Avenue Edmonton June 2020

Page 1





Startup Edmonton Helping #YEG founders make their business ideas a reality since 2009


ince beginning as a community initiative more than ten years ago, Startup Edmonton has brought together entrepreneurs, founders, developers, students, mentors, and investors to transform ideas into some of Canada’s most exciting and successful startup and scaling companies. Since then, we’ve grown beyond our roots as a grassroots organization and now act as an entry-point and hub for the technology-based entrepreneur community across the city. Startup Edmonton is a passionate supporter of that community, and focuses on helping founders start and grow their tech-enabled companies. Building a company requires the support of many different people and organizations along the way, and Startup’s role is an essential piece of the puzzle at the start of that journey, having supported such rising Edmonton companies as Jobber, Poppy Barley, Drivewyze and hundreds of others. Based out of the historic Mercer Warehouse since 2012, Startup is home to 14,000 square feet of co-working, event and programming

space, and hosts classes for founders from before company inception to the start of the scale-up stage. In 2014, Startup Edmonton was acquired by Edmonton Economic Development Corporation (EEDC), and since then has continued its growing work as a keystone of the innovation community in the city. In a normal year, there are 300+ meetups, events, workshops and socials in the space and in the community. Since moving to virtual delivery in March, Startup Edmonton has doubled down on its programming, offering free access to live-online versions of its Business Model 101, Preflight and Propel programs, knowing that right now, as always, is still the best time to explore your business idea. We know that technology touches every aspect of our lives; and Edmonton is brimming with bright, ambitious, hard-working people that are tackling challenges every day with the incredible opportunities that technology brings. If you are thinking of starting up a techenabled business, or just want to find out more, go to startupedmonton.com









Starting at $275,000

Starting at $598,000

Starting at $599,900




This is not an offering for sale. Such an offering can only be made with a disclosure statement. E. & O.E.







Do you love it for the crunch? The chewiness? The Incr eased fibre? Or its lasting energy? The deliciously. edible poss essive benefits it has for health and the flex ibilities of wh olesome food it puts on the table are always a tr eat. A


Come for the Action, Stay for the Fun!

3 Exciting Locations in the Edmonton Area! Visit us at cnty.com EDMONTON 13103 Fort Road

LEDUC (Next to EIA) 4711 Airport Perimeter Road

ST. ALBERT 24 Boudreau Road


I N N O VAT I O N 2020

Sponsored by:

Platinum Sponsor

Media Sponsors

Health & Medical Category Sponsor

Financial & Business Category Sponsor

Listen to the Innovation Event on 630 CHED | June 10 from 2:00 - 3:00pm


Whether you’re learning a new language, reading a book in your favourite format, streaming an award-winning movie or getting crafty, the Edmonton Public Library (EPL) offers a world of possibilities instantly available at your ďŹ ngertips. EPL continues to help build a city where everyone can access the tools, knowledge, ideas and experiences needed to thrive and continually stay curious in a constantly changing world. It all starts with your FREE library card: epl.ca/signup


You heard from thought-provoking speakers such as John Douglas and Anthony Ray Hinton, who shared their ideas to help us build better communities.

HOW DID EDMONTONIANS USE EPL IN 2019? You enjoyed digital content more than ever, and checked out 11% more eBooks, 12% more digital newspapers and magazines, 28% more eAudiobooks and almost 140% more digital movies and TV shows.

EPL SAVES Edmontonians



used their LIBRARY


$131.5 million each year

epl.ca/signup To read the compete version of EPL’s 2019 Annual Report, visit epl.ca/2019report.







839,593 COMPUTER


You often stopped by one of our 21 EPL locations to check out the latest Staff Picks.


visits to EPL


You borrowed 28% more eAudiobooks.


million ITEMS


4 million over




You were supported by EPL staff in-person, by phone, chat, email and in the community.

Edmonton’s best events, delivered weekly to your inbox. A bouquet of gratitude to the people working the front lines.

SUBSCRIBE to the FREE Avenue Weekender at AvenueEdmonton.com/ Newsletters

Thank you!


10 avenue J U N E . 2 0


SHIFTING PERSPECTIVES Now more than ever, innovation plays a critical role in defining Alberta’s future. Alberta Innovates leads the way by bringing people and resources together to help Alberta businesses grow, create new opportunities and jobs, and solve challenges. Through our world-class expertise, leadingedge facilities and strategic investments, we’re charting the course of innovation that will help renew and sustain Alberta’s prosperity

today, and for generations to come.

Learn how albertainnovates.ca

Clean Resources

Agriculture, Forestry & Food

Emerging Technologies

Health Innovation

YES, THIS IS WHAT THE FUTURE LOOKS LIKE For BETTER results, FASTER diagnosis and a STRONGER community DynaLIFE is partnering with Edmonton-based Alta ML to bring innovative solutions in digital pathology to real-world applications — for clinicians, students, researchers and Albertans.

Driven by innovation, guided by compassion, we lead the way to health because we care. See us at dynaLIFE.ca



JAGGED LITTLE PILL For this scientist and businessman, developing and funding a new life-changing drug has been a 25-year high-wire act.



#YEG We learn how Edmonton’s early days as a recycling pioneer influenced this writer’s life.


STRANGE BREW How a fresh cup of coffee started a journey around the world.



BIO BOOM Matt AndersonBaron’s company is figuring out how to nourish — and what to call — lab-grown meat.



A TALE OF TWO CITIES Edmonton and Calgary combine to create an innovation powerhouse.





22 BIO BOOM We look at the history of Edmonton’s most successful gaming company and how a local organization is making games more accessible.



GARBAGE IN, FUEL OUT This Edmonton processing plant is not like the others.





AV E N U E E D M O N T O N . C O M

Publisher Trudy Callaghan Associate Publisher Chelsey Swankhuizen (On Leave) Editor Steven Sandor Art Director Kim Larson Assistant Editor Cory Schachtel


Digital Editor Kateryna Didukh Production Artist Betty Feniak Contributors Eliza Barlow, Andrew Benson, Scott Carmichael, Lisa Catterall, Emily Chu, Mai Ly Degnan, Austen Lee, Michelle Magnan McIvor, Chelsea Novak, Renato Pagnani, Chris Reyes, Pete Ryan, Holly Schofield, Ben Weeks Director of National Sales Lindy Neustaedter Account Executives Melissa Brown, Jocelyn Erhardt, Sam Farrell, Brad Kelly, Deise MacDougall, Anita McGillis Sales and Traffic Assistant Adrienne Vanderheyden Accounting Lana Luchianova Production Art Odvod Media Printing Transcontinental Inc. Distribution: GREENLine Distribution Subscriptions (prices plus GST): One year $27.95. Two years $49.95. Three years $69.95. One year American $45.00 ($65 US) Submissions Avenue accepts queries via email for editorial submissions. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts. Please review writers’ guidelines at www.avenueedmonton.com. Published 12 times/year by Odvod Publishing Inc. Copyright (2020) by Odvod Publishing Inc. Odvod Publishing Inc. is a partnership between Odvod Media Corp. and RedPoint Media Group Inc. REDPOINT MEDIA GROUP INC. President Pete Graves Editor-in-Chief Käthe Lemon No part of this publication may be reproduced without the written consent of the publisher. The views and opinions herein do not necessarily represent those of Odvod Publishing, the publisher, Trudy Callaghan or the editor, Steven Sandor. Canadian Publications Mail Product Agreement No. 41354037. Return undeliverable Canadian addresses to address below: ODVOD PUBLISHING INC. 10221 123 Street, Edmonton, AB, Canada T5N 1N3 T 780.451.1379 F 780.482.5417 www.odvodpublishing.com info@odvodpublishing.com

Sponsored by: Platinum Sponsor

Media Sponsors

14 avenue J U N E . 2 0

Health & Medical Category Sponsor

Financial & Business Category Sponsor


Entrepreneur. Game-changer. Business leader. You’re a big-picture thinker and a born leader. You’re willing to work hard to prove yourself. And you’re not afraid to shake things up.

Receive exclusive event invitations, offers and more

Develop the practical skills you need to make your business instincts pay off.

Learn more about the Bachelor of Commerce at MacEwan.ca/BCom AvenueEdmonton.com/Newsletters




A few months ago, in putting together a piece for this, our second annual innovation issue, I sat down with Dr. Robert Foster at his office. After we chatted about how a drug goes from an idea to a lab to clinical trials to approval, we started to talk about: What is it that sparks innovation? It’s easy to use that word nowadays and think of artificial intelligence and super-fast computers and a small phone that can store way more data than a full-on desktop computer could a few years ago. It’s easy to think about new medical procedures and particle accelerators and outer space. But, we got right down to the brass tacks. Foster talked about how amazed he is by people who put words and music together. How a researcher he knows can isolate a single cell in the human liver. Here is a man who has been an innovator all of his life, and he expressed wonderment at how the minds of others worked. The truth is, innovation influences almost all parts of our daily lives. Some are innovations that are recent — like the fact that you can have all those videos on your phone and still have memory left over — and some are ancient. Do you ever wonder, who was it that first thought that straining water through the roasted beans from coffee-plant cherries would be a good idea? If you think about it, coffee is the product of out-of-the-box thinking from centuries ago. Think about so many of the other cooking techniques you and others use. They’re all the products of many years worth of trial and error.

