Home  »  Alberta’s appetite for innovation – MaRS Discovery District

Alberta’s appetite for innovation – MaRS Discovery District

Top entrepreneurs meet tech-minded investors at the province’s annual Inventures conference.

With the help of Alberta Innovates, the province’s self-described “innovation engine,” some of Canada’s most promising startups and entrepreneurs are working to solve the problems of tomorrow, today. Bryan Helfenbaum, the organization’s associate vice president of clean resources, says there’s something uniquely Albertan about the founders who work with the agency. “There’s a tolerance for risk that seems to be bred into [being] here. It goes back to the cowboy days of chasing an opportunity, believing in it and working your butt off to build it up,” he says.

But well-developed risk tolerance doesn’t preclude the need for a solid network. That’s why Alberta Innovates developed Inventures, an annual conference that brings together innovators, industry leaders and VCs. This year’s edition, which kicks off May 29 in Calgary, includes pitch competitions, panel discussions and info sessions covering a range of subjects, from the future of farming to improving accessibility in the workplace. Below, some of the participants share their thoughts on world-changing innovation.


Sabina BruehlmannSabina Bruehlmann

Gut feelings: A pill that makes gastro diagnoses easier to swallow

When it comes to Canadians’ gastrointestinal health, the stats are enough to cause a stomach ache. Compared to other countries, we have disproportionately high rates of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), which affects 18 percent of the population, and Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), which affects 1 in 150 Canadians.

Testing for these conditions involves colonoscopies and endoscopies, which can be unpleasant; less invasive options are typically inconclusive. But Calgary’s Nimble Science has a solution that’s much easier to swallow — literally. The company has developed a pill that absorbs and collects valuable health data from deep within a patient’s gastrointestinal tract. Unlike a digital capsule, which beams information back in real-time, this pill can be ingested at home and is then collected in the stool, providing researchers and caregivers with microbiome samples that would be impossible to access using traditional methods.

While this technology is invaluable to researchers, who can leverage the data collected for insights into everything from food sensitivities to cancer diagnoses, Nimble CEO Dr. Sabina Bruehlmann says it’s patients who benefit the most. “Right now, the only way you’re going to get an endoscopy or a colonoscopy is if something bad is happening,” she explains. “We can provide better data for the small stuff that affects our quality of life.”

Dr. Sabina Bruehlmann talks about the future of health monitoring on May 29 at 3:45 p.m. MDT.


Anthea SargeauntAnthea Sargeaunt

Banishing burnout: The cleantech firm with a holistic approach to employee wellness

More than 4 million Canadians say they’ve experienced workplace burnout. Anthea Sargeaunt is one of them.

Sargeaunt is the CEO of Edmonton-based 2S Water, which makes sensors that monitor the presence of toxic metals in water at mines and other industrial sites. She’s also the mother of two small children. For her, the wake-up call came when she realized how much her professional obligations were overshadowing her responsibilities at home. “I realized this wasn’t going to end when I got past the early stages of a startup,” she says. “If I didn’t handle it right away, that was going to be my life.”

Sargeaunt and her team decided to give all 2S Water staff an extra week of vacation. They also tried to ensure employees were only working overtime when it was absolutely necessary — and that they received time off in lieu.

The benefits of this shift were immediately apparent: increases in both productivity and employee satisfaction, and virtually no turnover. Not all investors will be sold on the approach, Sargeaunt admits, but “if they don’t like the culture, then we’re not the right investment.” There are plenty of funders who are eager to support companies that prioritize employee wellbeing. After all, the results speak for themselves. As Sargeaunt puts it: “When you treat people like their personal lives matter, they perform better.”

Anthea Sargeaunt discusses how entrepreneurs can prioritize mental health on May 30 at 2:45 p.m. MDT.


Bryan HelfenbaumBryan Helfenbaum

It’s a gas: How hydrogen can help fuel the cleantech revolution

It’s no secret that crude oil and natural gas drive Alberta’s economy, but for the past half-century, the province has been steadily establishing itself as the country’s largest producer of hydrogen. By the end of this decade, the global market for this clean energy resource will amount to U.S.$60 billion; by 2050, that figure is projected to surpass U.S.$2.5 trillion. “We are very much trying to dispel the association of Alberta with dirty energy,” says Bryan Helfenbaum of Alberta Innovates. “Really, we’re a hub of cleantech opportunities.”

Those opportunities are already taking shape. Helfenbaum highlights the recent launch of a  hydrogen-fuelled bus pilot in Edmonton, as well as a fleet of hydrogen-powered vehicles and a fuelling station at Edmonton International Airport — vital steps in propelling the hydrogen movement as well as helping the global aviation industry reach net zero by 2050.

