Alberta keeps evolving. The seeds of prosperity and commerce started in antiquity with the early formation of the oil sands. In 1717, Henry Kelsey, a fur trader from Europe, was the first outsider to glimpse the potential the oilsands would have in the province when the Waupisoo (of the Cree) bought a sample of oil to Athabasca’s Hudson’s Bay Trading Post. The Indigenous people at the time were using the bitumen to waterproof their canoes.
Nearly 200 years later, Canadian journalist Charles Mair wrote of the oilsands, “When the hour of [oil’s] development comes, it will, I believe, prove to be one of the wonders of Northern Canada. What is unseen can only be conjectured; but what is seen would make any region famous.”
Mair’s prediction was correct and Alberta would go on to become a global energy leader. That was the story of Alberta for decades and although it continues today, an economic aspect of our province is developing at an astonishing rate with another commodity that is “unseen and can only be conjectured, yet can make any region famous.” Often underestimated, our technology sector has been quietly evolving in the background for years. Now it’s erupting to the surface, driving a new and extremely profitable industry that impacts every other sector with innovations that drive productivity, safety, efficiency and more.
Harnessing this resource for the benefit of the province is vitally important. Stepping up to do this is Alberta Enterprise Corporation (AEC) and leading the charge is Kristina Williams, President & CEO.
AEC, founded by the Government of Alberta in 2008, is on a mission to foster our thriving tech sector in Alberta by providing venture capital and other resources to local companies.
“Historically, there was a lack of venture capital available in the province and a lot of tech companies needed that capital to stay in Alberta and grow,” says Williams. “Many tech companies were not growing at their full potential or moving out of the province to access better resources. The government engaged a broad range of experts to see how it could best be involved and AEC was the result. AEC invests in venture funds that, in turn, invest in tech companies.”
AEC also helped to create StartAlberta.ca, an open source platform for global investors to find Alberta companies, as well as the A100, a mentorship organization with a goal of inspiring and supporting Alberta tech entrepreneurs.
Williams was the second hire of AEC, joining as a director in 2009.
“I have a law degree from Sweden,” explains Williams. “My specialities are international law and crimes against humanity. However, by pure chance I wound up working for a life science company in Sweden. I met my Canadian husband and moved to Canada. My Swedish law degree was not recognized here, so went back to school and got my MBA.”
This ushered in her first look at the need for venture capital for tech companies. She worked at two different technology companies and both used venture capital. When she was asked to join AEC, she recognized and appreciated the unique opportunity to help shape the future of the province.
Williams says, “Innovation and technology drive improvements across all aspects of society, from new and better medicine, to reducing the environmental impact of our energy industry, to creating healthier foods and increasing the yield for farmers growing crops. The companies commercializing these technologies are incredibly important for driving this change and I’m very passionate about helping them accomplish this. By working for AEC, I can help hundreds of companies simultaneously, instead of one at a time.”
She continues, “My work is about helping Alberta’s technology companies remain competitive. Venture capital is a proactive way to build Alberta’s future economy, creating an environment where my children can stay and work in the province and enjoy a great quality of life.”
AEC started off as a concept and has been proven to work. As of last year, AEC reached $1 billion in venture capital invested in the province from our funds and from partners. For the past five years Alberta set – and beat – the prior year’s record. In 2022 we grew 30 per cent year over year. Even when Canada’s venture capital market as a whole saw a 30 per cent drop in growth, Alberta continued to grow on target.
“I’m incredibly proud of the team at AEC and for the government’s continued support,” smiles Williams. “We were started under the UCP and refunded under the NDP. The UCP, in 2020, announced another $175 million in investment capital.”
AEC efficiently maximizes every dollar both throughout the enterprise and for the startups it funds.
“We are a small but mighty team, not a large corporation,” says Williams. “There are just 11 of us here at AEC. What makes this work is the excellent quality of entrepreneurs in Alberta. This joint effort has seen a 200 per cent increase in startups since 2012. Tech innovation and entrepreneurs – that, jointly, is the magic.”
Yet, there are serious challenges.