16 avenue J U N E . 2 0

Think about how long humankind has dreamed of being able to fly. We’ve seen the sketches for flying machines made by Leonardo Da Vinci. So many failed before the Wright brothers got the ideas of thrust and lift and wing shape together. Now, we think of flight as simple science. A lot of us take getting on a plane for granted, don’t we? When was the last time you looked out a plane window and thought, “I am 35,000 feet above the ground right now, and I am going to drop down into a totally different part of the world than I left a couple of hours ago?” At some point, composers figured out that certain types of sounds were merry and bright (the major chords) and that those other minor chords made music that was either angry or sad. Innovation means doing things in ways we haven’t done before. To find better ways to perform our daily tasks. It could be as complicated as creating a new molecule that can be used to treat patients (p. 34), or finding a better way to make a cup of coffee (p. 40). And, the COVID-19 pandemic forced us to innovate, as well. With social isolation being the new normal, we couldn’t schedule photo shoots. Or, it would look rather intimidating if we had pictures with a bunch of people wearing masks. So, we pivoted and commissioned what is Avenue’s first issue where pretty well all of the art is illustrated, save for this editor’s photo and the contributors’ photos on the page after next.



Steven Sandor Editor steve@odvodpublishing.com RANDOM THOUGHT How has COVID-19 forced you or your family to innovate? To communicate with others? To celebrate holidays or special occasions? Let me know @stevensandor








Chris Reyes @its_chrisreyes Chris Reyes is an Edmonton-based graphic designer. His experience as an art director at an advertising and design studio has allowed him to work on national campaigns for various clients. Chris’s love for design focuses on typography, branding and advertising. Lately, he’s been exploring typography by studying letterforms. He’s also an amateur cocktail connoisseur and will never turn down an Old Fashioned.

Renato Pagnani @rennavat Renato Pagnani has written for publications such as Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, Maclean’s and the Edmonton Journal, among others. Born and raised in Edmonton, you can usually spot him around town wearing more patterns than advisable in one outfit.

Chelsea Novak @chelseaanovak Chelsea Novak is a founding editor of Daze Magazine and editor for Spotlight Alberta. She worked as a community reporter in British Columbia for three years, has a Master of Journalism degree from the University of British Columbia and loves comic books. She hopes that by the time you read this, we are all freed from self-isolation.

Ben Weeks @ben_weeks

Fresh food content delivered weekly AvenueEdmonton.com/Newsletters 18 avenue J U N E . 2 0

Chocolate, chicken, cheese. Fun words to say that have nothing to do with the chilling horror films of Ben Weeks. Actually no. Ben is an illustrator. He draws pictures that help communicate important ideas and emotional atmospheres. He illustrated Roméo Dallaire’s book on child soldiers, did artwork for a national Honda campaign and silently judges unwise Facebook comments. Today he hosted doll battles for his children. Uncontrollable laughter ensued.

Edmonton Community Foundation congratulates the Social Enterprise Fund on 10 years of changing the road to social enterprise in Alberta.



20 avenue J U N E . 2 0

POWERUP Avenue’s first Innovation issue was a hit, so we decided to do it again this year — to turn our eyes on the innovators who are changing the way we create energy, how we keep our health and even how we eat. From tech to biobusiness, Edmonton is a hub for people who think outside the box. With the global crash of oil prices and the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the discussions about innovation and our need to diversify our economy are more important than they’ve ever been. These are the people and businesses who will help build a new Alberta.







THE MOTHER OF INNOVATION IS COLLABORATION The organizers behind the Alberta Innovation Corridor hope cooperation between Edmonton and Calgary will help attract more tech business to the region. Critics wonder if it isn’t just adding an extra layer of bureaucracy to the nascent industry.

by Michelle Magnan McIvor with files from Steven Sandor

+ illustration Ben Weeks

22 avenue J U N E . 2 0

arly last year, Platform Calgary, Innovate Edmonton and Calgary Economic Development — organizations in Edmonton and Calgary that represent their respective E tech sectors — were preparing to attend Collision, one of the largest technology conferences in North America, to promote their cities’ tech startups. After months of informal discussions, they decided to try something new: working together. As a team, they negotiated better exhibitor rates for both cities, secured booths next to each other and showcased more than 30 of Alberta’s emerging tech companies. No detail of their cooperation was too small; Edmonton brought the doughnuts, Calgary provided the coffee (and some local beer). By all accounts, the cities generated more buzz working side by side, which never hurts when you’re competing for the attention of 25,000 attendees from around the world. “It is so hard to stand out as a country at these big trade shows and events, let alone as a city. We decided to work together to see what would happen,” says Terry Rock, president and CEO of Platform Calgary. “The feedback was, ‘Oh, Alberta’s serious,’ and people paid attention. We recognized that we can make way more noise when we show up together.” Following their success at Collision, leaders at the two organizations — Cheryll Watson, formerly of Innovate Edmonton and Terry Rock from Platform Calgary — banded together to launch the Alberta Innovation Corridor (AIC) in June 2019. Calgary Economic Development, headed by Mary Moran, also came on board as a “funding founder.” Showing up together is what the cities’ new initiative is all about. The group’s activities are currently on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the City of Edmonton’s decision to reorganize its organizational pyramid when it comes to supporting the innovation sector. But the joint pursuit plans to act as “an advocate for technology-enabled innovative companies,” committed

to creating programs and services to help Alberta-based businesses succeed, while also attracting more talent, investment and companies to the province. Ultimately, the AIC is looking to drive economic prosperity for all Albertans. While the overarching goal is big, the initial steps have been small. So far, the founding leaders have posted a website, spoken publicly about the AIC and written the occasional op-ed. Each organization has committed money to cover nominal start-up costs and contributed staff hours for committee work tackling marketing communications, data collection and, eventually, to establish tangible programs. “We want to move from just showing up at events together to having programming on the ground supporting businesses but we’re not there yet,” says Rock. When the organization springs back into action, the AIC’s main focus is spreading the word. And the word is Edmonton and Calgary are stronger together. “Edmonton is an academic and talent powerhouse, and we’re number three in the world for artificial intelligence and machine learning,” said Watson before she departed her post as the Economic Edmonton Development Corporation’s vice president in charge of Innovate Edmonton. Watson’s departure was the first shoe to drop. In early May, city council voted unanimously to begin the process of replacing Innovate Edmonton with a new innovation entity, scheduled to be formed in the second half of 2020. The new body will no longer be under the EEDC umbrella. Instead, it will be run by an eight-person board, with members who have expertise in the innovation sector. The new entity will then formulate a plan which will be integrated into Edmonton’s wider economic development strategy, planned for the first quarter of 2021. But, if the new Edmonton innovation entity won’t have a real plan in place till early 2021, what does that mean for the AIC? Does that mean the hold pattern will extend until next year?



“We wouldn’t want to wait a year to discuss that,” Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson said before council voted on the new innovation plan, but he added that talks will need to be held in private on how the corridor strategy will be revived, because so much of it depends on intergovernmental cooperation. And there were fears within council that leaving the AIC on the back burner for too long could end up burning the city. “I am anxious to have that conversation,” said Coun. Michael Walters. “From a strategic perspective, unless we keep our eye on that very carefully, it could be damaging to Edmonton, if we’re not completely engaged in (the AIC) in the interim.”

“ This is what we have to do right now because, globally, we’re subscale. We have to combine forces.” – Brad Zumwalt, co-founder, Rainforest Alberta

algary is known for energy and financial services and its tech scene has been quietly growing in leaps and bounds, particularly in clean energy, agriculture and C life sciences. In fact, according to a recent PwC report, Calgary’s tech sector ranked fifth in Canada for financial deal flow in 2019, behind Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and Waterloo, when it secured 22 of the 37 deals that took place across all of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. To take Alberta’s tech industry to the next level, the AIC has a handful of near-term goals, including establishing a program to accelerate business development for artificial intelligence startups and advancing joint marketing activities to raise the province’s profile. “This is what we have to do right now because, globally, we’re sub-scale. We have to combine forces,” says Brad Zumwalt, a Calgary-based entrepreneur who, over the years, has grown and sold technology companies, including the stock photo businesses Eyewire and Veer, to the likes of Getty Images, Corbis and Adobe. He has always believed the cities need to cooperate and, in 2016, he co-founded Rainforest Alberta, a grassroots organization dedicated to improving Alberta’s innovation ecosystem. When asked how people will know if the AIC’s efforts are 24 avenue J U N E . 2 0

successful, Zumwalt says time will tell. “Our 10-year goal is to grow 1,000 great companies in Calgary and 1,000 great companies in Edmonton. So, it won’t be like, ‘Kumbaya, it’ll feel nice,’ if we do this. It has to deliver that number.” The implied benefits of a thriving innovation corridor are massive — more jobs, greater investment, heightened ability to compete globally. But will it actually work? Logistics pose the most obvious challenge to both cities working together. Google Maps says 299 kilometres separate Alberta’s major cities, but people from the AIC’s organizations have said they don’t mind driving, jumping on a Red Arrow bus or, when the occasion warrants, chartering buses to make the trip. They meet in person whenever is convenient and have weekly calls to drive the cause forward. If anything, the physical distance just means working harder to keep the other city in the loop. Watson said it’s easy to remember people you run into in the hallway or see out at a restaurant. Throw in a 300-km divide and cooperation gets trickier. “We are 100 per cent committed to this partnership, but things move so fast in the tech space,” Watson said before the Edmonton shuffle. “We’ll get halfway down a path on something and realize, ‘Whoa. Hey, did anyone call Calgary?’” Making sure everyone is at the table is one thing. Making sure the right people are there is another. There are three government-funded organizations leading the AIC charge, but many others are advocating for the tech industry, at the same time. According to some entrepreneurs, it’s confusing and unnecessary. “There’s a myriad of organizations and no one knows what to make of all of them. Their wires are disconnected and there’s no cohesive purpose,” says Chris LaBossiere, the Edmonton-based co-founder and CEO of Yardstick Software Inc. He lists a handful of agencies working to advance the tech sector in the province’s capital alone: TEC Edmonton, Startup Edmonton, Edmonton Global, Western Economic Diversification Canada and Alberta Women Entrepreneurs, among others. “I don’t know if the Alberta Innovation Corridor is just the idea of two or three people or if this is the start of a consensus in terms of how we talk about this in Alberta. Colour me cynical or maybe a little bit suspicious of how successful it will be,” says LaBossiere. Despite this cynicism, a central purpose does seem to be afoot. Edmonton’s new innovation authority is meant to be

