Alberta’s 20 Most Innovative Organizations
Our annual guide to the state of innovation in our province, featuring organizations from every corner of society
Innovation is a phrase that is thrown around a lot. But here in Alberta, it’s not just a buzzword, it’s a compulsion to be better and an inability to be satisfied with the way things are. Frequently, innovation is born of struggle. When a resource is low, competition for it is high, and companies realize the status quo will not carry them to prosperity. So it’s no wonder that, with its boom and bust economy, Alberta is the most entrepreneurial province in the country. As a group, Albertans are not afraid of being first to market. In fact, they strive for it. They don’t just meet the standards dictated by government regulations, they beat them. They see a gap in the market – a need – and they fill it. These are the traits that define Alberta, and innovators can be found in every corner, every sector of this province. From oil and gas, to theatre and tourism, here are the 20 companies that are leading the pack.
Photograph John Gaucher, Figurines supplied by happyharborcomics.com
Geek Nation Tours
The Innovation: Finding the perfect niche market
Senior Exec: Teras Cassidy HQ: Hinton
“Geek Nation Tours is all about love,” says owner Teras Cassidy. “Love of a geeky thing.” The travel company leads tours organized around a central theme: from sci-fi and fantasy fiction to World War history, superheroes and gaming. Cassidy says he has found no other company offering similar geek-themed tours. Perhaps because it took hardship for inspiration to strike. Cassidy was the owner of two travel agencies when the 2008 recession hit. The usual stream of prospective travellers had slowed to a trickle. “I was in the office by myself thumping my head against the desk,” he says.
That gave him a lot of time to think about his future. He considered specializing in booze tours to Mexico, but the appeal was fleeting. Then he looked down at the book he was reading, The Battlefield Walker’s Handbook, and it hit him: He could organize tours through battlefields. And why stop there? He could create tours centred around his other passions, such as Star Trek and comic books.
He hosted his first tour in 2010, when he took 24 people to the San Diego Comic-Con. Now, he organizes about 20 tours a year, each consisting of up to 35 people from all over the world who pay on average about $3,000 for the privilege. And he’s expanded far beyond comic books and battlefields. “The multitude of geeky genres out there, we cover almost all of them,” Cassidy says. This summer, Geek Nation Tours partnered with Roddenberry Adventures (run by the son of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry) to create elite packages. Buyers of the first Geek Elite tour will pay upwards of $15,000 to schmooze with astronauts, visit space centres in the U.S. and experience zero gravity in a simulator.
The Innovation: Going old-school with radio frequencies
Senior Exec: Cody Slater HQ: Calgary
You’re working alone, 40 kilometres from the nearest person, inspecting a natural gas pipeline and the associated hardware. Suddenly, you’re overcome by gas from a small leak, and you fall to the ground. What happens next?
That’s the question Blackline Safety set out to answer.
Remote workers and their employers had been relying on small satellite tracking devices like Spot, made by Globalstar. While it worked well for recreational users, industry needed something more robust and something that wouldn’t be rendered impotent by a worker’s incapacity. Enter Blackline and its release of the Loner Bridge. “It’s a two-part system,” says chief technical officer Brendon Cook. “The base station maintains a satellite uplink and communication with a person-worn device via a 900 MHz radio link. That allows the user to walk or drive up to two kilometres away and maintain communication.” The personal device can detect falls or a lack of any motion and requires a periodic check-in via the simple press of a button, all features that will help save lives.
Photograph Cooper & O’Hara
The Innovation: Bringing the arts to the masses with online, interactive theatre
Senior Exec: Simon Mallett HQ: Calgary
In May, YouTubers from all over the world (most of them teenagers) logged online to comment on the video diaries of rihannaboi95. The Canadian teen was being harassed at school and the videos were his emotional outlet. His viewers posted links to online resources and shared their own stories of bullying and harassment.
Only rihannaboi95 wasn’t real. He was a character in an online play by the same name put on by Calgary’s Downstage Theatre. But while rihannaboi95 was fiction, his viewers were not. Instead of watching passively from their theatre seats, audience members watched from their computer chairs. They influenced the direction of the play by commenting on rihannaboi95’s video diaries, which were performed live each night. “We wanted the audience to have an experience that was immediate and somehow connected to that sense of liveness,” says Simon Mallett, Downstage’s artistic director.
