Report: Edmonton's downtown tech ecosystem offers fertile ground for growth

Mark Mann
September 4, 2019

The Downtown Business Association (DBA) in Edmonton released a report arguing that the strength of the city's tech industry could make it a multi-billion-dollar tech hub. “Accelerating Tech in Downtown Edmonton: Impacts and Opportunities" makes the case for key measures that could help the city realize its potential: more tech-focused development that can accommodate startups entering scaleup phase; a better urban experience to attract talent; more structured mentorship programs; better funding for startups; and a focus on leveraging the city's existing industry strengths.

2018 was a big year for Edmonton. Tech employment grew at a rate of 38.5 per cent and the city jumped to 95th in a global ranking of startup cities, up 34 spots from 2017. The report cites several notable moves and expansions in the past year. The Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute (Amii) has expanded to a 44,700 square-foot space that houses 120 students, employees and academics; Jobber relocated to a 31,400 square-foot office downtown; gaming company BioWare brought 300 employees to its new 74,700 square-foot downtown facility in the EPCOR Tower; and others.

Edmonton is home to 394 tech companies, of which 41 per cent are in the IT sector and 28 per cent are spinoffs from academic research. The life sciences, cleantech, and energy tech sectors are also strongly represented. In particular, the city ranks as a global hotspot for AI, with more than half its tech companies incorporating the technology. Several big AI companies have opened offices in the city, including Google’s DeepMind, Borealis AI, AltaML and RUNWITHIT. The city's AI strengths offer a competitive advantage that should be leveraged, the report argues.

The report's recommendations concentrate on the downtown area, where increased demand for high-quality and flexible office space is expected. The report advises the city to start a downtown accelerator; increase the variety of flexible leasing options; improve talent retention by working with universities and colleges to help them understand industry demand; augment the urban experience with more amenities; and collaborate more closely with the Edmonton Advisory Council on Startups (EACOS).

Alberta's innovation strategy in doubt

The city remains in a relatively nascent phase as a tech hub, however. The report points out that 44 per cent of its tech companies were founded after 2014, while an equivalent number only have between one and four employees. Just six per cent of tech companies in the city had annual revenue greater than $5 million. Ian O'Donnell, DBA's executive director, worries that without fast action, the city's potential might never materialize. “We’ve gotta go now. We’re going to be left behind," he told CTV News Edmonton.

Realizing all the DBA's recommendations would require buy-in from the province. With Tuesday's release of the 82-page MacKinnon panel report on Alberta government spending, the province's UCP party is primed to implement cost-cutting measures in health, education, the public service, capital spending and program delivery. The report's recommendation on "no new spending" could also undermine the type of investment in the tech sector the DBA is seeking. However, the MacKinnon report also makes a case for an investment attraction strategy that would increase competitiveness, and recommends restoring the province's reputation as "a good place to invest, to start and grow a business."

How this will play for the province's innovation ecosystem remains to be seen. For now, the MacKinnon report has offered no indications as to the fate of the five-year, $100-million investment promised by the former NDP government to support both Alberta Innovates and Amii to bring more AI companies to the province. That and other innovation programs remain in limbo, while Edmonton's DBA looks anxiously to the future. "This industry moves quicker than anyone can imagine and we don’t have months and years to wait," says O'Donnell.



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