When people describe the technology industry in Calgary these days, they use words like vibrant, booming, and burgeoning.
For a city that has long relied on its bread and butter — oil and gas — it’s surprising that tech has become an increasingly bigger player in the city’s overall economy over the last few years.
But to those paying attention, they’re not surprised that the city is a key participant in what many experts call the ‘new economy.’
Deborah Yedlin, president and CEO of the Calgary Chamber of Commerce, described the tech industry in the city today as “growing”, and much of that can be attributed to the many companies starting up shop here.
“There’s a lot of startup activity going on. There are a lot of startups that have established themselves… It’s very exciting because it’s becoming self-sustaining,” she says.
“That’s the difference in terms of where we were even a year ago. We’re starting to see more companies start up, they’re getting funded.”
A domino effect
Yedlin says the tech sector is not only being developed within itself but branches out to innovation that supports other industries in the city, such as oil and gas, for example.
She believes it helps other industries become more efficient, more productive, and more profitable. In fact, she says a strong tech sector has a domino effect across the city.
“It’s important to be deployed across the spectrum to increase our competitiveness but it also means that it gives us more of a cushion against being completely exposed to a commodity price cycle,” Yedlin says.
“It gives us insulation against that vulnerability which I think is absolutely what we need in this city and also in the province.
When a tech company expands to Calgary, the lens of its competitors hone in on Calgary as well,” Yedlin says, adding a strong tech company impacts the commercial real estate market by filling up vacant office space with employment growth in the city.
With more people being employed, that positively impacts everything from retail sales to home sales.
“Small businesses benefit whenever we have this activity,” Yedlin adds.
A tremendous growth
Patrick Mattern, vice-president of business development at Calgary Economic Development, agrees that the growth in Calgary’s tech sector has been tremendous. He says there’s been an emergence of intriguing areas.
“The fintech side, NEO being one of the more predominant ones and Helcim, has just blossomed,” he says.
“We’re seeing that organic growth with those companies. The Benevitys, the Helcims, getting solid financing and being able to grow not only their footprint in Calgary but internationally. So, that’s all good news.”
He says it is all part of the city’s future.
“We’re firing on all cylinders at the moment with the way oil and gas prices are and with agriculture doing very well in Alberta,” he says.
“But we all know as Calgarians the ebbs and flows of an economy that’s predicated just on a commodity base. So it’s great to see the technology come in and be applied back to our commodity industries. But it is the future.”
Consolidating and centralizing
Another bright spot in the city’s future is as a place to attract skilled workers from other cities as well as post-secondary graduates within the province.
Jen Lussier, vice-president of growth at Platform Calgary, which works to consolidate and centralize all the resources and partner organizations involved in the tech sector to help businesses grow, says the industry in the city is “vibrant” today.
“We’re on the frontline and see a lot of people that are from the earliest stages. We’re seeing a lot of activity. People are coming in interested to learn more about tech, how to get involved, how to find education or skills to get involved in tech,” Lussier explains, adding they are seeing it at an investment level, too.
“Companies are getting investment. We’re seeing it in the talent problem. People are trying to hire… It’s an indicator that companies are growing and need to hire,” she says.
“We get a lot of inbound interest that’s coming to us now. Calgary’s on the map. We’re finally starting to cast a shadow in the province, in the country, around tech.”
Diversifying the economy
Lussier says diversifying Calgary’s economy out of the traditional resource economy is important.
“We have a 10-year goal to try to triple the number of core tech companies that are headquartered and live in Calgary from about 1,000,” she explains, adding a core tech company is anyone over five employees.
“And triple that to 3,000 tech companies in a decade from now. It’s all about company formation and job creation.”
Helcim, a payments company geared to small and medium-sized businesses, is an example of the explosive growth that has taken place in the tech industry.
Companies growing exponentially
Helcim’s COO, Rob Park, says the company launched in 2007 but reinvented itself in 2020 and today it employs about 145 people in Calgary.
That’s even almost double where they were at the beginning of the year with 88. By the end of 2023, they’d like to be about 250 people.
“The tech sector in Calgary is great and it’s really exciting… Calgary is a very early-stage tech city. We’re really finding our feet and that’s the exciting part,” Park says.
“We’ve got thousands of new businesses popping up and new ideas. We’ve got a relatively young population, highly qualified in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), great educational institutions and it’s all coming together to really put some wind in our sails.”
Park says tech is not just tech itself.
“Tech is oil and gas. Tech is agriculture. Tech is finance. Tech is tourism,” he says.
“All these traditional industries really need tech to function in the world today and by being a city that’s welcoming to tech in general we’re actually propelling all of our industries forward, making them more competitive and more ready for the future in front of us.”
A massive shift from traditional industries
Margaret Glover-Campbell, COO of Virtual Gurus, a marketplace of virtual assistants based in Calgary, says the company launched in 2016 and today has grown to about 45 people based out of the Calgary office with hundreds more working remotely as contractors.
“The tech sector in the city is booming. When I started in the tech world in Calgary 20-some years ago, there were a handful of startups,” she says.
“There’s been a massive shift from our traditional industries here to more people actually deciding to take the plunge and create their own companies.”
Glover-Campbell says many organizations have created the infrastructure in Calgary to help build tech companies.
She also believes that the growing ecosystem around the industry is helping push things forward as the tech sector will play a massive part in the future of the city’s economy.
Finding the right people
Many companies can agree that finding people to work in this growing industry is the biggest challenge.
“One of the biggest issues that all of the tech companies are having right now is finding people. We’re literally vying for the same talent,” Glover-Campbell says, adding many companies are looking to attract talent from outside of the city.
“Some of those people are going to come and relocate to Calgary… Because we’re building this ecosystem, we’re also attracting all of these people to the city. As we bring more people in, that’s obviously going to increase the economic wealth in the city.,” she says.
“We’re at a bit of an inflection point where we’re going to start to see that hockey stick of growth perspective with the number of companies here.”
Key tech announcements
According to Calgary Economic Development, the following are some of the key tech announcements for the city in the past year or so:
Infosys, a global leader in digital services, will bring 500 jobs to Calgary and double its Canadian workforce to 4,000 employees by 2023. (March 2021);
Mphasis, a global information technology solutions provider, working with the GoA and UCalgary to launch Quantum City Centre of Excellence which will create 1,000 jobs by 2023. (May 2021);
RBC will open a Calgary Innovation Hub and create 300 technology roles by 2024. (September 2021);
AWS will invest $4.3 billion in Alberta as it to establishes a Data Center Region in Calgary by 2024. (October 2021);
EY chose Calgary for its first Canadian-based EY Finance Centre of Excellence, and it is expected to create 200 new jobs over three years. (January 2022);
Unity Technologies unveiled its 25,000-square-foot. Innovation Centre located in Brookfield Place – a space for creative collisions and industry collaboration;
Benevity, Symend, Helcim, Neo Financial and many other locals added staff, raised capital, and gained prominence in 2021; and
IBM will open and scale its Western Canada Client Innovation Centre and is expected to create up to 430 highly skilled jobs.