run by the people who best understand how the new economy works. The recruitment process for the board has already begun, and the city is willing to look not only at people in Edmonton’s tech sector, but expats who have moved to tech hotspots around the world. As administration reported to council, the new body would be “for the community, by the community” and would be more streamlined and nimble than Innovate Edmonton, which is scheduled to be shut down by autumn of this year. At the provincial level, Rock says Alberta Innovates, the organization that provides funding for innovation networks across the province, has encouraged Edmonton and Calgary to collaborate more in the future. And Rock says the AIC is up to the challenge – and will be transparent about its progress, if for no other reason than to keep the partnership’s efforts moving. As he says, “We want to be publicly accountable.” Mary Moran, president and chief executive officer of Calgary Economic Development (CED), isn’t concerned about who leads and who follows, or even who’s involved in the AIC, as long as the work gets done. She’s excited about the opportunity to reposition the cities as an innovation hub and says the AIC is just one of many CED initiatives designed to create jobs in Calgary. To her, getting the word out to the rest of the country and beyond will be one of the AIC’s biggest challenges. “Toronto and Waterloo, and even Vancouver and Montreal, are well known for their innovation ecosystems,” she says. “We’re a late entrant into the technology world because the story of innovation in Alberta has been grossly under-told. I always jokingly say, ‘I can retire the day we get federal politicians standing up and talking about the Edmonton Calgary innovation corridor, as opposed to Toronto/Waterloo.”

If telling Alberta’s innovation story is one of the AIC’s biggest challenges — and opportunities — some may question who, exactly, is doing the telling. In the past, tech entrepreneurs have expressed concern over traditional businesspeople and long-term bureaucrats leading government-funded organizations, such as those involved with the AIC. If the organizations don’t understand the ins and outs of the fast-moving sector, how are they expected to advocate for its success? “As far as I’m concerned, we’re the best at knowing how to sell our business,” says Daniel Riddell, chief technology officer at Kidoodle. TV, a Calgary company creating safe streaming services for children. Riddell himself is based in Edmonton and says the company has been grateful to receive funds from national and provincial entities, but their programs sometimes miss the mark. “For example, we might receive funding to go to a conference abroad, but we’re not able to receive more funding to give a presentation or be a sponsor to promote our business, which would make the biggest impact. The rules are so rigid, and they don’t see outside the box,” he says. “I do think there could be better knowledge amongst the staff of those organizations about opportunities like ours.” Dr. Breanne Everett, president, CEO and co-founder of Orpyx Medical Technologies in Calgary, believes the disconnect stems from the fact that the tech sector is relatively new in Alberta. But she says there has been progress at organizations like Calgary Economic Development, where staff are getting up to speed on the city’s emerging life sciences sector. “There’s a lot of learning that has to be done by the people supporting the sector,” she says, “but I think they’re doing a good job of recognizing the opportunities here and trying to understand the lay of the land.” And though she isn’t sold on the AIC’s

WHO’S WHO IN THE TECH ZOO: ORGANIZATIONS SUPPORTING AND ADVOCATING FOR THE SECTOR THE A100 Through a people-first approach, the A100 supports up-and-coming tech entrepreneurs to create their businesses. As entrepreneurs themselves, the A100 members use their knowledge and experience to give back to the tech community.

Calgary Economic Development’s goal is to make Calgary an attractive place for businesses. This notfor-profit corporation is funded by the City of Calgary, community partners and other forms of government through the Team Calgary program.

CALGARY ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT Working with local businesses, government and community partners,

CREATIVE DESTRUCTION LAB — ROCKIES With eight locations globally, this program is helping support science-



and technology-based companies all over the world. CDL-Rockies is based out of the Haskayne School of Business at the University of Calgary and specializes in energy and medical technologies, among other industries. creativedestructionlab.com

EDMONTON GLOBAL The vison of the team at Edmonton Global is to make the Edmonton Metropolitan Region a choice location for global investment. This regional or-

ganization works to attract investment and talent from around the world.


HEALTH CITY Working with the health innovation ecosystems in the Edmonton area, Health City wants to showcase Edmonton as a hub for health technology. The goal is to bring the worldclass research and innovation that is happening in the health sector into commercialized products for the public. edmontonhealthcity.ca



plan to market the cities as one hub, she is certain someone needs to fight for tech entrepreneurs. In 2019, the United Conservative Party terminated two programs encouraging growth in the tech industry, one of which gave companies a tax rebate on research and development, and another that gave investors a 30 per cent tax credit for investing in small, technology-focused businesses. Everett says the “backwards” move delivered a blow to Alberta’s tech companies that was both absolute and relative. She says Alberta’s industry is now at a disadvantage, forced to compete with provinces that still have similar, if not better, programs in place. In this way, Everett is hopeful the AIC can make a difference. “Anytime you can get people within the province creating a louder voice to push back on policy changes that negatively affect a growing sector, that amplification is key,” she says. “For that reason, I think something like [the AIC] is excellent.”

INNOVATE EDMONTON This organization is being phased out, and is scheduled to cease operations this fall. It will be replaced by a new innovation authority. eedc.ca

PLATFORM CALGARY A civic entity that operates on behalf of the City of Calgary to encourage innovation in the city. Platform supports startups and entrepreneurs and is in the process of launching the Platform Innovation Centre, which is scheduled to open in early 2021. platformcalgary.com

26 avenue J U N E . 2 0

RAINFOREST ALBERTA Rainforest is a movement created in 2016 by entrepreneurs in Calgary and Edmonton. The program cultivates an environment where innovation can thrive and other local entrepreneurs can meet to bounce ideas off one another. rainforestab.ca

STARTUP CALGARY In 2017, Startup Calgary became part of Calgary Economic Development and now works to create connections for startups and local businesses. Startup Calgary guides entrepreneurs. startupcalgary.ca

Alex Hryciw was the director of strategy and government relations for Innovate Edmonton. She worked closely with Watson. She said the AIC’s members had been meeting with the Alberta government to lobby for new business-friendly initiatives, including a visa program for startups and a startup-in-residence program that would make it easier for small tech companies to land Alberta-based corporations and governments as their first customers. Collaborating on initiatives like these is just the beginning for the corridor. “Imagine how much more powerful the bids Edmonton and Calgary made for Amazon would have been had we pitched both cities’ strengths and the regions between them,” said Hryciw. “Long term, there are so many different spinoffs that could come out of the two huge municipalities working together.” And if one of those spinoffs happens to make travel between Edmonton and Calgary faster, that would be icing on the AIC’s cake (although it’s

STARTUP EDMONTON With mentoring, coworking space and community events offered through Startup Edmonton, small businesses have the support they need. Tech-enabled products are the focus of this organization and it offers free memberships for students. startupedmonton.com

TEC EDMONTON This business accelerator helps health-technology companies to grow and develop. A joint initiative between the University of Alberta and

the Edmonton Economic Development Corporation, TEC Edmonton is made up of both entrepreneurs and researchers. tecedmonton.com

WESTERN ECONOMIC DIVERSIFICATION CANADA This is the federal government’s organization responsible for economic growth in Western Canada. It provides programs and services and supports legislation that allows businesses in Western Canada to apply for funding and other services. wd-deo.gc.ca

not officially tackling that cause, yet). “Wouldn’t it be great if we had high-speed rail between the cities?” says Rock. “It would not be a linear change in the amount of activity. It would be exponential.” As the AIC group strives to make Alberta a better place to do business, it’s keenly aware that people have to want to live here, too. Knowledge workers seek out cities that are livable and relocate accordingly. If Alberta wants to retain its own highly educated workforce and attract international talent, the AIC needs to start promoting its major cities, and fast. Malcolm Bruce, CEO of Edmonton Global, says when he polled 22 international site selectors (firms that help companies relocate to places around the globe), 82 per cent said they had never thought about the Edmonton Metropolitan Region. The rest said they did think about Edmonton. They thought of it as “cold, remote and disconnected.”

