Before we had unicorns, like Benevity, Shareworks, or Enverus, we were forging our place as a city that transforms our greatest challenges into unprecedented opportunities. In 1908 Charles Mair wrote about our oil sands: “When the hour of development comes, it will prove to be one of the wonders of northern Canada.”
Fast forward to 1967 and production begins with the Great Canadian Oil Sands project – known today as Suncor. We saw an opportunity, quite literally mixed in with the challenges of how to separate our bitumen from sand and water. And we invented an industry.
Last week, the Calgary Chamber of Commerce – alongside a delegation of over 70 Calgary-based businesses – showed up in force at Canada’s largest tech conference, Collision, in Toronto. With us, we brought our old playbook – innovating our way from challenge to opportunity – this time with businesses innovating across sectors from manufacturing and supply chains, to fintech and agtech.
Collision hosted more than 35,000 attendees from 130 countries. Entrepreneurs, start-ups, investors, government officials, students, and business leaders – all engaged in conversations on evolving technology, the trajectory of AI and machine learning, the potential of blockchain, and the future of local, national, and global economies shaped by industries anchored in technology.
One message that reverberated clearly at the conference: Calgary’s tech sector is thriving. But to keep the momentum going – and to let the country and the world know what’s happening here, we need to keep talking – beyond the corridors of tech conferences, and outside Alberta’s borders.
Calgary – often deemed synonymous with energy – hasn’t historically been associated with the tech sector, and our sizeable presence at Collision took many by surprise. Yet as a city, we showed up. We showed up excited to collaborate, build networks, and paint a picture of a flourishing tech ecosystem in Calgary.
But for the start-ups and well-established players in tech, this isn’t new news – Calgary has always been there. The difference this time around was that people took notice. The passion and excitement of Calgary-based businesses stood out in the crowd and drew people in, with everyone asking the same question:
“Why do I keep hearing so much buzz about Calgary’s tech community?”
To those in Calgary, the answer is obvious. The same week as Collision, Calgary ranked as the third most liveable city in the world. In fact, Calgary consistently scores exceptionally well in quality-of-life surveys, in areas like cost of living, affordable office space, education, and recreation opportunities. We’ve figured out a winning formula for live, work, and play.
The story of Calgary has never been a hard sell to Calgarians. Outside our city, however, we’re just getting started.
How we got here
The tech ecosystem in Calgary didn’t happen by accident. Though we might not think of it this way now, technology fortified the development of Alberta’s energy sector with the birth of new bitumen extraction methods. So as a city, we’ve been inventing, innovating, and advancing our way to economic prosperity for decades, building our tech sector as we go. We just haven’t been overly boisterous about it. Yet, there’s been a lot to boast about.
SMART Technologies – for example – was founded in 1987 in Calgary with the creation of the interactive whiteboard. In 2010 it completed a $660.1M initial public offering – marking the largest public offering of technology shares in Canada in a decade. Since then, companies like Attabotics, AltaML, and Goodlawyer have arrived on the scene – and while they might not be household names, they are making a splash across the country.
Currently, Calgary is home to more than 950 successful tech companies, and we continue to see more joining the ecosystem each month. Last quarter Calgary saw its highest level of investment and deals closed on record, with 19 deals totalling $433M – the lion’s share of which were grounded in tech.
Wins were earned through hard work, entrepreneurship, and resilience, along with foundational elements necessary to see a fledgling sector mature:
We’re good - but not perfect. And while we have had success, there is still more work that needs to be done. For example, Calgary still lags other regions in tech jobs and companies on a per capita basis. But the great thing about Calgary? We’re always focusing on what we can do better – and we’ve never shied away from hard work. At Collision we learned what other cities are doing, how Calgary can aspire to be better, and how we can separate ourselves from the pack. Looking ahead we need to focus on:
Collaborating with public, private, and non-profit business champions to sell our story beyond Calgary
Doubling down on attracting investment to Calgary
Investing in our downtown and public spaces to enhance vibrancy, including office spaces
Being a place where start-ups can scale-up, and then bring their innovations to the world
Ensuring regulations, at all levels of government, allow and promote innovation
Investing in education, at all levels, to ensure we meet the talent needs of today and tomorrow
As Calgarians, we find solutions to problems. And once the problems have been solved, we don’t stop there, we continue innovating and improving upon our success to advance ourselves further. Look back to the original drilling rigs of the 1900s, made of wood, ropes, and pulleys – they look strikingly different than the towering, automated, steel rigs of today. And it was innovation that got us there.
The tech sector is a key pillar of our economy, driving growth across all sectors and helping make other industries more productive. Calgary’s existing industries based in energy, agriculture, telecommunications, aviation, and manufacturing, have all helped propel our tech industry further. At Collision, we showed the world Calgary is ready lead the way in tech. We showed innovation is the lifeblood of Calgarians. So, lets maintain that momentum as the place where tech thrives.