Calgary was recently applauded for having the most entrepreneurs per capita in Canada. And certainly, there appears to be no shortage of investors in this town looking to support new ventures. At least, this is what I witnessed at two very well-attended Innovate Calgary events during the past week: the 12th Annual Tech Showcase & Open House on October 27, and the first session of Innovate Calgary's Speaker Series, So You Want To Be a Tech Entrepreneur?, held at the University of Calgary on November 1.
Given all this, it seemed reasonable for me to assume that Calgary, if not Alberta as a whole, is one of the best places in the country to create a start-up company.
However, after speaking to some local tech innovators, I started to wonder if the opposite was true. "If you're not in oil and gas, you don't have a chance," complained one freelance engineer during the lunch leading up to the speaker series. He said he has been trying for years to get financial backing for a computer hardware product developed by his start-up, with little luck. "Investors here aren't interested in anything that doesn't involve pulling resources out of the ground, and the government isn't very interested either," he said.
And it seemed this view was shared to some extent by the So You Want To Be A Tech Entrepreneur? event speakers, who included:
- David Edmonds, Former CEO of Preo Software
- Dr. Naser El-Sheimy, CEO of Trusted Positioning (and recent winner of the ASTech Foundation award for Outstanding Leadership in Alberta Technology)
- Michael Sikorsky, CEO and Founder of Robots and Pencils
- Trevor Doerksen, CEO and Founder of Mobovivo
"The Alberta government needs to give high-tech companies the same tax incentive that it gives oil and gas," argued Edmonds. He cited British Columbia as an example of a province that offers tax credits for local innovation, which has helped spur successful new companies. "It's a win-win for the government, but for some reason, Alberta has been dragging its feet over providing such incentives."
El-Sheimy said he was fortunate to have access to university resources when his group in the Department of Geomatic Engineering at the University of Calgary created Trusted Positioning (which builds location and navigation technologies for mobile handsets and larger guidance applications). "We were able to draw support from the university and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council," he says. "Otherwise, I'm not sure what we would have done ' it's very difficult to raise money or get a start-up loan from a bank in Alberta."
The question of funding was on the tip of every attendee's tongue, as most were seeking advice on developing their own tech-based business. The main advice from panelists was to stick to old-fashioned networking. Edmonds said he was able to tap into a wide group of friends and colleagues to find the starting capital he needed for his software firm. "Everyone I meet is a potential friend, customer or investor, so I always have my pitch prepared," he advised.
Sikorsky spoke of the importance of overcoming any squeamishness you may feel about asking people for money (or asking them for more money, or asking their spouses for even more money, as Sikorsky routinely does).
But for those who are not natural "schmoozers", sweet-talking as a means to gain capital seems like a failed preposition from the get-go (as one self-proclaimed "geek" complained to me). And the doom-and-gloom talk about government support did not inspire much more confidence among the event attendees. However, noted Doerksen, there are still many funds and grants out there to support new businesses ' you just need to know where to look (and how to write an application).
For example, at the federal level, tech entrepreneurs can find funding or tax incentives from the National Research Council's Industrial Research Program, or Scientific Research & Experimental Development. The Business Development Bank of Canada offers financial and consulting services, and has recently set aside $200 million for loans to help entrepreneurs improve their information and communications technology (ICT). The Canadian Innovation Commercialization Program is also set to release a new round of funding worth $40 million to go towards innovation in the Environment, Health, Enabling Technologies, and Safety & Security sectors.
And for those who feel government's startup support system is lacking, there is a strong grassroots support community here in Calgary. For example, AcceleratorYYC just opened a new, entrepreneur-led co-work space aiming to help pre-launch and pre-product startups. And Startup Calgary will hold its second annual Launch Party (which gives 10 new tech companies a chance to pitch to a group of investors) on December 1.
Are there any other support networks I've missed? Do you think there is enough support available for new tech companies in Albera? We'd love to hear from any small businesses or prospective entrepreneurs about your experiences getting your ideas off the ground. What help did you receive? And what other assistance do you think Alberta — or Canada as a whole — should be providing?