It’s all part of Downstage’s mission to bring art to non-traditional audiences, like teens, and generate conversations around social issues. Downstage is constantly searching for ways to attract audiences and spark dialogue – be it by bringing performances into community centres or by moderating post-performance discussions.
For the upcoming play Sprawl, Downstage will survey shoppers about their experiences of the city, and incorporate their responses into the script. “It’s about creating entertaining and provocative theatre with the voices of the community,” Mallett says. “We’re genuinely interested in having an audience that reflects the diversity of the city in which we live.”
Photograph COOPER & O’HARA
Cuku’s Nest’s Enterprises
The Innovation: Building the northernmost net-zero commercial building
Senior Execs: Dennis Cuku and Christy Benoit HQ: Edmonton
They were told it couldn’t be done. But Christy Benoit and Dennis Cuku, co-founders of Cuku’s Nest Enterprises, have built the northernmost net-zero building. The 30,000-square-foot Mosaic Centre for Conscious Community and Commerce in Edmonton produces as much or more energy than it consumes in a year. It was no easy task in a climate where sub-zero temperatures have people cranking the thermostat each winter. But through creative design and leading-edge technologies, Cuku’s Nest has proven that it’s not only possible to build a sustainable commercial building but also affordable. Here’s how they did it:
- Photo Voltaic Solar Panels: During the summer months, the 213,000-kilowatt solar panel energy system generates enough electricity to feed back to the grid
- Rain water collection: Nearly 100 per cent of the water used to irrigate Mosaic Centre gardens will be captured rainwater, collected in its 25,000-litre tank
- Geo-thermal heating system: The building has no need for natural gas. It’s heated exclusively using a geothermal system, which pumps heat into the building from 70 metres underground
- Time-controled led lighting: Pole-mounted LED lighting adjusts to needs based on time of day. So at the brightest times of day, the LED lights will emit the least amount of light
FLYHT Aerospace Solutions
The Innovation: Real-time data from up in the air
Senior Execs: Bill Tempany and Matt Bradley HQ: Calgary
As Air France Flight 447 began to encounter problems over the Atlantic Ocean in 2009, the aircraft continued to send messages to the airline’s operations centre. Matt Bradley, the president of FLYHT Aerospace, says those messages, taken individually, did not mean the aircraft was in distress. But if they’d been instantly considered together, the real picture would have emerged.
That’s the problem solved by FLYHT’s AFIRS 228. The seven-pound blue box fits into an aircraft’s avionics bay and is connected “like an octopus,” Bradley says, to all of the data systems on the aircraft. “As soon as it recognizes something that is serious enough to report, it does two things,” Bradley says. “It sends a really unmistakable alert to the operations centre at the airline, so everyone knows there’s a problem with that aircraft. Then it streams black box data so you can get a picture of what’s going on.”
The key is the onboard software that analyzes the data. “The innovation was to develop great algorithms for when to trigger the sending of that data,” Bradley says. It’s too expensive to stream all the data straight to the ground, so AFIRS does the analysis onboard and only streams data when necessary. The company has AFIRS technology installed on more than 400 aircraft worldwide and expects new regulations that will require this kind of technology will soon open massive new markets.
The Innovation: Connecting shoppers with inclusive businesses
Senior Exec: Cindy de Bruijn HQ: Edmonton
A lot of employers look at hiring persons with disabilities as “the right thing to do,” but the Gateway Association is determined to prove it makes good business sense. “Having hired people living with disabilities first-hand, we’ve recognized that it wasn’t the right thing, it was actually the smart thing to do,” says Cindy de Bruijn, executive director of the Gateway Association, which cares for people living with disabilities. By bringing people with disabilities onto its own staff, Gateway has been able to increase productivity, de Bruijn says.