“ Imagine how much more powerful the bids Edmonton and Calgary made for Amazon would have been had we pitched both cities’ strenghts and the regions between them.” – Alex Hryciw

LaBossiere says the image problem is real. “In 15 years of trying to recruit executives, we’ve never had any one of them want to come here,” he says. “Partly because of that livability conversation, we eventually moved [one of our company’s] head offices to Ottawa before we sold it.” If the AIC can succeed in shifting the existing narrative, as well as promoting the Alberta story, Bruce says both municipal regions will reap the benefits. “It won’t always be symmetric, but the fact is we will win together.” Earlier this year, the province scored a win when ESQ Business Services, a global software development company in the financial services sector headquartered in Silicon Valley, California, announced Calgary as the home of its new Canadian subsidiary, Cloudexa Technology. Bob Perreault, ESQ’s COO, says the company considered Vancouver, Montreal, Winnipeg, Toronto and Calgary before making its decision. Executives were looking for a “livable city” for their employees, one with a good work/life balance, an affordable cost of living, plenty of leisure activities and easy commuting. “Calgary’s livability is one of the best in the world,” says Perreault, “so that gave us a focal point.” The most important factor, he says, was how the City of Calgary and CED worked together to make ESQ’s process easier. “Everything we needed, from leases to attorneys to service providers, they had already

done the research for us,” he says. “That allowed us to open our office six to 12 months sooner than we would have elsewhere.” The AIC’s efforts didn’t play into ESQ’s decision-making process, but Perreault has seen the website and thinks it’s a fantastic idea. “If you want to diversify out of the oil and gas industry, as the province does, you have to find complementary opportunities for people who will be displaced out of that or who come in and do something different,” he says. Cloudexa is hiring locally and encouraging ESQ employees to move to Calgary, with plans to grow the office to approximately 50 to 75 people by its second year of business. As far as Perreault is concerned, Alberta’s innovation corridor currently extends “to north Calgary,” but that doesn’t mean he’s not rooting for the initiative. “If [the AIC] succeeds, then I have the opportunity to grow my business even more,” he says. “We’re starting with one city and once we make that successful, we’ll go from there.” Though Edmonton wasn’t in the race to win Cloudexa’s business, Alberta’s major cities will surely be forced to compete in the months and years to come. And what will the AIC do then? The AIC is working on establishing some rules of engagement. “If we’re competing for something, we have to have a way of having that conversation that doesn’t sour everything,” says Rock. When it comes to the battle, he is confident everyone involved will remember what matters most. “Ultimately, we have to forget the notion that it’s about our organization or our city. It’s actually about creating jobs and helping founders get their tech companies going.” On a Wednesday night in February, nearly 100 of said entrepreneurs gathered for a private event on the second floor of Trolley 5 Brewpub, a bar in the heart of Calgary’s Red Mile. Startup Calgary was hosting an event called Startup Drinks & Pitches. Founders, investors and supporters showed up to make connections, mingle and run their ideas past a room of like-minded people. Once everyone had settled in, organizers began pulling names out of a jar to determine the 10 people who’d get onstage and give their one-minute pitches. Signs next to the stage gave tips such as “Be concise, less is more,” and “Be enthusiastic.” (The first nugget of advice for the audience? “Be encouraging.”) The crowd listened intently to the ideas, among them an app to help consumers find the most affordable groceries and a widget to improve business communications. There was cheering. Conversation. Sharing. Though one table full of entrepreneurs had not yet heard about the AIC or its mission, it was clear that cooperation is a concept they understand well. “If you’re in the tech sector, you’re probably trying to solve a problem. If you’re going to solve it for Calgary, why not solve it for Edmonton and Lethbridge and Red Deer and everyone else, as well?” said Tyler Doell, who was there to chat about Fundsustain Inc., an online business he’s developing to help charities and non-profits raise monthly donations. “It’s important to have that fluidity between our two major cities, to have that community and to share resources. Hockey differences aside, at heart we all have pride in being Albertan.” AvenueEdmonton.com 2 7

28 avenue J U N E . 2 0


by Renato Pagnani + illustration Scott Carmichael


AUGUSTINE YIP, WERE ON A SHOESTRING BUDGET, SO, WHEN IT CAME TO FINDING SPACE TO WORK, THE TRIO TOOK THE MOST PRAGMATIC APPROACH — THEY SET UP SHOP IN A CRAMPED ROOM IN THE BASEMENT OF ZESCHUK’S HOME. “The ceilings were so low, Ray would hit his head on a regular basis,” laughs Zeschuk. “But we had space, and we had power, so we made it work.” It was in that basement they started developing what would become their first game, Shattered Steel, which was created jointly with the Calgary-based Pyrotek Studios and released in 1996. By that point, BioWare needed more room, so the company moved into the second floor of a building off 109th Street and 88th Avenue, out of which cycling company Redbike now operates on the ground level.



“It’s been renovated since, but at the time it was really run-down,” says Zeschuk, who now runs Blind Enthusiasm Brewing Company and Biera, both of which can be found in Ritchie Market, which he also owns. “There were only four plugs in the wall, so the power would go out all the time. There were about 20 of us at the time, and we all had to turn on our computers in a specific sequence to avoid blowing the circuit breaker for the whole building.” After six months of frustration, BioWare moved to a location on Whyte Avenue for a few years, eventually landing in a building on Calgary Trail and 45th Avenue, where it remained for over 15 years. Over that time, it released some of the most successful games of all time, such as 1998’s Baldur’s Gate, a smash hit which was credited with saving the role-playing game genre, which later included BioWare games like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and, more recently, the Mass Effect and Dragon Age franchises. Never did Zeschuk, who retired from the gaming industry at the end of 2012, think that the company he started out of his basement would one day occupy three stories in a downtown skyscraper. Last fall, BioWare moved into a custom-built 75,000-square-foot space in the EPCOR Tower. Aside from the ability to comfortably house its existing 300 employees, the space will allow the company to continue to expand in the coming years. Its amenities are abundant: In addition to the traditional features, the new office boasts audio recording rooms, an arcade, quiet rooms for employees to take breaks, and a motion-capture studio. Gaming giant Electronic Arts purchased BioWare in 2007 in a whopping $860 million US deal, but BioWare has continued to operate in Edmonton since being acquired by the California-based superdeveloper, maintaining its roots in the community and its identity. Although Zeschuk left BioWare almost eight years ago, he’s glad that the company has chosen to reinvest in Edmonton, and downtown in particular. “I know someone who works at BioWare who decided with his wife to sell their house in Summerside and move downtown,” he says. “There’s a lifestyle factor involved that I think appeals to a lot of the employees who work at the company, and I think it will help them lure talent from elsewhere. It makes the prospect of moving to Edmonton a lot more attractive, especially to young professionals.” But BioWare isn’t the only gaming company that has recently moved into a new office in town. England-based technology startup Improbable opened a branch in Edmonton in the fall of 2018, led by Top 40 Under 40 alumnus Aaryn Flynn, former general manager at BioWare who worked at the company for 17 years. Over a third of Improbable Canada’s 70-plus staff is made up of former BioWare employees, and its office in the historic Metals Building is just a few blocks away from BioWare’s new space. Improbable is known for its SpatialOS, a cloud platform for online games. It allows developers to leverage the cloud to help make their games run faster, look better and feel more realistic. Improbable’s Edmonton team is hard at work on a currently untitled role-playing game that utilizes the SpatialOS platform. It was the creation of the Interactive Digital Media Tax Credit by the provincial government in 2018 — which offered a 25 per cent refundable 30 avenue J U N E . 2 0


tax credit for labour costs — that helped convince Improbable to open an office in Edmonton. “The door really swung open for investment when the tax credit was brought in,” explains Flynn, who is now general manager, North America, at Improbable. “At the time I was looking to start my own studio here in Edmonton, and Improbable got really excited about the prospect of creating their own games. I was really impressed with their technology, so we were able to come together and start a team here.” According to Flynn, there are a number of factors that make Edmonton a desirable location for game developers to plant their flags — like the post-secondary institutions that provide new grads, and the city’s multicultural scene. As of 2019, Edmonton was tied with Winnipeg for fourth place among Canadian cities for the most video game companies, following much larger scenes in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, according to Entertainment Software Association of Canada (ESAC). There are currently 55 companies involved in the gaming industry in Alberta. “There’s a lot of talent in this city, both technical and creative,” he says. “And there are also favourable economics, like a reasonable cost of living compared to a city like Vancouver or Toronto. Not to mention Edmonton’s revitalized downtown, where a lot of the people who have joined our company from out of town have settled.” The growth of Edmonton’s gaming industry over the last decade is part of a larger national trend. According to a Nordicity analysis of the Canadian video game industry from 2017, more than 40,000 people were employed on a full-time basis in the video game industry in 2017, up 11 per cent from 2015. In 2017, the video game industry contributed more than $2 billion to Canada’s GDP, as reported by Nordicity. To help incubate this growth, Alberta’s NDP introduced the digital media tax credit in 2018, but, after just a year, the UCP ended the program, much to the outspoken frustration of companies in the industry. With the removal of the tax credit, there are fears the Alberta scene might stagnate compared to other provinces, like British Columbia and Ontario, where tax credits and other incentives still exist. “It was super disappointing to see the tax credit discontinued,” says Flynn. “When you look at the level playing field it made for our business and many other businesses in Edmonton, it made a lot of sense. I think its removal means that we’re less likely to be on any game development or any other creative endeavour’s radar for growth. The business case for growth has become that much more difficult when you can receive great support in other provinces. “But we’ve got a great blueprint here, we’re happy with the team we’ve assembled, and we’re excited about what we’re building. We’re just one part of a community that together is building a new culture in Edmonton. It’s satisfying that other people are starting to see what I’ve seen in Edmonton for the past 30 years.”


by Renato Pagnani

aming has historically — and somewhat stereotypically — been thought of a hobby dominated by men. The statistics, however, tell a very different G story: According to a 2015 Pew Research Center study, 48 per cent of women in the United States report having played a video game, even though only six per cent identify as gamers, compared to 15 per cent of men. So, while it’s clear that women account for essentially half of all gamers, few women consider that a part of their identities. But organizations like Edmonton Community MeetUp Powered by Twitch are looking to change that. The group, established in 2017, considers itself the premier destination for Twitch streamers, viewers and other content creators to gather, socialize and collaborate in Edmonton. And helping women feel part of the larger gaming community was one of the primary goals. “We’re a women-led organization,” says Community Manager Rebecca Deveau. “We work closely with a number of other women-led groups in town. We really believe that games should be accessible to everyone. The industry has shifted a lot over the last decade, and we want to be a voice for the people who are coming up through the ranks so they can get into contact with the people who will help them grow their talents.

