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Alberta, The untold history of innovation from Canada’s badlands – Part 4

Tristram Waye | Words Unfold and NCFA ambassador | Apr 6, 2022

Alberta flag 1 - Alberta, The untold history of innovation from Canada’s badlands - Part 4

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


The serial entrepreneur behind the The51

The first time I heard Shelley's name was on a NACO call in 2020. She was a special guest as part of a panel. She's also involved with CDL. Looking further, I can see she's plugged in all over the place.

Shelly Kuipers came out of SAIT to cofound Stormworks in 2000, acquired by Solium in 2002. She went on to found or cofound numerous companies, including Material Insight in 2003, Chaordix in 2009, Adventure Capital in 2008, and Iovia in 2015. This A100 member's most recent project is as co-founder of The51 in 2019. The51 is focused on providing female founders with support and capital.

Kuipers' co-founder and co-CEO at The51, and also CDL Fellow is Judy Fairburn.

Fairburn was the first Chair of Alberta Innovates. She is co-founder of the cleantech and digital fund, Evok Innovations. With a deep background in energy and technology, Fairburn is also a Board Director for several companies.

On another NACO call, I heard Alison Sunsstrum. Sunstrum is the co-founder and CEO of Agtech firm GrowSafe Systems. Growsafe was started by her co-founder Camiel Huisma in 1990. Sunstrum invested in 1999, helping to build out the company. Growsafe is at the forefront of animal agriculture across the world. Their product involves tracking and analytics to enhance animal welfare using cutting edge science.

As of 2019, Sunstrum is the founder and CEO of CNSRV-XCNSRV-X an R&D and investment vehicle for next-gen Agtech. This includes IoT, machine learning, and blockchain applications. Alison is also an associate and founding partner of CDL Rockies.

Then there was Brad Zumwalt.


Eyewire and Veer

In 1998, Brad Zumwalt was about to make his big play.

Zumwalt’s journey began when he bought some assets from Adobe in 1998 and founded his first company Eyewire. He had arrived at Adobe via a takeover of a company called Image Club Graphics. Image Club was taken over by Aldus Corp in 1994, and then by Adobe.

Eyewire was an online visual content, and design firm. His first exit was when he sold Eyewire to  Getty Images in 2002 for $34.2 million in stock.

Just before that, in 2000, Zumwalt founded Social Venture Partners Calgary. He then followed up his Eyewire exit by founding Veer Incorporated. Veer was at one time the fourth largest stock photo company on the planet. He sold it to Bill Gates' private company, Corbis, in 2007.

Not content to sit still, he is a founding partner of Creative Destruction Labs Rockies and on multiple boards.

My next Alberta innovation discovery got me thinking about great ice cream.


The quiet wearable enclave outside of Cowtown

If you're into ice cream and live in and around Calgary, you've probably heard of Cochrane. Heading west on Crowchild Trail takes you out along Highway 2 to the town. On a summer day, you can see all kinds of people walking around the core eating ice cream cones from MacKay's.

I've been there many times over the years, but I wasn't aware of Cochrane's other focus. Cochrane, it turns out, isn't just an ice cream place; it's also a small tech enclave.

I'm a big fan of wearable technology. I've had a heart rate monitor since about 2004. So I was interested to discover one of the technologies I'd been using, ANT+, was invented in Alberta.

Kip Fyfe and Victoria Brilz founded the U of A spinoff Dynastream in 1998. They were joined by former U of A professor and founder of Varafy, Ken Fyfe, and Jim Rooney.

Kip worked at NovAtel as director of OEM GPS and was credited with developing the ANT+ protocol. Any athlete using sports watches has heard of and probably used ANT+ at one time. Victoria worked at NovAtel as a product manager.

Dynastream invented the Nike Foot Pod in 1999. The company was sold to Garmin in 2006 for $46 Million. Garmin, a leader in wearable technology, retains a strong presence in Cochrane.

Kip and Victoria have gone on to found 4iiii Innovations, a wearable technology firm. Their presence has helped develop a strong technology hub in the area. They are also members of the A100.


A100, The spirit of Alberta

When I looked at the A100, I was reminded of an experience I had when I returned to Calgary after university. It was a recession, and I was looking for a job. I sent letters out to some contacts I received. One of which was Jim Gray of Canadian Hunter Exploration.