And while there are numerous examples of how hydrogen can help reduce carbon emissions in a transportation context, the challenge is figuring out how to physically move the element (which is itself notoriously tricky to transport and store) from A to B. But Helfenbaum is confident Alberta’s got what it takes. “Our ability to use existing infrastructure is really key to build that momentum,” he says. Thanks to its existing network of pipelines, the province is already ahead of the curve.

Learn more about what it takes to scale hydrogen solutions on May 29 at 2:30 p.m. MDT.


Joy AgnewJoy Agnew

Seeds of change: Why new tech can help farmers do more with less

Back in 1948, the UN enshrined access to food as a fundamental need in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. More than 75 years later, 6.9 million Canadians are facing food insecurity, and inflation means we’re set to spend $700 more on groceries than we did last year. In recent decades, Canada has lost more than 68 million hectares of farm land — equivalent to getting rid of seven small farms every day for 20 years. And rising temperatures and record droughts mean farmers are faced with the difficult task of saving crops at the same time as they struggle to keep costs down and limit their water usage.

But at the Olds College of Agriculture and Technology in Olds, Alberta, vice president of research Joy Agnew and her colleagues have voracious appetites to tackle these issues. Agnew’s focus is smart farming, which grafts robotics and AI-driven data to traditional agricultural techniques to help 21st-century farmers reduce land, water and pesticide use while maximizing crop yields.

This approach to agriculture is attracting new, tech-savvy students to the 111-year-old school, she says. And although innovation is helping them devise solutions to feed the world’s growing population, Agnew is quick to emphasize that human farmers will always be a central part of the puzzle. “It’s not like robots are going to take over farming. It’s not like artificial intelligence is going to take over food production and supply-chain management.” But, she says, “those tools can be leveraged by people with the right skill sets to drive the agtech revolution.”

Agnew is hopeful such developments will help lower grocery costs. That said, she’s of the mind that people have even more to gain through the knowledge these tools can provide. “I think that the biggest benefit is putting data in the consumer’s hands about exactly where their food came from and what kind of environmental footprint is associated.”

Joy Agnew discusses the digital revolution in the agri-food sector on May 29 at 10:30 a.m. MDT.


Ling HuangLing Huang

Working solutions: New tools that facilitate inclusive employment

According to the Canadian Medical Association Journal, between one and two percent of Canadians fall somewhere on the autism spectrum. Like many neurodivergent individuals, autistic Canadians face numerous challenges in their everyday lives, including in the workplace: Only a third of working-age Canadians living with autism are engaged in full-time, meaningful employment.

Ling Huang has firsthand knowledge of this issue. When his son was diagnosed with severe autism in 2004, doctors told Huang, an IT consultant, that Brian would likely require care and assistance for the rest of his life. Huang immediately began thinking of ways to support his child and other autistic young adults in their pursuit of rewarding careers.

In collaboration with Alberta Innovates, he developed RoboCoach, software that helps employees on the spectrum keep track of their duties and progress by setting out clear tasks for users. Huang’s company, Technology North, uses the program as a framework for staff (including Brian), who digitize documents, complete quality checks and analyze data. “Today, we have more than 20 employees supported by two job coaches, generating over a million dollars in revenue,” says Huang. “We’re creating an example of success to show this isn’t a pipe dream.”

While Huang recognizes there is still significant work required to combat ableism and dispel myths about people on the autism spectrum, he hopes to send a clear message about the importance of inclusivity in the workplace. “It’s not just about employment,” he says. “It’s about providing a platform to develop communication and independence, and helping people live a better life.”

Ling Huang talks about fostering diversity in tech on May 30 at 9:45 a.m. MDT.

This article was created in partnership with Alberta Innovates for Inventures 2024, which runs May 29–31 in Calgary.

MaRS Discovery District
MaRS is the world's largest urban innovation hub in Toronto that supports startups in the health, cleantech, fintech, and enterprise sectors. When MaRS opened in 2005 this concept of urban innovation was an untested theory. Today, it’s reshaping cities around the world. MaRS has been at the forefront of a wave of change that extends from Melbourne to Amsterdam and runs through San Francisco, London, Medellín, Los Angeles, Paris and New York. These global cities are now striving to create what we have in Toronto: a dense innovation district that co-locates universities, startups, corporates and investors. In this increasingly competitive landscape, scale matters more than ever – the best talent is attracted to the brightest innovation hotspots.

This website uses cookies to save your preferences, and track popular pages. Cookies ensure we do not require visitors to register, login, or share any identity information.