+ illustration Scott Carmichael “We’re really plugged into the game development community here in Edmonton,” she continues. “Our meet-ups usually are a nice blend of content creators, those who play games and stream themselves playing those games, and those involved in the actual production of those games.” Prior to COVID-19, dedicated volunteers organized two major social events per year as well as smaller monthly meet-ups. Their first event in 2017 drew around 40 people. As of 2019, events easily eclipsed 200 participants. The group has had to find bigger spaces to accommodate the increasing numbers several times. It has since partnered with GRETA Bar, a space that will allow it room to grow going forward. In addition to the social events, Edmonton Community MeetUp Powered by Twitch and the Hype Squad also produce a podcast, manage a stream team and lead community initiatives with fundraising for Extra Life, a non-profit initiative that raises money for the Stollery Children’s Hospital primarily through a 24-hour gaming marathon held annually. “We try to reach out to members of the community who might be circling on the outside and want to get involved but aren’t sure how to,” says Deveau. “We don’t want gender to be the barrier that stops someone from exploring their passion. Games are for everyone.”





by Steven Sandor + illustration Andrew Benson


32 avenue J U N E . 2 0

ason Neitsch sits in the common area of Concordia University’s Hole Academic Centre. He wears track pants and a pink athletic sweater. What sets him apart J from the other students is the fact that the silver laptop he carries is covered in Pikachu stickers. Yes, Pikachu, the famous yellow hero of the Pokémon card game, online games and 2019 feature film featuring the voice of Canadian actor Ryan Reynolds. Neitsch isn’t just a massive fan of the Japanese card game. He’s transformed that passion into a legitimate high-tech business, with an automated online system that trades hundreds of thousands of game codes per month. It all began when he was a junior-high kid. Not content with simply collecting cards to be used in the globally popular game, he made a few cents here, a few cents there, selling unused codes. In each pack of cards, then and now, there’s a card enclosed with a code that can be redeemed for a virtual “pack” to be used in the online version of the game. People who have extra codes, or don’t play the online version of the game, can make a few extra cents per card by selling them. There’s a virtual trading world out there. A few cents a card may not seem like a lot, but, for dedicated collectors, it adds up. When Neitsch got enough dough together from selling his codes, he started to buy more from other Pokémon fans. The sales were completed via Facebook and e-mail. But there was a problem. It’s impossible for any one man to respond to thousands of emails. “I just couldn’t keep up,” he says. And then, he had a eureka moment. What if there was a single, easyto-use virtual clearinghouse in which Pokémon fans could sell their codes? Users can log into the app, Poké Awesome Code Catcher, and get anywhere between a dime and a quarter for each code. The codes are then sold online for a profit. Neitsch’s company, JN Cards, is a collaboration between he and five others: One of them is in Toronto, another in New Hampshire, someone in North Carolina and two people, get this, in Slovenia. Oh, and Neitsch is still a student in Concordia University’s Bachelor of Management program. Neitsch sought mentorship and advice from Concordia’s Centre for Innovation and Applied Research. "It is incredible to see CUE students be successful in their own businesses,” says Dr. Manfred Zeuch, Concordia’s vice-president of external affairs and international relations. “As a campus community that sup-

AND HOW POPULAR IS POKÉ AWESOME CODE CATCHER? IN DECEMBER OF 2019, THE SITE RECEIVED 1,900 SUBMISSIONS — USERS SUBMITTING BATCHES OF CODES. IN JANUARY OF THIS YEAR, THAT NUMBER ROSE TO ABOUT 3,100. IN FEBRUARY, IT WENT TO 4,800. ports our students in their entrepreneurial endeavours, be it academic or extracurricular, we are excited to be able to offer business advice, services, and network connections to students like Jason." How’s this for the online nature of modern business? He’s actually only met one of his five collaborators in person. But they discuss the business daily via Facebook. “What brought us together? Our love for Pokémon,” says Neitsch. “We might not (average) 4,000 submissions from users every month, but we’ll get close.” And how popular is Poké Awesome Code Catcher? In December of 2019, the site received 1,900 submissions — users submitting batches of codes. In January of this year, that number rose to about 3,100. In February, it went to 4,800. While making a margin of sometimes a dime or a quarter per card might not seem major, this is a business designed to run on volume. And, if there are other online games that rise in the future that use redeemable codes, the platform can be adapted for them. “Right now, the idea of using codes is unique to Pokémon’s online system,” he says. “If other games go that route, it would be an option for us.”




What does it take to make a lifechanging drug? Over twenty years and almost a billion dollars hen he was young, Robert Foster taught himself how to ride a unicycle. It took patience, persistence and skill to learn how to balance and move on a W single wheel. Since 1997, when he left a tenured professor’s post at the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, Dr. Foster has been performing a different sort of balancing act — he’s part scientist, part businessman. He’s been in the lab, working to create a unique molecule that’s become the foundation for a new drug that could benefit lupus nephritis sufferers around the world. He’s also put on more frequent flier miles than a traveling circus, working to woo potential investors and present at medical and banking conferences. But the drug that Foster first imagined in 1993 — Voclosporin — is in the final stages towards approval by the American Food and Drug Administration (FDA). And, he’s at the head of a new company, Hepion Pharmaceuticals, which is working to have a new anti-fibrotic drug in front of regulators by 2025 or ’26. “For me it’s a vindication,” says Foster, sitting at his desk in an office at the Edmonton Research Park. Behind him, hanging on the wall, is a replica of the stick that Bobby Orr used to score the famous 1970 Stanley Cup-winning goal. “A lot of people were naysayers. Nobody believed that we could make a drug here, that we should leave something like that up to the big pharma companies.” When Foster left a tenured professor post at the University of Alberta a little more than 25 years ago, he had a vision of creating an immunosuppressant drug that would improve the odds for patients receiving organ transplants. When a patient receives a new organ, the immune system wants to reject it. It creates antibodies to fight the new organ. So, in order to facilitate a successful transplant, the patient is given drugs that suppress the immune system. 34 avenue J U N E . 2 0

by Steven Sandor

Voclosporin, based on a molecule that Foster helped create, would be touted as a better alternative to the medications out there. It’s easier for clinicians to use and safer for patients. And, as a kinder, gentler drug, the patient’s outcome is more predictable. “There’s a wider window of opportunity,” Foster says. But developing a drug costs money. And even though Foster points out that the University of Alberta produces some of the best pharmaceutical minds in the world — he regularly meets U of A grads at conferences and in high-ranking positions at drug companies far away from this province — Edmonton doesn’t have the investment community that’s willing to make the required high-stakes investment risks. So, his fledgling company, Isotechnika Pharma, had to search far and wide for dollars. And it led to a hell of a unicycle high-wire act — doctors working to develop the drug in Edmonton, while Foster had to meet investors from around the world. In the end, Foster thinks that it took close to $1 billion to transform Voclosporin from vision to reality. “There is really no comparison between Canada and the United States. The truth is, a lot of cool drugs were first discovered in Canada, and that goes right back to the discovery of insulin. But they are often not developed here. Canadians are more risk averse with things they aren’t well versed in, like drug development, and, therefore, there are fewer dollars.” t is 2002. Foster is the CEO of Isotechnika, the Edmonton-based company working to develop Voclosporin. I Then comes the big deal. Roche, the Swiss pharmaceutical giant, announces it is acquiring the rights to Voclosporin, a deal worth somewhere in the neighbourhood of $200 million. But, in the summer of 2008, comes the worst news possible for Foster. Roche announces it is pulling the plug on the partnership. And this gets into the harsh reality of the pharma business. Roche didn’t pull out because the drug wasn’t promising. It pulled out because it

1993 1997 2002 2008 2 0 13 2 0 20

no longer saw a massive market in transplant drugs. It wasn’t about Voclosporin’s medicinal potential, it was about what Big Pharma saw as the lack of commercial potential. “We were left at the altar,” says Foster. Foster made a number of what he calls “Band-Aid deals” to keep the lights on. Lupus nephritis affects mainly women, who can suffer from a variety of symptoms — pain, inflammation, rashes — because their immune systems attack healthy tissues. So, why not use a better kind of immunosuppressant to battle lupus nephritis? Jilted by Roche, Foster found a new willing dance partner — Aurinia Pharmaceuticals, based out of Victoria, B.C. By 2013, Isotechnika acquired Aurinia in an all-shares deal. Then, the Istotechnika name was jettisoned — after the Roche rejection and flirting with bankruptcy, the name had been dragged through the mud. “It didn’t have the right smell to it,” says Foster. Now, Voclosporin has completed its clinical trials and is awaiting approval. Doctors could be prescribing it within several months. Of course, creating the new company meant that Voclosporin moved out of Alberta, as well. Aurinia’s offices are in Victoria and Maryland. And Foster says the lack of hue and cry when the company left this province