I wrote Jim, and he wrote back and invited me over for coffee. Now, Jim wasn't just any oil and gas guy but the founder of one of the natural gas business pioneers.

I met Jim in his office at Canadian Hunter HQ. We chatted about the economy, Calgary, and oil and gas. Here I was, a guy with a liberal arts degree, and trying to figure out if there was space in oil and gas for me. I'd worked on lots of industrial construction projects in the summers across the country. But nothing related to oil and gas.

Jim called out to his EA and told her to get Gary up to the office. Gary was the head of Land, and Jim figured someone with my background might be interested and potentially fit in there. So he introduced me to Gary as if I was an old friend.

Gary took me down to his department, and graciously introduced me to everyone down there. Then he said, you know, I'm having lunch with so and so the owner of Scott Land and Lease. Then he told me the story of how the guy got started and took over the company. Then he said, I'll let him know you're coming by.

So I set up a meeting with this guy.

At Scott Land and Lease, the owner talked to me about the land business. At the time, it had become increasingly specialised, but there were still opportunities for starting out. Then he did something I did not expect.

He handed me his professional book. It had the direct contact numbers of everyone in the industry. He said, bring it back when I'm done. I was stunned. I had literally met the guy 45 minutes ago.

I did return the book. But the opening at the exchange meant my participation in oil and gas would be in a different venue. I never forgot that interaction. It wasn't the only one. And like every other time, it was quintessential Alberta. So when I saw the A100, I recognized that Alberta spirit. I've experienced it many times before myself.

I could probably write a whole book on the members of the A100. Looking through, I see John and Ray. There are Wayne, Kip, and Victoria. Brad Zumwalt. Cory Janssen.

The A100 is a group of experienced and vetted Alberta entrepreneurs and investors dedicated to giving back. Lots of others are doing this through other venues and ventures and means. The A100 simply brings many of these names together.

Another source of Alberta's strength is its education institutions.


The other kind of University Education

The number was 301 in the Varsity Courts. It was the student housing for graduate students with families at the University of Calgary. Behind the courts was the Big Hill, a mound of dirt with a groove down the centre. That was the scene of many a toboggan fight, magic carpet, and saucer ride. A short walk from there puts you on the sprawling University of Calgary Campus.

As a kid, the campus was my playground. And what a playground it was.

The rolling foothills to the west were where I rode my bike along with other kids from the neighbourhood. In the winter, the main campus was a cross country ski course. And I was adept at sneaking into the lower level of the original MacEwan Hall. The arcade was down there, and minors were not permitted. So I would occasionally claim a student as my parent or guardian. Sometimes with hilarious results.

The Big Hill is now a vast parking lot. The new Children's Hospital stands like a castle on a small part of the land where I once rode. MacEwan Hall has expanded, and now that I'm old enough to go to the arcade unsupervised, it no longer exists.

I knew my way around many of the buildings by heart from aimless wandering. However, I did not understand the future significance of the university to the innovation ecosystem in Alberta.


The University of Calgary

The University of Calgary is not Alberta's first university. That distinction belongs to the University of Alberta in Edmonton. Calgarians were miffed that Edmonton got the first university.

Calgary's University actually began as a U of A branch. Its original site was an RCAF hut at SAITs predecessor, The Provincial Institute of Tech and Art campus, in 1950.

The University of Calgary was officially established in 1955 and the land was secured with a one buck lease. The engineering program started in 1957, with the permanent facilities opened in 1960. The research park opened in 1962. U of C became the Home of the Geological Survey of Canada in 1963.

The government of Alberta provided the University autonomy through the Universities Act in 1966.

The university campus expanded with the Rothney Astrophysical Observatory in 1972. The land for the Observatory was donated by the Cross family, one of the big 4 ranching families. And in 1989, the Institute for Space Research was established.

The 1980s also saw the beginnings of the Geospatial expertise at the university. The renowned Earth Sciences program, NEST (New Earth-Space Technologies), is at the U of C. It develops the underlying technology for global positioning, telecommunications, and environmental monitoring. This program includes deep expertise in space physics.

According to their 2016 e-pamphlet, the program has participated in over twenty space missions. The program also boasts putting more than twenty instruments into space and leading two satellite missions.

The university is also home to a branch of APEX Alberta Precision Exchange.

Innovations, a precision medicine research, and development facility. It also has a strong biomedical engineering program. The school has a strong innovation initiative.

