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Alberta, The untold history of innovation from Canada’s badlands – Part 1

Tristram Waye | Words Unfold and NCFA ambassador | March 16, 2022

Alberta flag 1 - Alberta, The untold history of innovation from Canada’s badlands - Part 1

Part 1 of 4.  Click for Part 2 and Part 3 and Part 4 of this series.

 

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Imagine a postcard, a tiny piece of coal, a mesmerizing drive, and a vast natural playground.

Then a trading floor, a tower, a fossil, and a crown jewel in the mountains.

These are a few of the images that come to mind when I think of Alberta. And these memories came as I began exploring Alberta's innovation economy.

My first introduction to Alberta was a postcard from my dad. It was of a bronc rider on a white horse. The camera was catching the bronc in full extension as its hind legs extended to the upper left of the image. The rider looked like he was hanging on for dear life. Although, I now know it was prize money and bragging rights.

As a kid, I had no idea that my vast playground would be home to the Institute for Space Research. Or the center of one of the world's most significant geomatics programs. To me, the University of Calgary was a place for childhood exploration, adventure, and getting into some trouble.

I am reminded of looking for the Calgary Tower as we returned from our long road trips east. The tiny shell I found in a rock by the side of the road near Drumheller. And the piece of coal I was given in class at elementary school to show us a natural resource.

Then there's that drive up Icefields Parkway, where you leave the manicured roads around Banff and head to Jasper. Or the winding path down the belly of the foothills to one of Canada's crown jewels, Waterton Park.

Years later, I stepped onto the trading floor on 5th Ave. I had no idea then that I would be participating in Alberta's innovation economy. Nor would I realize the significance of what Alberta has created and built. Like so many other Canadian achievements, the important ones are typically quiet. Unknown to many. Hiding in plain sight.

And when I started looking for Alberta's innovation achievements, it was hard to stop.

 

A room of innovation 

I was standing in a small gallery watching the action. The bell rang, there was a cheer, then pink, blue, and white papers flew into the air.

At the time, I didn't know the traders used to refer to the people like me as gallery rats. I was there deciding whether to be a trader. The other option was taping a phone to my hand for eight hours a day, so an easy call.

My introduction to innovation in Alberta was from this modest-sized room off of 5th Avenue. The Alberta Stock Exchange would be the place where some of Alberta's innovation achievements would be listed. Other innovations went straight to "the big board" in Toronto.

Some innovations would die here because the idea was weak or poorly executed. Others were simply too early for the problem they were designed to solve.

Eventually, I would be trading other Alberta-based companies as I moved from the ASE to Howe Street and then onto Bay Street. Names like WiLan, Cell Loc, CSI, and Solium.

But back then, in the middle of a recession, I was trying to figure out how to get on the trading floor. Through a friend and some introductions, I got myself to the top of the pile.

The job was to type quotes as fast as possible into a computer. These were changes in bids and offers and canceled orders used to make trading decisions. And you had to do this while understanding the names, symbols, and nicknames of every company. You had to know every trader by voice and the number that represented their firm. And you also had to understand what each trader's unique instructions were.

As I began, I recall the news panning the Alberta government for a big investment failure. The government had taken a half-billion-dollar hit on a play called NovAtel. Unlike today when we talk in trillions, this was back when a half billion was real money.

Now, with the benefit of hindsight, we can see how this company was the start of Alberta's innovation journey. And we can also recognize that this so-called failure had several side benefits.

 

Alberta's innovation story and the old NovAtel

Like lots of failures, the people observing them can't conceive the big picture. The original NovAtel had fallen apart, sort of. But the story of Alberta's first tech foray was a bit more nuanced than that.

NovAtel was a public-private partnership between the Government of Alberta and an energy company. The joint venture was between Nova Corp and Alberta Government Telephone (AGT) back in 1978.

The Calgary based company began as a global navigation satellite technology firm. It’s partnership with Westech Systems resulted in the commercialization of the Aurora cellular telephone systems. One claim to fame was its creation of the first commercial cellular network in North America back in 1983. The firm went on to encompass a suite of technologies. These included, switching technology, wireless, handsets, geomatics manufacturing and expertise.

