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Calgary’s tech scene may be the key to transforming the city’s core

Last May, a large, modern structure in downtown Calgary’s East Village, situated across from the Central Library, completed construction.

It is one of many recent changes to the look of downtown, and at first glance, all that one might see is a parkade — but this is no ordinary lot.

The space is home to the new Platform Innovation Centre that was brought to life by Platform Calgary, the Calgary Municipal Land Corporation, and the Calgary Parking Authority.

The centre is an inventive headquarters for budding entrepreneurs in the tech sector — something that is necessary as the industry continues to expand across Alberta.

“A front door to Calgary’s innovation ecosystem” is how Platform Calgary president and CEO Terry Rock described the combination office space and parking structure, which will open to the public early this year.

“We believe that an inclusive, tech-led approach to economic growth and diversification will unlock new avenues of prosperity for current and future Calgarians,” Rock said while speaking at the 2021 Launch Party event, adding that 60 organizations had partnered with the centre.

An explosion led by small creators

Launch Party — an event that showcases several new Calgary startups to investors and the public — has been held for the past 12 years, but perhaps never before against such a backdrop of interest and development in tech for the city.

Companies in the top 10 for 2021 are entering an increasingly optimistic local tech ecosystem — SOS WebAR, a provider of augmented reality within web browsers, earned the event’s Alumni Choice Award.

“We know that web augmented reality is going to be as common a digital marketing tool as any other … we’re going to be leading that adoption, we’re going to be at the forefront,” co-founder and CFO Alisha Olandesca said.

Budding tech companies have already begun to transform the downtown, an area in desperate need of tenants to fill empty offices sprawled throughout.

What about those office vacancy rates?

A recent CBRE report found a more than 33% vacancy rate in the core, while Avison Young reported there were five downtown buildings entirely empty as of November 2021.

Just a few blocks away from the 9th Ave. Platform Innovation Centre sits The Edison, a high-rise building pitched in the ’80s that has been recently renovated into a tech campus for many other small businesses, such as legal software company Clio and Fuelled, which sells equipment to the energy sector.

Energy ruled Calgary’s downtown for decades, including The Edison building itself. Prior to the renovation, its offices were occupied by large energy companies like the former Encana, which cut its Canadian ties in 2019, moving to the U.S.

The Edison is the brainchild of Aspen Properties, which also re-developed another major downtown landmark — the former Sun Life Plaza, now known as The Ampersand.

Filling those empty spaces

A vacant floor of The Ampersand will soon be home to Calgary’s Energy Transition Centre, which just last week received more than $2 million from the federal government.

The hub will “help small- and medium-sized businesses develop clean energy technologies that meet a growing global demand for environmentally-friendly energy and processes,” Dan Vandal, federal minister for Prairie Economic Development, said at the announcement.

That centre plans to open in March.

Another tenant of The Edison, the challenger bank Neo Financial, is expanding to take over even more vacant office space downtown, moving into the fourth floor of the Hudson’s Bay Building.

Beyond filling up vacant office space, this tech boom is making entrepreneurs out of many Calgarians and is also catching the attention of international firms.

Several companies announced their intention to join the movement throughout 2021, capped off by a new Alberta accelerator set up by Silicon Valley’s Plug and Play Tech Center.

Investing in tech and talent

The provincial government has been keeping a close eye on announcements like this, as well as those made by such businesses as Infosys and Amazon Web Services, “clearly demonstrat[ing] Alberta is a top destination for tech investment and talent,” Doug Schweitzer, minister of jobs, economy and innovation, said in a statement.

In response, the province is offering the Accelerated Tech Pathway to fast-track the employability of foreign skilled tech workers who move to Alberta, making them permanent residents sooner.

“Eliminating barriers to employment will enhance Alberta’s economic growth, attract investment and strongly support the economic diversification underway in the province,” Calgary Chamber of Commerce president Deborah Yedlin said of the announcement.

Currently, more than 3,000 tech companies call Alberta home, per the Alberta Enterprise Corporation. And soon, hopefully, there will be many more.

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