Keith Gerein: Agency aims to unleash Edmonton’s ‘unlimited’ innovation

The most common comments I received concerned the belief that the new organization had not yet defined a clear role, and given that the new brand is Edmonton Unlimited, this may well reinforce perceptions of an agency that does not isn’t targeted or trying to do too much.

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According to advice painted on an iconic downtown mural, taking a risk is “the most Edmonton thing you can do.”

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Inspirational words, yes, but what the mural fails to add is that risk often leads to failure, at least in the world of innovation.

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After all, start-ups with ideas for solving societal and technological problems tend to crumble and burn at a very high rate.

And yet, in a strange paradox, failure also means success.

By this I mean that an abundance of failures indicates an entrepreneurial ecosystem with a high tolerance for risk. This sows the hunt for dreams, increasing the potential for some valuable ideas to finally hit the mark.

  1. The Hudson's Bay store on Jasper Avenue and 102nd Street in 1931 in downtown Edmonton.

    Keith Gerein: Council bets on Edmonton’s economic future with new innovation entity

  2. Preliminary concept rendering of Innovate Edmonton's new home in the former Royal Bank building at Jasper Avenue and 101 Street.

    New Innovation Headquarters planned on Jasper Avenue

  3. According to Doug Schweitzer, Alberta Minister of Jobs, Economy and Innovation, the government's goal is to ensure that Alberta is recognized internationally as a hub for technology and innovation by 2030. GETTY IMAGES

    Alberta’s technology and innovation sector is gaining momentum

To date, I would argue that our local innovation sector has yet to fully embrace this paradox, which is why it is significant that the organization charged with leading the city’s efforts is relaunching itself – adopting a new a name that suggests a release from the chains of the past.

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Here’s the scoop. Starting this week, what was known as Innovate Edmonton will transform into the more dynamic Edmonton Unlimited.

The new brand, new logo and new slogan – « Innovation from here for the world » – will be officially unveiled at an economic summit on Wednesday evening, then to the general public the following day.

At first glance, I can’t help but like the name, which conveys a certain energy. It’s a brand that also heralds a reimagining of what innovation can be, although it can also reinforce the perception of a confused mandate.

“It’s a choice that reflects who we are and where we’re going,” said Catherine Warren, CEO of Edmonton Unlimited. “He has this authenticity and this audacity. … We wanted it to appeal to a wide range of innovators and innovators at different stages of growth.

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The identity overhaul is also an opportunity to take stock of the progress of the agency, which has been operating for about 20 months after its creation by the last city council.

(The name Innovate Edmonton was used as a placeholder, carried over from a former organization.)

The agency is independent, which means the board set the basic parameters and agreed to funding of $5 million a year, then was forced to let the organization’s leaders find their way.

At the same time, I remember advisors seemed to be expecting a lot, asking the new entity to stay lean in its operations, but also to stay nimble to changing trends, to work with other innovation groups , to recruit proven talent and achieve rapid success in a notoriously turbulent environment. sector.

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With that in mind, Edmonton Unlimited has likely disappointed in its development thus far, although such an ambitious standard was always going to be difficult to meet, especially in times of COVID-19-related disruptions.

Catherine Warren is the CEO of Edmonton Unlimited. Photo provided
Catherine Warren is the CEO of Edmonton Unlimited. Photo provided .jpg

Nevertheless, the organization has been active on several fronts. Warren specifically noted the launch of the Capital City Pilots program which allows entrepreneurs to test their ideas on city-owned assets, as well as the attraction of three Silicon Valley accelerators.

Edmonton Unlimited has also developed a new headquarters at the languid intersection of Jasper Avenue and 101st Street. And it had to incorporate a number of pre-existing innovation brands, including Startup Edmonton and what remained of TEC Edmonton’s assets after it closed in June 2021.

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That said, the organization will ultimately be judged on its post-rebrand achievements, which will hopefully be measured in actual transactions, investments, business growth, and filling vacant downtown offices.

I reached out to a number of people in the innovation community for their input, most of whom, unfortunately, did not want to speak officially.

While a number expressed optimism for a positive direction, some of these people also had reservations. Comments I heard included fear that the agency would become just another « gatekeeper » for money and resources. Some also wondered what happened to the innovation fund plans, which were part of council discussions in 2020, and Mayor Amarjeet Sohi’s election platform last year.

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(Warren says his agency is working on a proposal).

However, the most common comments I received concerned the belief that the new organization had not yet defined a clear role. And given that the new brand is Edmonton Unlimited, it may well reinforce perceptions of an agency that is unfocused or trying to do too much.

“The best way to support startups is to connect with potential customers, prepare startups to raise investment capital, and create more skilled tech workers to meet the needs of all current and future tech companies” , said Aaron Budnick. He is the chief operating officer of Painworth, a company that has developed technology to help victims of personal injury assess the value of their claim.

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Obviously, some contractors will need to be convinced that this isn’t just another coat of paint on another faulty structure. It will also not be easy to find a balance between the need to focus and play on local strengths while opening the approach to risk.

Still, if there’s anyone up to the task, I think Warren has a shot.

She is eloquent in her position that Edmonton Unlimited is not just an eye-catching facade, but carries a real ambition to unleash global potential.

In this vein, the vision embraces the idea that innovation is not limited to the commercialization of high technology – although this remains essential – but must extend to those who have new approaches to homelessness, food insecurity, political diversity and a thousand other societal problems.

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A big part of the mandate is inclusiveness, which also means supporting those who have too often been overlooked, including Indigenous entrepreneurs.

« And by the way, it’s not only the right thing to do with taxpayers’ money as a public trust, but it’s also the right way, which means our entrepreneurs can do well by doing good. « Warren said.

Although still in its infancy, this rebrand signals to me a promising direction for local innovation that our city can follow.

As the downtown mural indicates, Edmonton Unlimited must maintain the courage of its new approach, while hoping to receive patience from the rest of us to let them deliver.

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