I know I'm only touching a small part of the U of C's prowess as a research institution.

Looking through several of Alberta's innovators, you will see many graduates of U of C., and you will also see several from SAIT.


SAIT, The Southern Alberta Institute of Technology

The competition between Edmonton and Calgary has been long standing. Calgary was apparently not too pleased when Edmonton got the first university. Still, it was Calgary that got the first technical vocational school instead.

The Southern Alberta Institute of Technology began as the Provincial Institute of Technology and Art in 1916. It began by providing vocational training to soldiers returning from the war. The programs started there were metalworking and motor mechanics to serve a new growing industry.

The facility was moved to the Riley Farm location, where it also housed the Calgary Branch of the Normal School for teacher training. The original building also housed the nascent University of Calgary.

The first aeronautical engineering courses in Canada were added to the curriculum in 1934. In 1940, the facilities were taken over by the RCAF for Wireless training School of the Commonwealth Air Training Plan. Apprenticeship programs were added in response to the Apprenticeship ACT of 1945 for returning soldiers.

SAIT received its current name in 1960 when the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, modelled on SAIT, opened in Edmonton.

The Art program originally started in the '20s and was the foundation of SAIT, became the Alberta College of Art and Design in 1985.

Numerous leaders in Alberta's secret technology development have come out of SAIT over the last 40 years.


NAIT, The Northern Alberta Institute of Technology

Modelled on its successful southern neighbour, NAIT, Edmonton's polytechnical school, was established in 1959. The campus location, the former Blatchford field, was purchased in 1961. Classes began in 1962, and the campus was officially opened in 1963.

Starting with 29 apprentices, the school's current enrollment numbers 40,000.

The campus has expanded over its history to include numerous new facilities. These include the HP Centre, Petro Canada Centre and Spartan Centre for Instrumentation Technology. They also have the Applied Technology center, amongst others.

NAIT boasts strong numbers for student placement post-graduation. They provide a variety of degrees including technology and information systems technology.

Out of these four institutions have come a wide range of leading Alberta innovators. As a foundation, Alberta is well served by talent development at these institutions.


The University of Alberta

The University of Alberta was Alberta's first university. It was chartered in 1906 with the University Act and officially founded in 1908.

The institution has 400 unique research labs and several spinoffs.

The school has several achievements in medicine, including:

  • The first open-heart surgery in Canada in 1955,
  • John Callaghan's solution for blue baby malformation
  • Development of the Edmonton protocol 1999 for the treatment of T1 diabetes.
  • Research started in 1972 by Ray Rajotte
  • Lorne Tyrell And Morris Robbins developed Hep B antiviral Lamivudine in 1998. Used across the world and now used in HIV/Aids treatment

U of A also has a strong Agtech, IoT, and Nanotech presence.

The University of Alberta has the distinction of starting the first computer science department in Canada. And as Jonathan Schaeffer demonstrated, the University is 1 of 3 Canadian AI hubs. In  its respective specialties, the U of A’s AI program is number 3 in the world.

Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute (AMII), the province's AI research and development lab, came out of the U of A. AI has a strong presence across several faculties and research areas at the school.

I’m only just scratching the surface when it comes to Alberta’s educational institutions. Edmonton is also home to MacEwan University, Concordia University, The King's University and Norquest College. Lethbridge boasts the University of Lethbridge, and in Calgary, there is Mount Royal University.

Graduates of these institutions have made meaningful contributions to Alberta's quiet technology reputation.

These institutions continue to produce outstanding technical candidates in a variety of areas. Looking at these institutions' history tells the story of a province determined to develop citizens with economically viable skills.

But there is room for improvement. Several of the conversations I had underlined the issue of liberating ideas and startups from these institutions.


Support for Innovators

Several organisations are working with entrepreneurs and innovators across Alberta.

These teams provide a range of educational and support opportunities. The A100 and CDL Rockies are two organisations with essential roles in the ecosystem. As you can see from numerous names here, these two groups have deep benches.

Alberta Innovates is an organisation that supports innovation across the Province. Provincially funded, it engages the spectrum from post secondary researchers to multinational corporations, and everything in between.

Eight Regional Innovation Networks (RINs) are funded by Alberta Innovates, providing the foundation for collaborative innovation communities to support their entrepreneurs.

There are numerous other groups in Alberta that support entrepreneurs including,

These organisations and others provide crucial support to the next generation of innovators.

