can be used to simulate, operate, and analyze actual or planned operations, while also building a single source of project truth. Veerum secured $2.5 million USD in funding from Evok Innovations, Suncor, Cenovus, InterGen Capital, plus previous investors including Brick and Mortar Ventures, Blackhorn Ventures, Builders VC and Creative Ventures. Veerum is a Builders VC investment. Builders VC is an Alberta Enterprise Portfolio Fund.
  • Virtual Gurus, Calgary – Owner and operator of a virtual service company intended to offer a full range of administrative, receptionist, social media, bookkeeping, and web development services. The company raised $1.2 million CDN in seed funding from Calgary investment collective The51, Vancouver-based Raven Indigenous Capital Partners, and Ryan Lailey in February 2020.
  • ZeroKey, Calgary – Developer of VR technology product intended to revolutionize human interaction with machines. The company’s technology provides wide-area, continuous, real-time and ultra-high accuracy positioning within large spaces and buildings, enabling companies in the AR/VR, manufacturing, supply chain management and logistics industries to solve automation, process optimization, digitization and a wide array of other enterprise/industrial problems easily. ZeroKey secured $565,827 USD in convertible debt from undisclosed investors December 30, 2019.

How to Find Alberta Companies  

Start Alberta is a free and open source dealflow directory that provides an ideal medium for international investors to connect with Alberta entrepreneurs and identify investment opportunities. A strategic partnership between Start Alberta and Crunchbase expands Alberta’s richest database for the startup community – giving Alberta entrepreneurs even greater exposure to national and international investors. Under this partnership, Start Alberta’s database is directly linked to Crunchbase – which reaches over 55 million investment professionals worldwide. 

The Start Alberta platform is stewarded by the Venture Capital Association of Alberta (VCAA) and Platform Calgary, with the mandate to connect investors to a diverse pool of startups, fostering connections that otherwise could not be made.  

About Alberta Enterprise Corporation:

Alberta Enterprise Corporation promotes the development of Alberta’s venture capital industry by investing in venture capital funds that finance early-stage technology companies. We focus on funds that have a strong commitment to Alberta, including a full-time presence in the province. In addition to capital, we support Alberta’s venture capital ecosystem by connecting investors, entrepreneurs, and experienced technology executives who share our passion for building a bright, innovative Alberta.

Since our inception we have committed C$198 million for investment to sixteen VC funds and the Accelerate Funds I, II and III, covering a diverse range of forward-looking industries including information technology, industrial technology, and life sciences. Our funds and their partners have invested more than $550 million into Alberta technology companies.

Global Briefing: Economic impacts of COVID-19 on Business in the Edmonton Metropolitan Region

On Thursday, May 14, Edmonton Global hosted a briefing on the economic and business implications of the continued Covid-19 pandemic.

A video recording of the session is available below. Please contact us at info@edmontonglobal.ca if you have questions or would like to schedule a similar briefing for your organization.

During the briefing Lynette Tremblay, Vice President of Strategy and Innovation provided updates on the continued advocacy work that is being done on behalf of the Edmonton Metropolitan Region. She also presented an overview of the different approaches that countries are taking as they move towards reopening.

Tomas Nilsson, Director of Research and Marketing Intelligence gave an overview of how the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted the economic environment and business development efforts.

For additional information on the advocacy efforts of Edmonton Global on behalf of the region please see the white paper, Road to Recovery: Resiliency.

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