Birth of a drug DR. FOSTER first conceptualizes his vision for an autoimmune drug He leaves his professor’s job at the UNIVERSITY OF ALBERTA to pursue drug development full-time ROCHE acquires the rights to Isotechnika and the rights to develop Voclosporin for $200 MILLION ROCHE ENDS THE PARTNERSHIP, leaving Isotechnika on life support After finding a new Canadian partner, ISOTECHNIKA eventually acquires AURINIA CLINICAL TRIALS FOR VOCLOSPORIN ARE COMPLETE, and the drug is awaiting final approval

showed a lot of the issues pharmaceutical researchers have in this province. Foster looks at the stock ticker in his office; he estimates Aurinia, which is traded on NASDAQ, is now worth between $1 and $2 billion US. “If an oil and gas company worth more than a billion moved out of Alberta, how much of an outcry would there have been?” he asks. oster is now part of a new company, Hepion Pharmaceuticals, which is working to develop an anti-fibrotic drug that could be up for approval by the middle of F the decade. Foster splits time between the research lab in Edmonton and the company’s corporate offices in Edison, New Jersey, on the outskirts of New York City. Fibrosis in the liver is often the precursor to cancer or the need for an organ transplant. If there’s a drug that can battle fibrosis, there are many long-term benefits for patients and for health care systems in countries around the world. Not having to treat cancers or perform liver transplants opens up surgical suites and saves money. While it took more than 25 years to develop Voclosporin, the timetable is much shorter for Foster’s new project. “With Voclosporin, it was like learning how to ride the unicycle. But, with Hepion, we’re now a bunch of circus bears.” AvenueEdmonton.com



by Eliza Barlow + illustration Mai Ly Degnan


36 avenue J U N E . 2 0

t’s a product so nascent that people are still mulling over what to call it. Cultured meat? Clean meat? Labgrown meat? Frankenmeat? Unborn meat? In vitro I pork chop, anyone? Several factors determine a name for animal flesh that isn’t carved from a carcass, and how to support growth in this innovative — if not controversial — area of the economy. For now, the industry is calling it “cultivated meat.” It’s grown by scientists using stem cells from the muscle tissue of living animals, such as chickens, cows, pigs and shrimp. No one is quibbling — yet — over the second word in the name. “At the molecular, cellular level, it’s the exact same, so why wouldn’t you call it meat?” says Matt Anderson-Baron, 32. The University of Alberta graduate and Top 40 Under 40 alumnus is the co-founder and chief scientific officer of Edmonton biotechnology company, Future Fields, which is working in the cultivated meat sector. He admits, though, that his reasoning wouldn’t fly with those who define meat as something that comes from a slaughtered animal. Proponents say lab-grown meat can help solve environmental and animal rights challenges in the commercial livestock and meat processing industries. But would a steak by any other name sizzle as succulently? The burning question is whether consumers will ever demand meat grown in labs, instead of in farmers’ fields and chicken houses.



THE CO$T OF GROWING MEAT Timothy Caulfield, Canada research chair in health law and policy at the University of Alberta, acknowledges lab-grown meat’s value propositions on the environment and animal rights fronts. “But will these virtuous goals overwhelm the yuck factor that you see with these products?” he asks, referring to products that carry a whiff of the biotech. “It’s definitely there. It feels like a departure from nature.” Humans have been raising domesticated animals for slaughter for over 10,000 years. Today, based on the beef sales and Statistics Canada industry multipliers, the Alberta beef industry alone generates approximately $18 billion in total economic activity, and creates 63,000 direct and indirect jobs with farms and suppliers across Canada. On top of this, the Alberta poultry, egg and dairy industries combined, generate some $2.9 billion in GDP, according to the latest industry research. By comparison, the history of cultivated meat goes back only to 2013, when the first lab-grown hamburger was cooked and eaten in London, England. Since then, the industry has grown to an estimated 60 companies worldwide, including Future Fields. Production costs remain relatively high but are declining. At the time, the London burger cost about $388,000. But a San Francisco startup recently grew a chicken nugget for about $70. While wrapping up his PhD in 2019, Anderson-Baron grew a 30-gram meat nugget at a cost of $300. He didn’t sample it, however. “There are definitely some rules around eating your experiments,” he says. But the fact he’s never eaten lab-grown meat doesn’t make him any less driven to help get it to market. In fact, he entered the field partly as a way to solve a personal moral dilemma around eating meat. “I’ve always been an animal lover, so there was a cognitive dissonance in my head. How can I love animals and still eat meat? How can I still eat meat and not have to slaughter an animal? For me this is a way to resolve it,” he says. To address the cost barrier, Future Fields has changed its focus from growing the meat itself to refining formulas for the growth media — a nutrient broth in which the meat cells grow. Early in development, lab-grown meat depended on an expensive growth medium of fetal bovine serum. The Future Fields broth is a complex blend of sugar, salt, amino acids and biomolecular growth components that doesn’t rely on the serum. Future Fields customizes the broth for the type of meat being grown. “We have customers looking to produce beef, some customers looking to produce kangaroo. There’s a lot of diversity there,” says Anderson-Baron. Cellular Agriculture Canada is a non-profit co-founded by Future Fields to “steer the narrative” on cultivated meat as it gets closer to regulation and market. On its website, it details a number of potential benefits of cellular agriculture, such as environmental impacts, animal welfare, food security and food safety. It’s part of a growing sentiment that the planet is at a breaking point when it comes to satisfying human appetites for meat. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the livestock industry is responsible for 14.5 per cent of humancaused greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. “I have nothing against small-scale family farms where animals are treated well. It’s about these intensive farming practices that we have had to resort to as a society, to meet our high demand for animal products,” Anderson-Baron says. Consider that a tissue sample the size of a pinhead could produce metric tonnes of meat. It’s not like a hen would have to submit to a biopsy every time someone wanted chicken and dumplings. “It’s kind of like a one-time thing. You procure the cells and you can keep them growing,” says Anderson-Baron. And if people want to ensure 38 avenue J U N E . 2 0

- - - The London burger cost about $388,000 - - - A San Francisco startup grew a chicken nugget for about $70 - - - Anderson-Baron grew a 30-gram meat nugget at a cost of $300 no animals were harmed in the sample-taking, “you can do it under a local anesthetic,” says Anderson-Baron. As the product marches toward market, the social and ethical debate around meat-eating could become more heated. For example, what if the heart of the matter is whether part of the appeal of eating meat is knowing that it came from something that was once alive? If the texture, flavour and environmental impact of lab grown meat were the same, and it was deemed safe, would consumers still prefer butchered product? “I think it cuts both ways. In the past there was something about eating an animal you’d raised, or hunted — storytelling around meat eating,” Caulfield says. “On the other side, that is the exact problem.” Caulfield anticipates lab-grown meat will be portrayed as a wellness product once it becomes available. “There’s going to be some virtue signalling around it, and I get that. I’m not saying it in a negative way,” says Caulfield, whose Netflix show, A User’s Guide to Cheating Death, delved into some dubious health claims made in the marketing of various products. He cautions “the science can get confused” when virtue signalling is thrown into the mix. Environment-wise, there could be a catch. A 2019 research study conducted at England’s University of Oxford found carbon dioxide emitted in the production of lab-grown meat could potentially lead to higher global temperatures in the long run, than methane released as one byproduct of cattle farming. While the lifespan of methane is about a decade, carbon dioxide can accumulate and persist in the atmosphere for decades and centuries, even under reduced consumption. The study said the potential environmental advantages of lab-grown meat hinge on how the power to grow the meat is generated, and the availability of low-carbon energy sources. Caulfield also wonders whether vegetarians and vegans will partake in the new meat. “You’ll see some commentary that it’s still meat and what we really want to do is change our appetite away from meat,” says Caulfield. For Anderson-Baron, there’s the dry rub. He’s tried to go vegetarian in the past, but it hasn’t stuck. “It’s hard, because meat is a wonderful thing. It’s delicious. It’s difficult to give that up.” Plant-based alternatives “get close, but ultimately it is different,” he says. “The average consumer who is a meat-eater is not going to adopt them. They’re never going to have the same flavour profile and texture.” Anderson-Baron thinks consumers are ready for this alternative. “We can make cell-based products that are indistinguishable from conventional meat products. Once you can go to the grocery store and see a labproduced product right next to a conventional product, consumers will open up to it even more.” Eventually, he says, consumers will even be able to buy different cuts and varieties. Those in the cellular agriculture movement don’t plan to stop at meat. Lab-grown milk, eggs and even leather could soon be coming to a store near you. Start thinking of names.




THE COFFEE CHEMIST F R O M F I LT E R PA P E R T H I C K N E S S TO PH LEVELS, AN EDMONTON STUDENT APPLIES SCIENCE TO HIS BREWING TECHNIQUES ll it took was one cup of coffee, brewed exactly the right way, to completely transform Ply Pasarj’s life. Sitting in a local cafe several years ago, his eyes A were opened to flavours unlike any he’d tasted in coffee before. Having previously worked in an olive-oil-tasting room, Pasarj had already begun to develop a palate for delicate flavours. But to have the experience in coffee was something different altogether. “It was a clover-brewed cup,” he says, explaining the single-cup brewing process used, “and it had depth like I hadn’t had before in coffee.” He didn’t know it at the time, but that cup was the beginning of a journey that would soon take him around the world. “It’s all quite unexpected. I never would have predicted where this would end up,” he laughs. As a PhD candidate at the University of Alberta, Pasarj spends his days searching for bioactive compounds extracted from marine organisms that could be potentially developed into immunosuppressant drugs. But after that life-changing cup and some discussions with Rogue Wave Coffee Roasters, he decided to bring his scientific skill set to the coffee bar.

40 avenue J U N E . 2 0

by Lisa Catterall + illustration Mai Ly Degnan

“It comes down to science. Ultimately, coffee is just extraction, which is what I do in my research anyway,” he says. “Of course, the difference here is that you’re looking to extract the good flavours out of coffee, and there are many variables to consider that have an impact on that.” The types of beans, the size of the grind and the mineral content and pH of the water all impact extraction. Over the past several years, Pasarj has taken a deep dive into the science of each of these elements (and more), tinkering with different combinations to uncover new possibilities. And his approach is paying off; last year, he won out over coffee enthusiasts from across the country to take home the title of 2019 Canadian AeroPress Champion. He also managed to snag the top spot at the 2020 Canadian Brewers Cup, and was scheduled to compete at the World Brewers Cup in Melbourne this November. Pasarj became a partner at local coffee roasters Rogue Wave in 2019, and since then has been using his position there as a platform to share coffee knowledge. The shop serves as the hub of a coffee community, where everyone from novices to aficionados can learn more about the drink. On a semi-monthly basis, pre-COVID-19, Pasarj and the team of highly knowledgeable staff at Rogue Wave offered classes exploring topics ranging from brewing basics to latte art. “There was one class I was running in the past, on the differences in coffee filters, and I spent an hour just talking about what effect the different types of paper and their composition or thickness will have on your coffee,” says Pasarj. One of Pasarj’s favourite events to host is coffee cupping, where attendees sip varietals they might not otherwise try. These drop-in, casual events are a chance to ask questions, learn more and just appreciate all things coffee. “The intent of our events is not to say, ‘This is the best cup of coffee.’ It’s more about helping people find their own personal palate,” he says. “We want to give people a chance to try something new, and maybe learn something that will have an impact on the way they brew at home.”

