The Alberta government is committing $18.7 million during the next three years to regional business development networks across the the province. This includes $735,000 for the Wood Buffalo Regional Innovation Network (WBRIN), a network of six organizations working to promote local technological innovation from businesses and entrepreneurs.
“This is designed to help all facets of the Alberta economy, so everything from agriculture technology development, financial technology services, blockchain, artificial intelligence—you name the piece,” said Doug Schweitzer, Alberta’s minister for jobs, economy and innovation, at a Tuesday press conference. “We’re going to make sure we set up our province for long-term success for generations to come, our best days are ahead and Alberta is truly back.”
WBRIN is one of eight other Regional Innovation Networks (RIN) across Alberta. Each network offers small businesses and startups coaching, advice, technical expertise and opportunities to meet others across the province.
Schweitzer estimates the organizations support 1,600 entrepreneurs annually and have helped 7,000 innovators. The networks are funded by the province and administered by the provincial funding agency Alberta Innovates.
“Regionally, each network provides its own areas of expertise and an exceptional talent,” said Laura Kilcrease, CEO of Alberta Innovates, at the same press conference. “With the eight RINs that cover this whole network and this whole province, there’s no place an entrepreneur could not go and get the help they need.”
WBRIN is made up of Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo Economic Development and Tourism (FMWBEDT), Keyano College, the Fort McMurray Chamber of Commerce, Community Futures Wood Buffalo and the Oil Sands Community Alliance (OSCA).
Dianna de Sousa, executive director of the Fort McMurray Chamber of Commerce, knows most people do not think of the region as a technology hub and that the sector is not going to become the region’s dominant economic force.
But demand is growing in the oilsands for companies providing services in fields such as artificial intelligence, automation, augmented and virtual reality, and data and analytics. There are also opportunities for those services within the community.
“I feel good about the funding. It’s helping us to create funding and programming to allow for the building of that tech skillset,” she said in an interview after the press conference.
Kevin Weidlich, CEO of FMWBEDT, said WBRIN can connect entrepreneurs with small-scale and industrial laser cutters, 3D printers, a virtual reality suite for production, and different types of software for programming needs. All this is available in the region through Startup YMM.
“Those existing businesses and entrepreneurs now have access to Alberta’s entire innovation system from here,” Weidlich said after the press conference.
Both Weidlich and de Sousa also said they want to see high school and Keyano College students more involved with WBRIN. Schools locally have put a greater focus on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) in recent years, but both leaders said there are few opportunities locally to pursue those talents.
“We have so many great people here who win awards and so many of our kids go on to do really well. We shouldn’t limit ourselves,” said de Sousa. “We should offer opportunities for them to find their glory here in our community. Maybe sometimes they will come back after school.”
-with files from Lisa Johnson