That’s why the association created the We Belong app, which connects shoppers with inclusive businesses with the tap of a button. “The app is for anyone to use who believes that people with disabilities deserve a right to contribute and earn a paycheque,” de Bruijn says. Released in February of this year, the app has already gained national and international attention, and de Bruijn has received calls from interested businesses in New York and Great Britain. There is no shortage of companies to feature on the app. The non-profit organization is seeing around a 60 per cent success rate helping people living with disabilities find jobs, and it is currently working with about 64 people to help them find and maintain employment. “These are folks that others are dismissing as impossible to employ, and we’re getting it done,” de Bruijn says.
The Innovation: Real-time pipeline leak detection
Senior Exec: Steven Koles HQ: Calgary
There will never be a spill-proof pipeline. But Hifi Engineering is working to improve the accuracy with which they are monitored – a practice that can at least minimize the size of leaks when they do happen. Hifi has a patented fibre optic cable that can be buried on, near or installed inside pipelines, allowing operators to keep an eye out for leaks in real time. Unlike the typical telecom cables that are occasionally used to monitor pipelines, Hifi’s technology is a three-in-one cable that detects changes in temperature, acoustics and physical strain all in a single strand.
By detecting these fluctuations – like, say, a notable rise in the temperature on a portion of the pipeline – operators can more readily shut down the pumps and reduce response times. And the more accurately a technology can detect those fluctuations, the shorter those response times will presumably be. Hifi’s fibre optic cables are sensitive enough to detect a rise in temperature as little as .001 C.
The company has used similar cables for detecting leaks in wells for years. But it has since moved into the midstream sector after selling $5.4 million in equity to Enbridge and Cenovus in early 2014. “We’re making a new, concerted effort into the pipeline space,” says Steven Koles, president and CEO of Hifi. So far the company has installed its cables on various small pipeline projects, and expects to release a case study on the technology soon.
Photograph COOPER & O’HARA
The Innovation: Organic fertilizer for the environmentally (and pet) conscious
Senior Exec: Kevin Davies HQ: Calgary
Hop Compost did not start ona positive note. “When my dog Willy was two years old, he was poisoned by fertilizer in our family garden,” says founder Kevin Davies. Willy, a Labradoodle, recovered. But the incident got Davies thinking about an environmentally (and pet-) friendly substitute for chemical fertilizers. “At Hop, we set out to create an organic fertilizer alternative so healthy, you can eat it without issue,” Davies says. The result was Hop Organic Craft Compost, which is made out of food scraps from 40 local restaurants and food merchants. Those scraps are then turned into compost using a leading-edge technology called Cleantech, which has helped Davies to dramatically reduce production time. He was the first composter in North America to use the technology, and has the exclusive rights to the equipment in cities across Canada and the U.S.
Over the short time it has been in operation, Hop Compost has diverted 430,424 pounds of food scraps from local landfills. Not only is its product good for the environment, it’s also good for business. Davies has plans to expand operations to Vancouver this fall, and has his sights on Edmonton, Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto.
The Innovation: Streamlining construction through software
Senior Exec: Paul Douglas HQ: Edmonton
It’s like a Meccano set to the power of 1,000. On a typical large job, PCL Construction may have to deliver and put in place as many as 400 enormous industrial modules and other pieces of equipment.
But how to do it as efficiently as possible? PCL teamed up with the University of Alberta’s construction engineering department and developed a plan using two databases: one of the thousands of different crane configurations that are out there – their sizes and capabilities – and the other of the specific project at hand. Run those through the HeviLift software and out comes the most efficient plan, taking into account crane configurations, location and lift sequence. The cranes’ capacities, boom clearances, rigging heights and tail swings all need to be accounted for. “To be able to do one plan used to take a week or more,” says Roger Keglowitsch senior vice-president of heavy industrial with PCL. “Now, once we load the info, we can run 100 scenarios in an afternoon and it will build the 3D model of each piece being set and where the cranes will move to. It really optimizes the schedule.”
Seven Generations Energy
The Innovation: Shrinking the footprint of gas extraction
Senior Exec: Pat Carlson HQ: Calgary
Pat Carlson, CEO of Seven Generations Energy, is no stranger to leading a successful energy company. Seven Generations is his fourth. But it is by far the most innovative. Its standout product is the “Super Pad,” a mini gas plant with compression, dehydration and fluid-catching facilities on site that can perform a three-phase separation of the gas that’s drilled underneath them. Each pad is de- signed to handle 50,000 Mcf of gas per day, which it can then deliver to a central facility.