Building on Alberta’s Innovation Foundation

Numerous new companies are being developed across Alberta. Here are a few highlights across various spaces.

In 2006, Cara Wolf founded Ammolite Analytx, a software and hardware development firm powered by AI. The Calgary based firm specialises in Data Analytics, cybersecurity, and physical security integration.

Out of the University of Calgary Geomatics department came Trusted Positioning Inc. Founded in 2009, the company was acquired by TDK InvenSense $36 million.

Then there's augmented reality and 3D company Scope AR started in 2010. It was founded by David Nedohin, Graham Melley, and U of A grad Scott Montgomerie.

There's Eric Warnke and Mark Fossen, co-founders of Mesh and Mover.  Warnke was a graduate of MacEwan University and U of A. Fossen graduated NAIT and U of A. Mesh was sold in 2012, and Mover was Bought by Microsoft in 2019 for an undisclosed amount.

Alice Reimer, a U of C grad, cofounded Evoco in 1999. Evoco was a platform designed to assist in real estate site selection, roll-out, remodelling. It was bought by Accruent in 2012.

In 2014 Myrna Bittner cofounded and took the role of CEO of RUN WITHIT Synthetics. Before this, she was the cofounder of Bittco Solutions in 1992 and Neuralvr Technologies in 1999.

Colin Knox, a graduate of SAIT, founded Passportal in 2011. The company went to Solarwinds MSP. In 2020 he founded Gradient MSP.

In 2015 U of C grad Jacques LaPointe joined Rob Cowley, Scott Gravelle, and Tony Woolf to found Attabotics. Lapointe's past activity included working at QSound from 2006-2007. He was also a Sr investment manager at AVAC with exits, including Randy Marsdens Cleankeys.

Serial entrepreneur, Mike Priest, founded JumpSeat , open-source learning management company in 2015. He was also the founder of TenSpeed Technologies, Glaze, The FormFactor. Jumpseat was acquired by LeapPoint

AeroLab Technology was founded by Chris Morton and Kelly Zwarych in 2016. The Calgary company designs sensors for cycling dynamics that could be applied to unmanned aircraft.

Kelly Cherniwchan co-founded Circle Cardiovascular Inc in 2010. Circle develops software for MRI and CT Scan processing. He followed up by founding Chata Technologies in 2016. Chata is an AI-powered conversation technology.

And that's just a small taste of what's been going on. There have been numerous developments contributing to Alberta’s innovation landscape since.


The view from here

The view from herre Alberta - Alberta, The untold history of innovation from Canada’s badlands - Part 4

When I close my eyes, I can see myself in one of Alberta's crown jewels. I imagine myself standing on a hill next to the Prince of Wales Hotel. The approach to this place from Pincher Creek is a scenic drive. The mountains beckon with every bend in the road.

As you approach, it always looks to me like you're going to drive into an opening in a giant caldera. After a storm and if the sun is setting, you can see the light shoot out between these mountains and the clouds. It's spectacular.

The hotel was started by an American railroad company during the prohibition era. They pitched this place as having beautiful views of Montana —which is what I'm looking at in the distance when I stand here.

Down to the right is the village. The boat moving slowly below is headed to Goat Haunt, Montana, in Glacier Park at the other end. I have been on that boat cruise often and try never to miss it when I'm in the area. I met a man on the boat once who was dying of cancer. He told me that boat ride was one of his last wishes.

The border between Canada and the US is an invisible one somewhere in the middle of this lake. The natural grandeur of the place is undeniable from one end to the other. As the sun sets, the shades of purple and pink crest across the mountains' peaks on either side.

I'm seeing the beauty before me with a sense of wonder. And frankly, I can't tell where Alberta ends, and Montana begins. Where Canada begins, and America ends.

Now imagine this is the innovation economy of Alberta.

You have a great view of America, yet there is no shortage of world-class ideas in Alberta. The province has an abundance of homegrown talent. There are numerous mentors with experience across multiple exits. And world-class educational institutions.

As Randy Marsden told me, all the ingredients are there; all that's needed is the right cook. And, as Jonathan Schaeffer inferred, maybe we ought to do a bit more bragging.


Authored by:  Tristram Waye

tristram@wordsunfold.comTristram Waye  - Alberta, The untold history of innovation from Canada’s badlands - Part 4 | 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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