Look Who’s Teching

Silicon Valley was just an industrial park before it got a catchy name. Welcome to the Wired West

by Jesse Semko, Bruce Weir and Tyler Enfield

In the early 1970s, an entrepreneur and a journalist noticed a growing number of semiconductor companies sprouting up in a northern California industrial park. They published a series of articles in a trade newspaper noting the emergence of a high-tech hub they dubbed Silicon Valley. Then the earth moved. Industry began to coalesce in the valley south of San Francisco Bay, which catalyzed more growth. By the 1980s, Silicon Valley had become the world’s high-tech mecca.

On a brisk winter morning, Alberta’s tech community is hoping for a similar evolutionary leap. Nearly 300 people trickle into the dimly-lit, red-carpeted Globe Theatre in downtown Calgary. The geek-speckled crowd is here to see Guy Kawasaki, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist, moderate a panel discussion. The question they’re exploring: “Is Calgary emerging as a Silicon Valley hotbed of new technology?” It’s the perfect place for Sharon McIntyre and Claudia Moore, a college lecturer and a marketer, to pump up their nickname for Western Canada’s budding tech scene: the Wired West.

In the last few years, a number of companies in the province have signed big deals or been bought by industry giants. StumbleUpon, iStockphoto, VoodooPC, Veer and Investopedia: all Alberta companies, all recently acquired. The buyers were eBay, Getty Images, HewlettPackard, Corbis and Forbes.

“This happens quite often in economies that have a very traditional base,” says McIntyre, who studies the relationship between environment and innovation among small businesses. Calgary’s core is undoubtedly oil and gas. “But if you look around,” she says, “there are a number of companies where people have begun to create technology that’s not just for that host industry. There really is an undefined, emerging group of tech companies that aren’t connected to oil and gas.”

There’s momentum now, agrees John Bristowe, a development advisor with Microsoft Canada in Calgary. Bristowe, who talks to developers throughout Western Canada, noticed the shift in 2004. “I don’t know what happened,” he says, “but the tech community really began to take off.” Case in point: Calgary. “We’ve always had a vibrant developer community,” he says, “but what you’re seeing now is a growing interest in venture capital, entrepreneurship and the sort of things you only hear about down in Silicon Valley.”

McIntyre traces this activity to a set of specific market conditions in the West. The relatively sparse population, intensive access to telecommunications and proximity to an enormous market south of the border create the ideal incubation conditions for small companies. They can be spread apart geographically but connected electronically, which lets them carve out niches without worrying about the cutthroat competition they’d encounter in bigger tech hubs.

This initial growth, McIntyre says, may be only the tipping point. “What remains is for one of these emerging tech companies to stick around, not be acquired, and become a force that others can build around,” she says. In other words, to become an anchor. So, who’s testing the waters? – Jesse Semko

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