The story goes that competition in wireless and mobile increased around the world. The result put pressure on NovAtel which was showing signs of weakness. The government wanted to privatize AGT, but NovAtel's performance created a problem for the upcoming IPO.

So in 1990, AGT bought Nova's stake in NovAtel and subsequently sold the entire NovAtel stake to the Alberta Government. That allowed AGT to be converted from a crown corporation to a private entity. It IPO'd the same year as AGT. The IPO was the largest in Canadian history to that date.

The privatized telecom asset became Telus.

Telus built out of the telecommunications elements of AGT and consolidated the industry province-wide. They bought EdTEl in 1995, rebranded as Telus in 1996, and went on to merge with BCTEL in 1999.

Telus has changed from a telecom to a technology business. They have numerous assets, including telecom, mobile, cable, and a strong health and innovation presence. While its HQ is now located in Vancouver, its longstanding presence in the Alberta innovation landscape remains.

 

Failure or long term investment?

As AGT was going private, NovAtel's fortunes were in trouble.

NovAtel was saddled with a series of losses and financial mismanagement. The government was eventually forced to acknowledge the problem and take steps to mitigate it.

The handset division went to Telexel Holdings. The wireless division ended up with Northern Telecom (Nortel). The GPS assets continued to develop, and those assets were sold to Hexagon AB in 2007.

The $600 million black eye was painful. But in retrospect, the loss turned out to be more of a long term investment in Alberta's innovation landscape. In trading, we used to call mistakes or losses, tuition. This is a lot of tuition, but the long term benefits of that tuition are undeniable.

The geomatics area remains a powerful force at the University of Calgary today. Alberta's geomatics expertise started in 1980 and was advanced by Elizabeth Cannon and Gerard Lachapelle. The expertise is world recognized and deployed in numerous companies.

Wireless skill and expertise was developed at NovAtel and carried on by Nortel. Even when Nortel eventually failed, the talent and expertise from their various operations remained.

Alumni of NovAtel went on to start numerous companies.

As I began to dig a bit deeper, I started to feel like J.B. Tyrell. Tyrell made one of the greatest finds in Canadian history. A museum maintains his namesake in a quiet spot in Alberta's Badlands.

 

The secret in badlands

In 1884 a young J.B. Tyrell was sent by the Geological Survey of Canada to map and explore Alberta's Red River Valley. He liked to explore the landscape by river, which gave him a perfect view of the land's stratification.

One day he sees a strange looking bone. Then a tooth. Looking up into the hillside, he sees an unusual looking skull. Then another.

Tyrell had just made the most significant dinosaur discovery In Canada's history.

The name of the dinosaur was Albertosaurus, after the province to be. The selection of the provinces' name was a tribute to Queen Victoria's fourth daughter.

Today, the former coal region, known as the Badlands, houses a museum with his namesake. Drumheller is a place to discover the past and a place rich in adventure. If you've never been there, add it to your list.

As a child, I remember pulling off the road in Drumheller and looking out to a giant canyon. All around, there were layers of black, brown, grey, and orange. And then I saw a stone. I picked it up and discovered a fossil of a shell.

Looking back, it was like a metaphor for my exploration of innovation in Alberta today.

Layers of stories and relationships. Hidden gems in proverbial stones.

But I needed some help on where to look. So I got in touch with Mike Riou of Alberta Innovates. He introduced me to Gail Powley.

 

Do you know about Matrikon? 

Gail spoke to me from her laptop in a cafe. She is the President of Technology Alberta. And has been involved in Alberta's technology sector for over 20 years.

She began her story with a company called Matrikon, where she had worked. Then she told me about Apple's sort of secret development lab in Edmonton. Then she asked me if I knew about Bioware. Which I didn't.

So I went down a couple of rabbit holes, the first of which was Matrikon.

Nizar Somji, a U of A graduate with experience at Dow and Nova Chemicals, started Matrikon in 1988. The firm had begun as a service and pivoted to an industrial information system company. Matrikon's product is a series of sophisticated dashboards that collected and displayed key company information. The dashboards helped management teams understand how their company was operating.

The local operation expanded from 100 employees to 600 strong around the world.