Not only do the Super Pads make gas plants more efficient, they offer environmental benefits as well. Concentrating all of those facilities onto a single pad means the impact on the landscape is minimal. “We are able to preserve more habitats with the objective being that we maintain local populations of wildlife so that they can repopulate as our oper- ations wind down.” Carlson says. “Technology is a race that all gas producers are in, and it’s a race you have to stay in front of.”
Photograph COOPER & O’HARA
Medicine Hat Community Housing Society
The Innovation: On the cusp of eliminating homelessness
Senior Exec: Robin Miiller HQ: Medicine Hat
When Medicine Hat Community Housing Society said it would end homelessness, some had their doubts. But six years later, Medicine Hat is on track to be the first municipality in Canada to eliminate homelessness.
Robin Miiller, the chief administrative officer of MHCHS, says the society isn’t sure what sets Medicine Hat apart, but that it might have to do with how the society approaches the problem. In 2009, the MHCHS adopted a “housing first” strategy, which means providing housing for anyone who needs it, regardless of circumstances. Other communities require homeless people to, for instance, abstain from drugs before they can be sheltered. And the society has found that once people are housed, their lifestyle changes.
Another advantage Medicine Hat has is leadership. The MHCHS is solely accountable for eliminating homelessness, which means it can focus its approach. Combined with funding from the province and buy-in from the community, these things have enabled the society to house 885 people, including 283 children, since 2009.
Ending homelessness doesn’t mean there will never be another person living on the streets. “We don’t have control over that,” Miiller says. “What we do have control over is the ability to house that person.”
STEP Energy Services
The Innovation: Servicing multiple wells from one location
Senior Exec: Regan Davis HQ: Calgary
Innovation starts with understanding the needs of the client, says STEP Energy CEO Regan Davis. That’s the thought process that led to the STEP-ARM. When oil and gas producers expressed a need for improved efficiencies at their multi-well drilling sites, STEP Energy listened. In response to the demand, the company, known for its expertise in designing coiled tubing for oil wells, created the STEP-ARM, shorthand for articulating rotational mast. The ARM improves the efficiency of tasks requiring coiled tubing, such as cleaning out unwanted debris from the well and perforating the well in order to better access oil. With its stable base, 360-degree revolving capability and telescopic mast, the ARM can service multiple wells from one location, making well operations smoother, safer and faster in the process.
The Innovation: Getting in early on a game-changing trend
Senior Exec: Colin Bramm HQ: Edmonton
With the release of the iPad in 2010, Alberta educators had a problem. The tablet held great promise for the classroom: Teachers imagined students creating videos, photo albums or multimedia projects. But there was no way for pupils to submit their work through the iPad, nor was there a means for teachers to provide feedback. They tried email, but many of the children were too young to have an email address. And Dropbox and Google Drive were logistically too complicated.
That’s when they turned to Colin Bramm, co-founder and CEO of Showbie. The computer engineer had been creating educational software for Alberta teachers for years, and they asked him to find a solution. He answered with Showbie, a simple app that enables students to turn in work – and makes it easy for teachers to grade it – with the tap of a button. “It was the beginning of a very large trend towards using devices in the classroom,” Bramm says. “And we were kind of on it from Day 1.”
Since its launch in 2012, Showbie has grown its client base from a handful of early adopters to nearly 1.5 million students and teachers in 136 countries.
The Innovation: Taking flyers digital
Senior Exec: Michael Medline HQ: Calgary
Flyers. You might consider them a nuisance because they fill your mailbox and blue bin, but they’re ubiquitous because, quite simply, they work. Frederick Lecoq, vice-president of marketing with Sport Chek, says his company’s flyers typically drive sales growth by four or five per cent and, even more importantly, give a good return on investment. But he has an even better idea he’s been working on for a few years: digital flyers. Beginning in 2012, Sport Chek began experimenting with digital offers in an effort to win over what he calls “the achievers”: the 19 per cent of shoppers who are responsible for 60 per cent of the overall revenue for sports equipment. “We found that flyers were not one of their major touch points,” Lecoq says. “These guys were more into digital.”