“We have to ensure,” says Williams, “that we create an economy focused on the future and on diversity; but at the end of the day, we face stiff competition from the other provinces for capital. We have to highlight the positives of the Alberta advantage, what we are creating here and why the capital should flow into Alberta.
“It is also important for everyone to realize how the economy is evolving. Just 14 years ago we had tech companies but we had very little capital. Now, we are seeing this industry take on a life of its own and attract attention from Silicon Valley, other parts of the States and from around the world.”
Williams adds firmly, “Now let me be clear. We are not done yet. There is still not enough capital to meet demand. There are so many tech companies being launched in the province and a great increase in both quality and quantity. The demand for capital is going up and we need to keep pace if we are going to support this growth properly.”
Just a few of the many companies with a global reach that were funded in Edmonton include:
- Samdesk: A global disruption monitoring platform powered by big data and artificial intelligence helping clients protect their people, assets, and brands with real-time crisis alerts.
- DrugBank: The world’s first intelligent and comprehensive drug knowledge platform. With the help of artificial intelligence, DrugBank authors, verifies and structures all of the latest biomedical information so that it can be used to its fullest potential.
- G2V: Optics uses the most precise LED solar simulation and is used and trusted by researchers around the globe.
- Drivewyze: A technology service provider that delivers savings and safety benefits for commercial vehicle operators.
- Showbie: A hybrid learning platform empowering millions of educators to quickly and easily manage classroom workflow and deliver personalized feedback to students, of all learning abilities, on any device.
Williams says with pride, “In Edmonton people don’t wait for someone else to present solutions. We simply do things. In addition to the most innovative tech, Stantec, PCL, Amii and U of A – recognized as one of the best universities in the world – are all local success stories. As a city, we can take great pride in this.”
She continues, “I have looked all over the world and you know where I want to live? Here. I don’t want to leave Alberta. As long as you buy long underwear for the winter, it’s a wonderful place to live.”
Williams gets to see Alberta through fresh eyes, having not grown up here. However, those eyes see the past, present and future of the province and she is convinced that the province never lost its signature Alberta advantage.”
“People,” she says with conviction. “People are Alberta’s biggest advantage. There is a ‘barn raising’ culture here. Everyone helps everyone out. Nowhere else can you walk into an elevator and have a conversation with a stranger. People are a massive advantage due to the entrepreneurial spirit found here. Also, we live in one of the most beautiful places in the world. People travel from all over the globe to visit Alberta.”
The very nature of AEC is giving back robustly to the province, but outside of the boardroom, AEC gives back in other ways too. The enterprise was foundational in helping to launch the Start Alberta Tech Awards to help celebrate local entrepreneurs and their achievements. AEC also has a public statement of diversity, equity and inclusion and lives those values every day throughout all aspects of the organization. AEC promises a lifelong commitment to diversity internally and through its portfolio selection and fund management processes.
As for Williams, she was humbled to receive an innovator of the year award from Junior Achievement, but she immediately points the finger not at her herself but to all of the components that empowered the recognition.
“It’s not about me. It’s about the tech sector. It’s about industry. It’s about celebrating people. AEC and its success are the products of our team, our board, collaboration with government, the province, our partners, funders and our families. It’s all intertwined; it’s all connected. Without the government of Alberta that saw the untapped potential of our emerging tech sector years ago, AEC would not exist.”
What comes next?
Williams is resolute as she says, “More and more tech companies are opening in the province and the demand for capital is increasing. AEC is investing at a faster pace to keep up. We will continue to drive change. We must ensure that we can meet the demand for capital. I see this as a very pivotal role for AEC.”
Alberta’s history has always been rich in resources, entrepreneurship and opportunities. When we work collaboratively and with an eye to the future, we all prosper together. The meaning of the Alberta advantage has changed over the years and the resources the province relies on continue to diversify. Now, with tech poised as the next big frontier, Williams and her team are ushering in the next chapter of Alberta’s history, learning from the lessons of the past and working to create a stable sector that will drive every other industry forward. The time is now, and AEC is ready. So, without further ado, let’s evolve.
Learn more about AEC at www.alberta-enterprise.ca and on Facebook and Twitter.