“ I T C O M E S D O W N T O S C I E N C E . U LT I M AT E LY, C O F F E E I S J U S T E X T R A C T I O N , W H I C H I S W H AT I D O I N M Y R E S E A R C H A N Y WAY . ” — P LY PA S A R J



42 avenue J U N E . 2 0


by Cory Schachtel + illustration Emily Chu

WASTE AWAY Local facility turns trash into gas

f you’ve ever driven the Anthony Henday’s eastern portion, or headed out to Sherwood Park on Baseline Road or the Yellowhead, you’ve seen them. Industrial I smokestacks, reaching out above storage tanks and mazes of steel frames pieced together like giant K’Nex sets, any of which would have made a suitable setting for the final scene in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. On clear nights, you can even see the flickering flames from within the city limits. But, on the north end of Refinery Way, where the North Saskatchewan makes its final bend out of the city, there’s a processing plant without a single smokestack. Like its neighbours, it produces fuel, but it spews no pollution. There is plenty of waste on site but, exactly unlike its neighbours, the waste goes in, not up in the air.



“I like to say that nature has taken millions of years to build materials out of molecules. And when we enter waste material into our gasifier, we break it down at the molecular level, as it was millions of years ago. We clean it, and we rebuild the chemistry.” — MICHEL CHORNET

The Enerkem Alberta Biofuels Facility is the first full-scale waste-tobiofuels and chemicals facility in North America. It produces renewable methanol and ethanol from non-recyclable and non-compostable solid waste (supplied by the people and businesses of Edmonton), which is then used for transportation fuel and to create everyday products. Executive Vice President, Engineering, Innovation and Operations Michel Chornet’s father and brother founded Enerkem in 2000 (the Edmonton plant was operational in 2016). But even before he joined the family business in 2007, Chornet curtailed energy waste with his own company, Fractal Systems Inc., which reduced the viscosity of heavy oils and bitumen. “We’ve always been about: How can we valourize residual carbon?” he explains. “About 60 per cent of waste is carbon that cannot be recycled or composted, and we’re just putting it in landfills. So we ask: How can we extract value from this? How can we recycle carbon?” The “how” is innovative, and complicated, but Chornet explains it by describing four islands of process and production. On “material island,” non-recyclable waste is sorted to create refuse-derived fuel (RDF), which contains carbon — the stuff Enerkem wants. Typically, RDF goes into a landfill. Now, it can go to Enerkem’s “gasification island,” where the solid RDF is converted into a synthetic gas made up of molecules such as hydrogen and carbon monoxide. This syngas is “scrubbed” on the third island, using proprietary technology to remove contaminants. The resulting “ultra-pure syngas” becomes 44 avenue J U N E . 2 0

usable, and is catalytically converted on Enerkem’s fourth island into molecules that create transportation fuel and chemicals to make new products (plastics, soaps, drugs, pens). Once the RDF is received, the entire process takes a few minutes and not a single chemical or smoke puff leaves the facility. “I like to say that nature has taken millions of years to build materials out of molecules. And, when we enter waste material into our gasifier, we break it down at the molecular level, as it was millions of years ago. We clean it, and we rebuild the chemistry,” Chornet says. Chornet emphasizes that Enerkem adds to existing recycling efforts and technologies, it doesn’t replace them. And, while the ethanol Enerkem produces doesn’t require large landmasses, the way corn ethanol does, it isn’t trying to hamper any industry. “We consider ourselves synergistic with recycling efforts and composting efforts,” he says. “What we want is material that cannot be used or enhanced through more conventional means. It’s residual material that we’re after.” hough imperfect, Edmonton has always been a leader in waste management, even going back to the ’90s when it was one of the first to adopt the blue bin T curbside recycling program. Last September, city council approved Edmonton’s 25 Year Waste Strategy, parts of which — like the wind-down of commercial collection services — were already initiated last year. Others, like the elimination of certain single-use plastics and restrictions on disposable products, will be brought to council late this fall, or at the start of 2021, along with recommendations on changes to bylaws. The city set a 90 per cent diversion from landfill target, and is using it as a means to inform its analysis of program options for multi-unit, industrial, commercial and institutional spaces. “At its core, the strategy has a zero-waste framework,” says Mike Labrecque, branch manager of waste services with the City of Edmonton. “And it focuses on the top end of the waste hierarchy. We’re looking at changes not only for our single-unit residences, but also for our multi-unit (apartments and condos) and industrial, commercial and institutional sectors to improve diversion and avoid materials going to landfill.”

CLEARED FOR TAKE-OFF by Kateryna Didukh

Enerkem’s emergence in Edmonton, around the same time the city is looking to revamp its handling of large-scale waste, might seem like good timing. But it’s more of a testament to the city’s solid track record. “Edmonton has always been a leader in waste management throughout North America and the world,” Chornet says. “And, for us, especially for our first plant, it was very important to have a partner who is committed to their waste diversion goals. There are challenges on both sides. But a partner that was committed to [the same ideals] was important for us, and this is what we have with the city of Edmonton.” That commitment was made official when the city signed a 25-year agreement with Enerkem as well, promising to provide 100,000 tonnes of RDF over time, which helps eliminate the need for another landfill and steps the city in another innovative direction towards a circular economy. “My father was a visionary,” Chornet says. “When I was a kid, he had these catchphrases like ‘circular economy.’ It’s the notion of not creating waste, recycling your waste and having a closed-loop system. When you look at the recycling industry, you have mechanical recycling, which is what we do at home and what the city of Edmonton does, but there’s a limit on how much mechanical recycling you can do. What you cannot recycle mechanically, you have to recycle chemically. And this is what we do.”

ood things come to those who wait. The adage rings true when it comes to Absolute Combustion International (ACI). It’s a testament to perseG verance against the odds. Its founders, the late Darsell Karringten and his daughter, Koleya, never strayed from their vision. “The concern was, will the next generation have clean air to breathe?” says Koleya, current CEO of Absolute Combustion. “What will our world look like, and how do we help shift it or leave it better than we found it?” Founded over a decade ago, the Edmonton-based company designed a nearly flameless combustion technology that burns cleaner, significantly cuts emissions and runs on natural gas and propane — the Absolute Extreme Burner. Originally created for the oil and gas industry, it has emerged as a game changer in aerospace, offering a viable replacement for portable aircraft heaters that haven’t been redesigned in 60 years. Following three years of testing and development in collaboration with the Edmonton International Airport (EIA) and, after third-party testing by Versatile Engineering, the final product, ACI-SM1000 has proven to be faster and more efficient in heat transfer than any of its predecessors — it outperforms standard technologies, with 50 to 70 per cent reduction in fuel usage, and

A smarter, greener way to store power n Edmonton company has created a smarter, greener battery that can store and use energy efficiently and may help put an end to energy poverty. Founder and president Connie Stacey started Growing Greener Innovations in 2014 with the goal of making Grengine a reality. She came up with the idea for the emission-free, lithium-ion battery while out walking her twin boys in a stroller. They had just fallen asleep when she walked them past a construction site where a diesel generator was running. “As I kept walking, I thought, ‘Why do we use those damn generators?’ They’re loud, they’re smelly, they’re horrible on the environment,


they’re expensive — there’s not a lot of positive things about them,” Stacey says. “And I thought, ‘Why not use a battery system?’ ” Talking to friends who work in the trades, Stacey discovered that many of them would value an electric generator for the silence alone — never mind the difference in cost and emissions. Legally, a diesel generator can emit up to 805 grams of CO per kilowatt hour — the equivalent of a Honda Civic driving 2,863 kilometres — and many do. Whereas the Grengine Ultralite, a compact version of Growing Greener’s battery system, can operate for 480 watt hours without producing any CO or other emissions. But that’s just the beginning. Not only does the Ultralite have a big sister on the way, the Grengine

by Chelsea Novak

1000, which will allow users to easily add more batteries, but a full Grengine system will provide energy storage and regulation for households and businesses. The system is designed to require minimum installation time, which keeps the cost down to an estimated $500 per kilowatt hour. The batteries snap together like Lego and are designed to determine for themselves in which order they should charge or discharge energy. “We created them to have a certain level of intelligence,” Stacey explains. With the installation cost in check, it opens up the industrial energy efficiency market for Growing Greener.





