Sometimes, you just need a little push to get moving.
In Alberta, an economic shove-in-the-back is coming from new businesses and entrepreneurs in innovative spaces and technology-powered sectors, with accelerators and incubators helping them pick up speed.
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On Thursday, Calgary-based startup Syantra Inc., which has developed a screening blood test to detect breast cancer, will announce it has raised $6.8 million in a Series A financing round.
It is also the first recipient of funds from Plug & Play Alberta. The Sunnyvale, Calif.-based firm recently set up shop in the province and will soon offer programs and global connections to help startup firms grow their operations.
Meanwhile, the federal government announced Wednesday it will put $3 million toward clean energy development in the province, including $2.1 million to support the new Energy Transition Centre in downtown Calgary.
Another $900,000 is headed for Foresight Clean Technology Accelerator Centre to offer training and investment-attraction programs in Alberta.
As new companies take off in areas such as life sciences and clean energy, their rise — powered by big ideas — will play a part in transforming Calgary’s economy.
“The flywheel is spinning and we have momentum behind us,” said Alice Reimer, site lead for Creative Destruction Labs-Rockies at the University of Calgary’s Haskayne School of Business, and a director at Syantra.
“We are truly moving at the speed of technology and business now.”
That’s an encouraging message for a city that started slowly out of the tech blocks, but is beginning to gain ground.
CDL, which offers programming and coaching by bringing together entrepreneurs, investors and experts to advance early stage firms, has helped 261 participants grow their companies to $1.3 billion in equity value since launching five years ago.
A number of incubators and accelerators are also on the scene, offering different expertise and programs to entrepreneurs, some with backing from various levels of government.
Since 2018, the number of tech firms in the province has grown by 233 per cent to reach almost 3,100. Nearly 40 per cent have annual revenues topping $1 million, according to a survey conducted last year by Alberta Enterprise Corp.
Technology startups need access to customers, capital and the experience of mentors, three things that accelerators can bring to the table, says Jobs, Economy and Innovation Minister Doug Schweitzer.
“Building on these accelerators is going to help take us to the next level,” he said.
At Syantra, Bob Shepherd said completion of the $6.8-million funding round, led by a consortium of doctors through Rejuvenation Health, will allow the company to advance the commercialization of its technology. It will be able to boost capacity at its Calgary lab and increase clinical study work for targeted cancers.
“We want to be able to grow (other) aspects of our business as well and expanding into the U.S. is a key part of our plan,” he said.
“We want to be able to build a base here in Calgary, and still address the U.S. and European markets from our headquarters here in Calgary.”
Shepherd and his wife, Kristina Rinker — a professor of biomedical engineering at the university and the company’s co-founder — came to Calgary from the United States in 2005. The company was incubated at the U of C, and Syantra was founded in 2016.
It moved into commercial space in northwest Calgary in the fall of 2020 and has 15 staff.
The Opportunity Calgary Investment Fund joined forces last November with Plug and Play, which will receive up to $7 million over five years from the fund to run a new accelerator program in the city.
It will train and provide mentorship to 80 local startups annually, initially focused on clean resources and digital health, as well as a more general stream. It has a venture capital funding unit and has now made an early investment in Syantra.
“Our whole goal in this initiative is to help speed up innovation in the most efficient way,” said Alex Tran of Plug and Play Ventures, who will be one of the leading principals for its efforts in Alberta.
“We are able to connect the dots a whole lot faster than a startup trying to go out on their own.”
The role of incubators and accelerators can be critical to providing fuel to a fledgling business that is trying to thrive. They can connect entrepreneurs with customers, talent and partners around the world, said Jim Gibson, chief catalyst at the SAIT School for Advanced Digital Technology and co-founder of Thin Air Labs.
“Some of the more advanced accelerators are about taking really high-performing companies and launching them into a much bigger world. And that’s where Calgary needs to get to,” said Gibson.
While Calgary is home to more than 100 life-sciences companies, that’s not the only area to watch. The push to decarbonize and promote clean energy is also gathering speed.
The federal announcement on Wednesday to put money put into the Energy Transition Centre will allow it to open this spring and take up an entire floor in the downtown Ampersand office building.
The centre will become home to a number of organizations working in the energy transition field. Federal money will also pay for some programming for oil and gas professionals working on energy transition initiatives, said Avatar Innovations CEO Kevin Krausert.
Federal officials expect the announcement will aid in the creation of at least 25 businesses within three years.
“On a broad economic landscape, I would say Calgary’s mojo is back,” Krausert added.
“There’s a new-found sense of entrepreneurship happening in the city that is working on all these exciting opportunities in energy, in tech, in life sciences.”
Chris Varcoe is a Calgary Herald columnist.
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