In 2011, Jeff Lawrence was wrapping up his graduate studies at Stanford University in California and preparing to launch his third company, Granify. But just before settling into the nearby startup mecca of Silicon Valley, Lawrence had a change of heart.
He picked up and returned to Edmonton where he would try his luck in the city’s uncharted e-commerce sector.
Five years later, Granify, which helps online retailers predict which shoppers aren’t going to buy and then sways them to finish the purchase, is backed by high-profile early investors in Twitter, Facebook, Airbnb, Pinterest and Yelp, including PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel. Last year alone, the company raised $15 million in funding, and grew from 19 employees to 42 to fill out its 4,000-square-foot office in downtown Edmonton.
“The startup environment here is dramatically better now,” Lawrence says, comparing his situation to when he started his first company, Canada Backup, in 2001. “If you think back even five years ago, everyone graduating would look at having the security of a great-paying job with an oil company or within the government. Startups were a big risk. Now that startups are better known, and we’ve seen some high-profile ones in Edmonton, people coming out of school are considering it as an option.”
Edmonton is known traditionally as an industrial city with strong manufacturing (particularly as it relates to the energy sector) and construction industries. But with industrial development declining along with the drop in oil prices, new opportunities are opening up.
“When you have an industrial town, a government town, a university town and a young town, it becomes a very creative town,” says Brad Ferguson, president and CEO of Edmonton Economic Development Corp. “We’re seeing the emergence of a lot of entrepreneur-based businesses here that can grow extremely quickly and attract people and capital.”
The city now has a number of organizations for developing and commercializing technology innovations. There’s the Edmonton Research Park, for example, a research and development hub for sectors such as medicine, biotech, electronics and telecommunications, as well as TEC Edmonton, a tech accelerator encouraging businesses and investors to explore opportinites outside the resource-based economy.
In fact, the prospect of further diversifying Edmonton’s economy was one of Lawrence’s motives for moving back to the Alberta capital. “Typically, people invest in what they know,” he says. “A lot of people in Edmonton have made money in energy, so that’s where they invest. If we can help change that a little bit, and have people make money on technology, then hopefully that will help Alberta diversify.”
The second reason for his homecoming was the incredible pool of talent in Edmonton, which boasts 10 post-secondary schools with nearly 200,000 students. “In Edmonton, there’s one of the best data science schools in North America, so we saw an opportunity to access great talent that doesn’t have many spots to go,” says Lawrence (referring to the University of Alberta). “There was a bit of a brain drain to Silicon Valley from Edmonton and we wanted to step in and help keep people here.”
As Ferguson points out, keeping people in the city in general isn’t a problem. Edmonton was the second-fastest-growing metropolitan region in Canada last year, with its population rising 2.7% (compared to 1% for Canada overall). It is also responsible for creating 20% of the country’s new jobs. Households earned, on average, close to $10,000 more than the national median.
“People are starting to realize it’s a good market to start a company,” says Ferguson. “You can come here for opportunity, you can create something new and exciting, and you can get ahead financially doing it.”