the capacity to withstand extreme cold. But the path to commercializing it has been anything but easy. As father and daughter first set out to look at eco-friendly technologies that hadn’t been commercialized, they kept running into the same roadblock — the technology was always innovating, and never ready. After three years of fruitless efforts, it was clear to Darsell that the only remaining option was to develop it themselves. “We didn’t exactly know anything about combustion,” says Koleya. “So we found Brent Garossino, who did instrumentation, and we came up with this basic concept for a nozzle, and they built it around that.” But it wasn’t until four years ago that the company established its first long-term partnership, with EIA. In 2016, Koleya was invited by the Alberta Government to a tech conference in Japan. As a group of experts looked at her company’s technology prior to the conference, the promising and innovative concept left no room for doubt. At the time, the conventional aircraft heater couldn’t heat up at temperatures below -20 degrees Celsius. It needed help from the plane’s auxiliary power unit that “guzzled gas like nobody’s business,” as Koleya puts it (174 litres of fuel per hour on a Boeing 737-200, for example). Not surprisingly, Absolute Combustion was tasked with redesigning it. The new ACI-SM1000 heater was a drastic improvement — it could bring the cabin of a Boeing 737-200 from -30 C to +20 C in half an hour, using only seven litres of fuel per hour. And if needed it could operate even at -50 C temperatures. “The partnership between ACI and EIA reflects our airport’s commitment to supporting Alberta’s technology sector,” says Steve Maybee, vice president of operations and infrastructure at EIA. “In addition, we will get the benefits of having this faster and more efficient portable aircraft heater at our airport.” The technology operates at 100 per cent combustion efficiency. This means that 100 per cent of all combustible and hazardous particles, both solid and liquid, that are suspended in air, are incinerated upon exit — including dust, soot, smoke and liquid 46 avenue J U N E . 2 0

droplets. As a result, the air that comes out is in fact cleaner than the air that goes in. The downturn of economy may have prompted the company to turn to aerospace, but Koleya hasn’t given up on the gas and oil industry either. “We thought the best way to go back into that industry was if we gained traction in another market,” she says. Previously, the application of this technology in the oil and gas industry was temporarily tested and commercialized when Absolute Combustion partnered up with Imaginea Energy Corp., a Calgary-based startup that has since ceased to exist — but commercializing it on a larger scale remained challenging. “There’s a lot of funding out there if you want to do research and development,” says Koleya. “But there’s very little funding if you try to maintain your company’s operation, so you can make it to commercialization.” Kolyea credits one of the company’s major breakthroughs to the partnership with her late mentor Suzanne West, a founder and CEO of Imaginea. West was equally ahead of her time, advocating for clean technologies when her shareholders refused to listen — and even investing her own money in Absolute Combustion before it gained traction. “She was huge into the environment and advocating for women to be their authentic selves and leaders,” Koleya recalls. “It had a huge impact on me.” While Darsell passed away in 2015 due to cancer, before the company found success, Koleya has carried on his legacy, having shared his passion for business and environmental concerns. After all, her father started mentoring her when she was only four years old — and made a plan for her to go into business with him once she would turn 21.

We love you, Edmonton. That means that even in these challenging times we keep sharing stories about great Edmontonians and keep writing about the things we love about our city. Our sense of community will grow as we make it through these difficult times together.

Trudy Callaghan Publisher, Avenue Edmonton


Have a story you want to share with us? supportlocal@odvodpublishing.com




# Y E G + A R T I ST Q & A + B O O K E N D S + S P O T L I G H T + G A L L E R I E S + C O N V E R S AT I O N P I E C E


EVERYTHING OLD IS NEW AGAIN b y H O L LY S C H O F I E L D + i l l u s t r a t i o n P E T E RYA N

Growing up in the ’60s meant that I was exposed to the hippie concept of “let nature be your teacher.” However, intent is one thing, action is another. At Lakehead University, I tossed empty pop bottles in the garbage rather than bicycle all the way to the distant bottle depot. Until I left Ontario to head west as a young adult, I’d never heard the term “reduce, reuse, recycle.” Edmonton in the early ’80s meant ragged Styrofoam boxes appearing after snowmelt, plastic Safeway bags blowing through the 109th Street rathole and littered streets after Oilers wins. When I became a homeowner, 48 avenue J U N E . 20

my board-and-milk-crate bookshelves gave way to white Ikea laminate shelving. I put the boards and milk crates in the back lane, leaning them against my shiny new garbage can, so they could be spirited away to the city dump. I never gave them another thought. Then, one day in 1988, I came home to find a spiffy new blue box on my porch. After a successful pilot project, Edmonton had launched regular curbside pickup. At the time, the service was the largest of its kind in Canada, and second largest in North America. I was proud to be part of a trendsetting wave even though I had to wash out each and every tin can. As I

drove my children to school, I began to notice what was being blue-binned and what was being tossed, how much newspaper made it to the curb, and which type of backyard composting bin was most popular. When hazardous waste collection followed, I handed over the nearly empty tins left after painting my kids’ bedrooms. Eco Stations sprang up in the four quadrants of the city, noticeable landmarks of blue and yellow, still too inconveniently far for me to get to very often. I live in British Columbia these days, but I’ve brought my Edmonton awareness with me: I compost kitchen scraps routinely, I don’t leave home without reusable shopping bags and bulk food containers, and I choose products based partly on the amount of packaging. Whenever I visit Alberta, I drive down “memory lane” behind my former home. Blue bags festoon the alley alongside flattened cardboard icy with frost. There are now three Eco Stations in the west end, including a new one at Coronation. There’s free mulch at Ambleside, and free household furnishings at the Reuse station near Argyll Road. The city’s Waste Management Centre, processing everything from apple cores to yogurt containers, is cutting edge, attracting notice from around the world. The days of the 3Rs are gone, evolving into a more circular model of sustainability, where resources are never expended — my plastic bottle becomes a T-shirt or a carpet which, in time, becomes another plastic bottle. Edmonton, the birthplace of the blue box in Canada and of my greener lifestyle, continues to take part in this wonderful sea change. Recycling is never a flawless system — Edmonton’s sorting costs are escalating as international markets for blue bag material become choosier. But together, the city and I are taking an asymptotic approach toward perfect sustainability — something to strive for in an imperfect world. Holly Schofield travels through time at the rate of one second per second, oscillating between the alternate realities of city and country life. Her speculative fiction has appeared in many publications including Analog, Lightspeed and Tesseracts, is used in university curricula, and has been translated into several languages.

b y ST E V E N S A N D O R + i l l u s t r a t i o n P E T E RYA N


THE EYES HAVE IT “She generally gave herself very good advice (though she very seldom followed it).” Lewis Carroll wrote this about the hero of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, but Dr. Karim Damji could easily say this about many patients who are warned they are in high-risk groups for vision loss. Damji is the chief of ophthalmology at the Eye Institute of Alberta, located on the second floor of the Royal Alexandra Hospital. He is the chair of the University of Alberta’s Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences. But he admits he’s troubled by the number of patients who are warned to get their eyes checked, but don’t follow up. He says that 50 per cent of people diagnosed with diabetes don’t do eye exam follow-ups, which should be, well, automatic. Adults over 40 should get their eyes examined annually, but many don’t do that. Basically, you can give patients YouTube videos and pamphlets, but warnings about glaucoma and macular degeneration and other > AvenueEdmonton.com



> vision-impairing conditions can often fall on deaf ears. Let’s go back nearly two years. Damji and the developers at Edmonton’s KOVR came up with an idea — what if there was a way to use virtual reality to show people what vision impairment was like? “The question was, how could we create an experience that could replicate degenerative eye conditions, in a way that hasn’t been seen before?” says Michael Bowman, KOVR’s chief marketing officer. KOVR was hatched three years ago by KO

50 avenue J U N E . 20

Group Ltd., an Edmonton production company that produces television commercials and graphics. The 3D renderings you see in television commercials for the Brick? That’s the work of KO Group Ltd. With funding from the Odd Fellow Rebekah Visual Research Foundation of Alberta, Damji and KOVR developed Through the Looking Glass. The user puts on a VR headset and then is immersed into, you guessed it, Wonderland. There is a white rabbit. There are mirrors. There is a table set out for the Queen of Hearts.

In this world, the user is asked to perform tasks, such as setting a clock or looking at the suits and numbers on the Queen of Hearts’ table. The tasks, of course, get more difficult when peripheral vision is removed, or the objects become blurry. You begin the experience with healthy vision, but then the VR begins to replicate the symptoms of macular degeneration, glaucoma and diabetic eye disorder. “We take them on a journey of simulated vision loss,” says Damji. “But we didn’t want a doom-andgloom approach.”

Damji says that vision loss happens very gradually. So, it can, as he says, “sneak up” on patients. A little bit of blurriness, a loss of some peripheral vision. But, in the VR, the kind of vision loss that can happen over one or two years occurs in minutes. It’s a real-life way to show people in high-risk groups that they need to get their eyes checked, and it’s also used on medical staff, students and the general public so they can have empathy for those suffering vision loss. “You can appreciate the degeneration that can take place over the course of a year, in a matter of minutes,” says Bowman. Aaron Clifford, the head AR/VR developer at KOVR, says that the challenge in developing the program was to stay ahead of the human brain. “The brain is very good at weeding out information that doesn’t help you,” he says. What does that mean? If the vision impairments are too subtle, the brain may filter them out. Think about it this way. If you sit behind the protective netting at an Oilers game, you will notice for the first couple of minutes that there is mesh between you and the ice. But, after a couple of minutes, your brain recognizes that your

focus is on Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, and it begins to filter out the mesh. The mesh is there, but, after a couple of minutes, you don’t notice it. And that was the challenge for Clifford, to keep the process informative and to stay away from being “doom-and-gloom,” but he also couldn’t afford to be subtle. He had to make sure the program didn’t allow the brain to compensate. Damji says this VR program can be presented to a patient when he or she is first diagnosed with diabetes. And there are many more applications for the future. That future will be supported with a grant from Alberta Innovates, which gave its blessing to the project in 2020. Clifford is excited that new VR headsets will be able to trace the eye movements of the users, and will help make the simulations more realistic and more powerful. In the future, Damji envisions using VR to help prep patients for treatments and rehab. Imagine being able to undergo a practice surgery of sorts, to understand how the lasers will be used on your eyes, before the procedure actually occurs. It really is a vision for the future.

Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication

— Leonardo da Vinci

We install, service and maintain boilers and water treatment systems, including water softeners and reverse osmosis. 780.953.5561 • Residential & Commercial • mertzplumbing.ca

111 ST.


LiveSouthEdmonton.com In the Chappelle neighbourhood of West Heritage Valley










170 ST.

141 ST.





Single family | Townhomes | Paired homes | Estate homes



Find the perfect home for you and your lifestyle.