Matrikon was well known for its entrepreneurial approach. They hired and developed talent almost exclusively from the U of A, NAIT, and SAIT. I would see this theme over and over again. Alberta's research and technical institutions have been a significant source of raw talent and entrepreneurs.

Nizar's friend, U of A computer science grad Amin Rawji, joined the company in 1995. After becoming CEO, he led the company to a successful RTO on the TSX in 2001. The company was sold to Honeywell for $142 million in 2010.

Nizar moved on to Consentia in 2016, an info services business, and has been a mainstay on numerous boards.

Matrikon alumnus Frank Vanderham went on to found On Tracks Consulting, and Dave Shook founded Shook IoT.

Then it was time to look into Bioware.

 

Doctors like to play games

In 1995 some medical students at U of A decided they liked games more than being doctors. Ray Muzyka, Greg Zeschuk, and Augustine Yip were joined by Brent and Trent Oster, James Ohlen, and Marcel Zeschuk to form Bioware.

Bioware caught the attention of gaming giant EA and was purchased in 2007 for $860 million.

After Bioware, Muzyka founded his investing and mentorship firm, Threshold Impact, in 2012. Since 2013, he has been the Founding Chair of the U of A Mentoring Service. He is a member of the A100 and a Fellow at Creative Destruction Labs. He is also on several boards and advisory groups. His awards and recognition are numerous. 

Zeschuk started a restaurant called Blind Enthusiasm and cofounded Codebaby. Brent Oster started Studio Check Six in 1999 and Orbai in 2018.

Trent Oster and Cameron Tofer founded Beamdog in 2009.

Then I managed to connect with one of Alberta's early tech pioneers.

 

Shana to D-Tex

John Murphy - Alberta, The untold history of innovation from Canada’s badlands - Part 1

John Murphy was gracious with his time and insights about technology and some of the challenges in Alberta. John has a unique vantage point on Alberta's innovation economy. As Shana Corp's co-founder in 1985, he is one of the early pioneers in Alberta's forty-year tech history.

John and Don Murphy began developing software for electronic forms at Shana Corp. Over the 18 years they ran the business, it grew from a couple of people to around 100. Their customer base included notable names. Shana served NASA, Liberty Mutual, Washington State Department of Social and Health Services. General Electric, The Government of British Columbia, and The Boeing Company were also clients.

They sold the business to FileNet in 2003, which was later acquired by IBM.

After their exit to FileNet, they went on to found D-Tex Inc. D-tex was a multispectral camera that could reveal elements otherwise invisible to the naked eye. These might be proteins in a plant, or it could be infestations of pine beetles. Agriculture businesses could use the technology to evaluate the quality of their crops.

But they required another step to make it viable, modeling and machine learning.

In 2012, they transformed their business into Stream Technologies Inc and, more recently, to Stream.ML. Here they applied their Spectral Imaging Prism and hyperspectral camera application using AI and machine learning. This new initiative is designed to transform the use of data science and machine learning.

Machine learning requires reams of data and the ability to compute it. And not just crunch the data but do it quickly and cost-effectively. These latter two points are where John and his team are focusing their attention with Stream ML.

John wants something so fast and easy his mom could use it. This idea has informed one of his other initiatives, a supercomputer for small and medium Alberta businesses.

John has worked closely with Sayed Mehadi from Clinisys to bring a supercomputer to Alberta for small and medium businesses. Working with the governments of Alberta, Canada, and the U of A, the computer was secured. It creates a unique opportunity for Alberta's SMEs to participate in using AI technology.

John is deeply involved in the Nanotech association where Alberta is heavily invested. He is also a member of Alberta's A100 and CEO of Bio-Stream Diagnostics. And he’s also good friends with Alberta's keyboard wizard, Randy Marsden.

Continue to Part 2 of 4

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Authored by:  Tristram Waye

tristram@wordsunfold.comTristram Waye  - Alberta, The untold history of innovation from Canada’s badlands - Part 1 | LinkedIn

Special thanks for the time and contributions from Gail Powley, John Murphy, Jonathan Schaeffer, Randy Marsden, Susan Anderson, Darcy Tuer, Mike Riou, Hussein Hallak and Wayne Karpoff.

 


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