There’s always a long way to go. But it’s good to look back and see how far you’ve come.

The Edmonton innovation ecosystem is starting to function as it should, as witnessed by the national Startup Canada 2014 Awards won by organizations and individuals from Edmonton and Northern Alberta.

Technology-based business incubator and accelerator TEC Edmonton was named Incubator of the Year.

Investor of the Year was Randy Thompson, director of TEC Edmonton’s TEC Venture Angels investment group.

Honourable mentions were accorded to the Northern Alberta Business Incubator (Non-Profit Organization of the Year), TEC Edmonton’s Dr. Randy Yatscoff (Mentor of the Year), TEC Edmonton co-founder Allan Scott (Lifetime Achievement) and the Alberta Women Entrepreneurs (Incubator of the Year).

“TEC Edmonton was thrilled to win these  awards, and we’re pleased Dr. Yatscoff, Allan Scott, the Northern Alberta Business Incubator and the Alberta Women Entrepreneurs earned honourable mentions,” says TEC Edmonton CEO Chris Lumb.

“But other things matter more. First, we’re the support team. Our client company founders are the real stars – we all win because of their commitment.

“Second, it’s so good to see the fantastic entrepreneurial culture in Greater Edmonton, its people and organizations, gain national recognition thanks to the Startup Awards.

“Third, on behalf of all Edmonton innovation partner organizations, thanks to Startup Canada for highlighting the importance of entrepreneurship to Canada’s future.”

The rise in the number of Greater Edmonton innovation-minded startup companies has been dramatic.

With over 100 active clients, demand for TEC Edmonton’s business assistance services has more than tripled in the last 4 years.

It may be a chicken-and-egg situation – which came first, a strong ecosystem of business development, or the surge in Alberta’s entrepreneurial spirit? But both are feeding off each other.

The City of Edmonton, through Edmonton Economic Development Corporation and the University of Alberta led the way 10 years ago in forming TEC Edmonton as a business incubator and accelerator, offering assistance to both U of A spin-off companies and companies from the community at large.

What has happened now was yesterday’s best-case future scenario:  Growing tech companies, whether university spinoffs or community based,  have access to  services that help them grow faster, find financing, and develop new customers. Further, TEC builds bridges between the university and its researchers, local entrepreneurs, and the investment community.

In its TEC Centre, taking up the fourth floor of Enterprise Square in downtown Edmonton, TEC Edmonton provides incubator space and services to startups from both communities.

Partnerships and collaboration with other regional business service providers, like the Northern Alberta Business Incubator, has dramatically improved.

“If somebody comes for help and we can help them, great!” says TEC Edmonton’s Lumb. “But if we can’t, we’ll connect them to somebody who can. We never say no to anybody.”

Investment interest in startups is on the upswing in Alberta, one example being the restructuring of a group of local angel investors into the TEC Venture Angels group. TEC Edmonton provides administrative support to the group, and, in addition, uses its expertise to “vet” potential companies beforehand, thus bringing well-qualified companies before the investors.

The Government of Alberta has been active in encouraging and assisting innovation in the Wild Rose province for many years. Premier and Minister of Innovation and Advanced Education Dave Hancock is overseeing the final steps towards creation of a fully-integrated, fill-in-the-gaps government/institution/corporate innovation system for the province.

The ultimate result has been a dramatic increase in technology-driven, small-to-medium-sized enterprises, not only in the region’s dominant energy industry, but  in all sectors of the Northern Alberta economy.

In August of 2012, TEC Edmonton released the results of its 2012 Economic Outcomes Survey of 106 client companies. The companies generated $103 million in revenue, a 25% jump over the previous year. They raised $55 million in financing and funding, hired 1,100 employees (28% higher than in 2011) and reinvested some $30 million in research and development. The 2013 Economic Outcomes Survey will be released in the coming months.

It’s not about a few technology-based monster companies in Edmonton, but about hundreds, if not thousands of pennies – shiny, new startup companies – forming a solid foundation of technology-based companies now competing nationally and globally.

Of course the Northern Alberta innovation system has a ways to go. But Alberta’s enterprising entrepreneurs are busily transforming research and great ideas into products and services people need.

As a good ol’ Western Canadian band called Bachman Turner Overdrive once sang, you ain’t seen nothing yet!

Inventor Ron Szepesy keeps learning how much he does not know about his invention: the revolutionary Zoltec SureShot pump.

“Which is a good thing,” he says.

Zoltec is a startup company in Alberta, one of the first to take advantage of TEC Edmonton and the University of Alberta’s UA SolVe program.

“I had developed the pump in a machine shop,” says Ron. “I built my prototype. It works in the way I had intended, but that doesn’t mean it’s safe for public use.”

As time went by, Ron became more aware of what had to be done to bring his pump to market, and it was well beyond his own skill sets. Through the recommendation of his TEC Edmonton business advisor, he turned to UA SolVe.

“I didn’t understand the meaning of an ‘engineered’ product,” says Ron. “Engineering includes measuring every component to ensure its strength, having engineered drawings of each component, knowing the exact tolerances, knowing the types of material to use to ensure a long-lasting product, knowing how smooth interfacing surfaces have to be for optimal operation … I didn’t know any of those details, yet they’re absolutely essential for any mass manufacture of the SureShot pump.”

UA SolVe manager and TEC Edmonton Business Development Associate Chris Lerohl sat down with Ron to define the challenge as best they could. Chris then went to the University of Alberta’s Department of Mechanical Engineering. “I know the guy for this project,” said Mechanical Engineering Chair Brian Fleck.

Dr. David Nobes is an Associate Professor of engineering, an expert in fluid mechanics and design and a consultant to private industry in the field. “As a registered engineer, I’m responsible for public safety,” says Dr. Nobes. “If I certify a prototype, I am guaranteeing it will run the way it’s supposed to run, without jeopardizing safety. My team can work on determining the materials, reliability, torques, accuracies and anything else that is needed. We then document the design in manufacture-ready engineering drawings. In the end we’ll have a prototype that will be fully engineered and fairly easy to mass-produce.”

Could Szepesy have gone to a private engineering and testing firm?

“Sure,” says Dr. Nobes. “But given the small scale of the project and challenges related its unique design, it would likely cost more. At the university, we can use Ron’s pump as an opportunity to give graduate students real work experience, while using specific knowledge from their research to make the project a success.

“We have excellent facilities both for testing and design that industry often does not have. So we can address challenging problems. For me, it’s also an opportunity to work on a real project, to connect with industry and take that knowledge back into the class room. I like the idea, with TEC Edmonton, of opening up this innovation corridor into the university.”

The introduction to Dr. Nobes, through TEC Edmonton and UA Solve, has been invaluable, Szepesy says. “I’m excited. He brings credibility to the project. I will be able to show future customers an engineered project – not just a farmer’s invention.”

The entire project is an exercise in collaboration between a small, innovative company, the University and government seed money. A portion of the cost of this project may be offset by a federal government IRAP (Industrial Research Assistance Program) grant.

“This takes us from ‘it’d better work, to ‘we know it’s going to work’,” says Ron, who has already invested a considerable sum over the last 14 years developing the SureShot pump for the aviation industry.

You never realize at the outset just how much work and detail is required, even to get to this stage,” says Ron. “I’m glad TEC Edmonton and UA SolVe are here for the guidance.”

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