There’s nothing quite like change to make us sit back and reflect on where we’ve been – and 2020 sure has brought its fair share of ups and downs.

One of my personal highlights was just yesterday, when I received the Rod Charko Service Award at the Start Alberta Tech Awards, from the VCAA (Venture Capital Association of Alberta). 

I’ve been actively working in our tech ecosystem for a decade (what!?!) – and that work began around the time Rod hired me at Alberta Enterprise (AEC). My job was to build a strong tech ecosystem and ensure investors were plugged in. I see so many of Rod’s ideas from 10 years ago in action – and delivering results – today. It was amazing to work alongside Rod and the AEC team, and so many other partners (too many to count) in this important work. It’s been so rewarding – and fun!

2020 has really got me thinking and reflecting… on what I’ve learned through our work here at 321, and where we need to go from here. Here’s a few insights to ponder…

Ecosystem building and investment growth have to go hand in hand

To build a thriving ecosystem that inspires entrepreneurship and supports our companies, we also need to ensure we have sufficient investment capital – at all stages – to fund their growth. I’m not saying that capital is easy to get, or that everyone will get it, but there has to be a ready supply. Without it, our best companies will go elsewhere to find it (and maybe even take their teams with them).  At the end of the day, capital will help us attract great founders and great companies. We’ve made some great progress on this front (thanks to AEC, our growing VC sector, the many angels that are stepping up, and the groups that support them). But we’re not done yet – more capital is needed.

It’s about more than capital, of course.

There is no silver bullet to building a startup ecosystem – we need it all

Great tax policies that incent investors to take the risk of investing in our early-stage companies. Programs to support entrepreneurs that help them learn how to build and scale great companies (hello, 321!). A stellar talent pool so that founders can hire great people as they grow. Mentors that can help guide them through what is often a tough and lonely journey. We need it ALL. 

It also takes a village

Building the ecosystem isn’t something that the government does. We have to take a collaborative approach to get the right stuff done, and get it done faster.  Sure, government policies and support are critical, but it also takes private investors and support from the “been there, done that” crowd. We ourselves have to be drivers of positive change – we can’t just sit and wait for the government to take the reins. 

This is a long game. And to quote from the amazing David Edmonds, we have to BUILD, not BUY. Hiring folks from outside of Alberta might help us make short-term progress. But if they’re only here because they’re getting paid, then they’ll leave when there’s no money to be made. IMHO, the idea that we can import a solution to our ecosystem gaps by bringing in someone else is flawed thinking. It’s more of the boom-and-bust mentality that hasn’t served us well – and I don’t think will create a sustainable ecosystem in the long term.  

There’s certainly lots of work to be done, but we have tremendous potential – we’ll just have to roll up our sleeves and get it done together. 

And speaking of lots of work, this is going to take some time

We need to be fiercely ambitious, but we also need to be patient.

But look how far we’ve come in just the last 10 years. 

  • Ten years ago, the A100 didn’t even exist. It started as a dinner party that was so over-subscribed, we had to book a hotel ballroom. Now, there are over 100 members and associate members from across Alberta eager to support the next generation of Alberta founders.
  • Alberta Enterprise has leveraged their investment capital to build a VC industry here. We have the VC investors we do in Alberta, in large part, because of AEC. 
  • Platform Calgary is home to a range of supporting programs for founders and is building a world-class Innovation Centre that will be a hub for our fragmented community.
  • Creative Destruction Lab – Rockies at the U of C has brought together a powerhouse community of industry and business experts, angel and VC investors, to help founders with deep tech “build something massive.” 
  • The51 is showing how we can unlock tremendous potential by funding and supporting female-led businesses and inspiring female investors. 
  • BDC launched a Women in Technology fund – one of the largest of its kind in the world.
  • Intergen launched a program to help scale-up companies connect with their network of experienced business talent.
  • Thin Air Labs is not only developing a new model for supporting early-stage founders – combining capital, community and experienced biz support – but also doubling-down on the potential to build what’s next right here in AB. 
  • Startup Calgary and Startup Edmonton are the home base for emerging startups, where they can find their peers, make important connections and learn. 
  • Start Alberta who is bringing together a database of companies, investors and community folks, to help us all connect with each other, and so we can better understand our ecosystem.
  • The great work being done by Brad Zumwalt and the team at Zinc Ventures and Assembly Co-Working Space on the “butterfly collection” – to identify and help us visualize the companies in our ecosystem, by stage.
  • The Hunter Hub at the U of C is inspiring entrepreneurial thinking for students, faculty, staff and alumni. 
  • I’m a proud volunteer mentor with The Venture Mentoring Service of Alberta (VMSA) – where founders can get the guidance they need to support them on this tough entrepreneurial journey. There’s a similar organization in Edmonton as well – Threshold Impact U of A Venture Mentoring Service.
  • The VCAA, formed to foster a community of VC investors here in AB.
  • Rainforest Alberta has inspired us to up our culture game – being intentionally inclusive and fostering trust and a new spirit of collaboration.
  • And we’ve got so many rockstars here in Alberta already: Absorb, Attabotics, Athennian, Benevity, Circle Cardiovascular, CoolIT, Drivewyze, Jobber, Symend, Shareworks (formerly Solium), Tugboat Logic, We Know Training (formerly Yardstick), Zedi… the list goes on (and on and on). 

And this is just a small sample. (Apologies in advance to all the amazing organizations and initiatives I haven’t highlighted here – but we’d be here all day!).

Now, imagine where we can (and will) be in another 10 years.

But to get there, we need to do more.

More investment capital. More collaboration between private industry, different levels of government, and passionate citizens. More purposeful and intentional growth across all levels of our ‘funnel.’ More support for more founders from more companies. More virtuous cycling of innovation and investment.

We’re up for it at 321. And we hope that you are, too.

Let’s get to work.