The testing went well, so last year Sport Chek completely replaced five print flyers with digital ones, and it paid off. “With the ones we switched, we drove 12 per cent sales growth,” Lecoq says. “We’re looking at switching up to 40 per cent of our paper-based marketing this year.”
The Innovation: Building small oil sands plants that can be replicated
Senior Exec: Steve Williams HQ: Calgary
Suncor is Canada’s largest company, by revenue, but its latest move is all about going small. Like all the operators in the oil sands, Suncor is constantly innovating to try and reduce input costs and environmental damage and to increase production. Now, the company is developing cookie-cutter steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) plants that can tap into small pockets of oil. The idea is to keep costs down by designing and building what is essentially the same project over and over again rather than designing and building unique infrastructure every time. Some analysts have suggested this approach could save Suncor 15 per cent on the price of a new plant.
The Innovation: Screening employees for flexible work arrangements
Senior Exec: Laura Hambley HQ: Calgary
The office isn’t what it used to be. Expectations around workplace flexibility are changing as the next generation of employees tries to balance work life and personal life. To accommodate this shift in culture, a lot of companies are allowing staff to work from home. But how can employers know whether an employee is the kind of person who will be productive away from the office? Work EvOHlution, a Calgary-based startup, says it has the answer. The company uses what it calls “psychometric assessments” to determine whether an employee has the personality traits needed to prepare them for a flexible work schedule.
“It’s not necessarily about preventing [flexibility],” says Laura Hambley, the founder of the company. “It’s about supporting people so that they can be more successful in these new ways of working.”
Through research, in which she assessed the productivity of workers in “distributed work” settings, Hambley has defined 11 character traits that either help or hinder the performance of remote workers. Work EvOHlution determines which traits an employee has by having them take an online survey, and then running their responses through a series of basic algorithms. The result underscores the employee’s strengths and weaknesses, and predicts the number of working days away from the office they can reasonably manage.
The Innovation: Finding a solution to a serious environmental problem
Senior Exec: William Bardosh HQ: Edmonton
William Bardosh, CEO of TerraVerdae BioWorks, was sifting through a pile of lapsed patents when he discovered a technology that could change the personal care industry: a blueprint for biodegradable microbeads. The tiny, natural beads could serve as a natural alternative to the plastic microbeads found in countless personal care products, from facial scrubs to shampoos, to toothpastes and hand sanitizers. The synthetic beads that are currently being used in these products cannot degrade and are small enough to pass through filtration systems, allowing them to make their way into natural waterways. Millions of the beads have been found in lakes, where they are eaten by fish. Jurisdictions across North America are passing legislation to ban them, and large corporations have promised to phase them out.
As they search for an alternative to the plastic beads, companies may just turn to TerraVerdae’s biodegradable microbeads, which are made from a natural substance that breaks down in marine environments, leaving no trace behind.
The Innovation: Pipeline monitoring with laser-carrying drones
Senior Execs: Steve Myshak and Owen Brown HQ: Lethbridge
Ventus Geospatial is the first company in the world to use laser-carrying drones for commercial gas detection. The drones fly over pipelines, using the laser to scan for leaks. In case of a spill, the drone streams live video of the scene. Before Ventus came along, energy companies would use helicopters to look for leaky pipelines. The drones are more cost-effective (costing between $50,000 and $100,000), require less maintenance and don’t require a pilot. They also act as data-collecting machines. Ventus uses the data to create three-dimensional surface maps, elevation models and vegetation health maps, which can benefit every industry, from oil and gas to agriculture and forestry. “What sets us apart is that once we get the data, we can extract the information out of it that the client needs,” says Steve Myshak, co-owner of Ventus. “We do everything, from the collection all the way to the final delivery of the data, in-house.”
