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Why Vancouverites need to pay attention to Calgary becoming one of the fastest-growing tech hubs in the world

Top takeaways from our recent #VTJtalks with some of Calgary’s notable players: the Calgary Economic Development, Thin Air Labs, Fortinet, Slalom, and Showpass

How can we spur more growth and keep the momentum going when it comes to innovation across Western Canada?

In Vancouver, we’ve long known that cross-collaboration is key and have been actively working with partners to break down silos. Where we can improve is working more closely with our neighbours in Calgary — the only Canadian city to make it to research firm Pitchbook’s list of one of the fastest-growing tech hubs in the world. 

Calgary is one of the top 10 most livable cities in the world and the third most diverse in Canada. It’s also the second most concentrated tech talent market for those in their 30s in North America. Plus, despite a steep decline in VC activity nationwide, Alberta’s numbers remain strong, not far off from previous record-breaking years.

There’s a lot to what’s driving Calgary’s tech ecosystem that we can draw on and tap into — from the mindset, support, and opportunities offered to us Vancouverites. At our recent #VTJtalks at BDC, we partnered with the non-profit Calgary Economic Development (CED) to get the inside scoop from notable players:

Photo: VTJ

‘Calgary is inherently entrepreneurial’

Entrepreneurialism isn’t something that’s recently come about in Calgary.

“Historically, we go through these cycles as a city that they call booms and busts — which just so happens to be harmonized with oil and gas,” McCarthy explained, adding that when workers get laid off, many are well compensated and start their own companies. 

“The number of people who have been bred as entrepreneurs in Alberta is incredible. You get an insane sense of fortitude and grit. It's pretty persistent throughout [Calgary],” McCarthy said, highlighting that the locals’ farming background creates a strong work ethic often not seen elsewhere.

What some may find surprising about Calgary is that while people are heads down into their work, they’re known to be incredibly friendly and keen to help others.

“Everybody wants to make you successful,” Zimmerman shared. “They don't see you as a competitor. They don't see you as another company coming in and ‘Oh, you're gonna steal my people.’ It's like, ‘What are you doing? What idea do you have? What problem are you solving? Who do I know that can help you?’ ”

Zimmerman added: “It doesn't matter if you have a name. It doesn't matter if you have a track record. People don't care what you did before. How much money you have. What's your family name. You have a good idea and you want to work hard and get [things] done, we want people just like you.”

The attitude prevalent across Calgary is known to bring together its many entrepreneurs and the expanding companies and teams coming in. A great example is Slalom.

Founded in 2001 in Seattle, WA, Slalom has grown to 49 offices across eight countries. The company opened its first few Canadian offices in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, and then Calgary.

“I would say the thing that unifies all of our offices is that ‘get things done attitude,’ ” Van Eyk shared. 

Plans and stakeholders move fast

Calgary has been home to the most head offices in Canada for years.

Along with Slalom and many others, Fortinet is the most recent company to choose the city for its expansion. The company recently announced plans to invest $30 million to build a new data centre — which is expected to create 85 permanent and 90 temporary jobs. 

Reflecting on his experience planning and finalizing the deal, Phillips highlighted the process moved quickly and that it was easy to connect with stakeholders.

“The pace of the government was so much faster,” Phillips said. “Engagement from the CEO of CED to the CEO of Invest Alberta, to having phone calls with ministers and texting them now about how things are going [...] We didn't get that from Ontario. We didn't get that from Quebec or any other places we were dealing with.”

Phillips added: “The friendliness of having somebody to call and say, ‘Hey, can we do this?’ There's no blockage. There's always somebody who can call somebody and take that wall down. That's what I like.”

Zimmerman encouraged B.C. companies to consider collaborating with those in Calgary and be part of defining the rise of ‘tech in the West.’

“The Calgary technology story is being written now,” Zimmerman pointed out.

On what the CED can offer B.C. companies, Zimmerman shared: “We can come in and have an impact and build partnerships quickly and [...] find these collaborative opportunities. I think that's part of the lure coming in and really being part of quite a big upstream.”

All around support

Recognition and support for entrepreneurs in Calgary aren’t just coming from CED and the community.

With Alberta being the only province in Canada with a 17 per cent growth of VC investment last year, Zimmerman highlighted it represents the great technology being built not just from companies that started in Calgary but others coming in.

“The global community is building in Alberta, which is really exciting,” Zimmerman said. “The only way we build great companies and continue to keep them in Canada is to have access to that capital.” 

Bird added that the number of deals in Calgary in 2023 is very similar to Vancouver. One reason is that VCs — across Canada and the U.S. — have already experienced success with startups in Calgary. For example, the city is home to a few ‘unicorns’: Neo Financial, Summit Nanotech, Attabotics, and BluEarth Renewables.

“[VCs] are starting to realize that there's significant deal flow and opportunity based on the entrepreneurialism that exists here,” Bird shared.

Aside from VC investment, entrepreneurs in Calgary can also tap into Canada’s only investment fund to support the creation or scaling of local startups: the $100 million Opportunity Calgary Investment Fund (OCIF).

To date, the OCIF has committed over $86 million toward projects in multiple sectors — including agribusiness, technology, training, energy, and more.

What’s next?

Wrapping up, Bird welcomed attendees to experience Calgary’s tech hub for themselves and offered some valuable suggestions.

“Where would you go if you first came to Calgary? [...] Platform is an absolutely state-of-the-art, beautiful facility meant for all founders at all stages. Banks and VCs are also there. It's been extremely helpful to me as I've come to Calgary.”

Bird even welcomed Vancouverites to Thin Air’s office: “We have a small office in the downtown core of Calgary. The reason we built that office is for our home to be your home. So anybody coming in from anywhere in the world [...] you can come stay with us any time. We're here to help, connect, and introduce you to the city and all the great things it has to offer.”

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