The mood of a nation: Calgary

Businesses throughout Canada share economic worries.

Back in January, tech consulting firm Material Insight held an event with venture capitalist and entrepreneur Guy Kawasaki. The organizers asked the question: is Calgary an emerging tech hub? Canadian technology blog Techvibes certainly thought so, posting an entry shortly afterwards with the title, “Calgary’s simmering high-tech community set to explode.”

That’s probably a bit premature. Claudia Moore, president of Material Insight, says the consensus at the event was that Calgary has the potential to be an emerging tech hub, but the city isn’t quite there yet. “Calgary is a young city,” Moore says. “And if you look at the number of cranes around, it’s obviously growing into something.”

So what’s necessary for Calgary to become an emerging tech hub? The city has a few important pieces in place already, such as strong educational institutions and a handful of semi-prominent names, including Voodoo PC, StumbleUpon and iStockphoto. The caliber of talent is improving, too, Moore says; though Material Insight has employees who work remotely from outside Calgary, the company has a bias toward hiring locally. “In the same way that we’re a growth agent for tech companies, we really try to be a growth agent for local tech talent,” she says. Bringing people together at events and conferences is also important, which may be more challenging given the independent culture around Calgary business people.

Perhaps the biggest missing piece, however, is capital—a not uncommon challenge. The uncertainty around the economy makes it more difficult to solicit venture capital, but Calgary faces another problem in that its investor base is accustomed to oil and gas, not tech. Still, Material Insight is spreading the word about local tech companies because, as Moore says, “Investors seek inspiration from other successful investors. If someone is successful and those stories get covered, that’s what shapes behaviour.”

Another concern is talent leaving the city to live in more developed tech centres, an attraction to which Moore is not immune. “I probably have to be honest,” she says. “Like every entrepreneur, I live my life opportunistically.”