Photograph COOPER & O’HARA
Veterinary Simulator Industries
The Innovation: Creating animal stunt doubles for vets-in-training
Senior Exec: Russell Gray HQ: Calgary
In 2009, an unexpected opportunity propelled former film industry prop-designers Russell Gray and Bryan Pfahl into the veterinary simulator business. As fate would have it, Gray’s neighbour, Dr. Alastair Cribb, had just become dean of the new University of Calgary Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, and he was looking for someone to build life-sized, anatomically accurate cows to teach kids about how vets inspect and treat animals. “He knew what my background was and he was looking to promote a little interest in his school at [the Calgary Stampede’s Aggie Days event],” Gray says.
So, Gray and Pfahl created three life-like cow models for Cribb, which he used for vet inspection demonstrations during Aggie Days. That caught the attention of other veterinary educators, who had been searching for just such a product to use in the classroom. “There were no commercially available simulators at that point,” Gray says. “Just some very simple artificial insemination trainers.” So when educators saw Gray and Pfahl’s cows, the requests for models came pouring in. Now, they’re selling their life-like animal simulators to veterinary educators in 25 countries.
Wood Buffalo Brewing Company
The Innovation: Making the best of a bad situation
Senior Exec: Steven Sachse HQ: Fort McMurray
When the price of oil dropped, Wood Buffalo Brewing Company’s Steven Sachse knew his clients – many of them oil patch workers – were headed for hard times. To make life a little easier, he tied the price of his flagship ale to the price of West Texas Intermediate (WTI). So when the price of oil goes down, so does the amount workers shell out for a pint. It was not only a friendly gesture, but it was also a creative marketing strategy. The stunt garnered the brewing company attention from across the country.
From menu items to beers, marketing and clothing (which includes the coolest hats Sachse says he has ever seen), innovation is visible throughout all aspects of the brewing company. “We constantly challenge the status quo,” says Sachse, the brewing company’s owner operator. “We won’t shut down any idea. When it comes to the future, we’ll always be on that cutting edge.” The brewing company is even creative in its charity work. “We actually get the charities to come in and brew with us,” Sachse says. Wood Buffalo has just confirmed it will create a beer in partnership with the fire department, in which part of the proceeds will go to local firefighters or a charity of their choice.
A quick look back at some of Alberta’s game-changing innovators
President and chief research officer, Canada Chemical Corp.
Conrad Ayasse is the closest thing there is to a poster-chemist for innovation. He has spent his career finding better ways to coax oil out of the ground, 13 years with Dow Chemical, 14 with the Petroleum Recovery Institute and 10 with Petrobank Energy and Resources, where he helped develop the toe-to-heel-air-injection (THAI) in situ oil sands combustion process. He holds 30 patents in the energy and environmental fields. His record is hardly one of uninterrupted success – the THAI process has not been successfully commercialized – but it’s not all going to come up roses when you’re at the bleeding edge of innovation.
Professor emeritus of pharmacology and oncology, U of A
Terry Allen has spearheaded advances in two major areas of drug technology; namely, the use of Stealth liposomes to improve the delivery of anti-cancer drugs to tumours, and the development of new anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer agents derived from marine organisms. The former technology coats liposomes – biological capsules that deliver anti-cancer agents to tumours – so the body’s immune system will not destroy them. She is the sole holder of the Stealth liposome patent and the inventor or co-inventor of another 12 patents.
Chair of the board, WestJet
As one of the founders of the upstart Calgary-based airline, Beddoe thoroughly disrupted Canada’s air transportation industry. He did so with no end of innovative approaches: WestJet started with one kind of aircraft, the Boeing 737, keeping training and maintenance costs down; there was just one class of passenger, appealing to unconceited Westerners; he made all employees owners through profit-sharing and stock options; and he created a positive, upbeat corporate culture that has withstood the test of time.
Chair and vice-chair, Alberta Oil Sands Technology and Research Authority
Throughout the 1970s, the oil sands industry was all about surface mining. But in 1978, Clement Bowman and Maurice Carrigy received a research paper about steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD). Industry considered it a boondoggle and many people tried to talk them out of pursuing the idea, convinced it would never work. But they pushed ahead, and today SAGD is perhaps the most game-changing technology to have ever come out of the oil sands.