I Heart AB Tech encourages innovators to show their swagger

The co-founders of AltaML have started a campaign to help Albertans celebrate the tech sector.

Nicole and Cory Janssen launched the I Heart AB Tech campaign this week by sending T-shirts bearing that slogan to various business and tech leaders. The goal is to turn recipients into brand ambassadors.

"We've got something really great here in Alberta ... but I would say that we aren't telling the world, and we aren't even telling those outside of the tech space," said co-CEO Nicole Janssen.

Alberta's image across Canada and globally is that "we're a bunch of redneck cowboys that don't care about the environment," she said. "Most Albertans I know don't fit that description at all. And somehow, we just continue to let that be the image that we have, even though at home we all know that's not the truth."

The iconography of the campaign is reminiscent of the "I Heart Canadian Oil & Gas" merch favoured by groups like Oil Sands Action. The Janssens chose similar wording "because this concept is familiar with Albertans through the other campaigns." But it's not meant to be a dig at the petroleum industry. "We are simply wanting to add one more to that narrative because there are more than one or two things to love about our province."

People like Christy Holtby of the Alberta Cancer Foundation, Ashif Mawji of Rising Tide, Shaheel Hooda of Sprout Fund, Zack Storms of Startup TNT, and Aaryn Flynn of Inflexion Games have already shared pictures of themselves wearing the T-shirt and expressing why they support the campaign.

Janssen would love to see their enthusiasm spread to political leaders, and she has sent them T-shirts, too, to help them show it. The province earmarked $73 million for the Alberta Technology and Innovation Strategy in the 2022 budget, but didn't make a very big deal of it, she noted.

"I think there's a perception in Alberta that if you promote tech, you're not promoting other industries," she said. "Whereas we see tech as a horizontal enabler that supports and builds up all of our industries."

A collage of people wearing T-shirts reading I (heart sign) (map of Alberta) TECH

Nicole Janssen of AltaML (top left), with fellow I Heart AB Tech supporters Christy Holtby at the BioAlberta gala with Jack Jhamandas and Lorne Tyrell, and Shaheel Hoola, flanked by Shelvie Fernan and Victoria Jaramillo of Fly and Fetch. (LinkedIn)

Janssen hopes the campaign will also help people who aren't involved in tech become aware of the sector's successes. For example, she said, it's not widely known that Google DeepMind has a satellite office here, drawn by the talent in artificial intelligence at the University of Alberta.

"If you asked your average Edmontonian if they knew that the U of A was one of the top schools globally for machine learning, they wouldn't have a clue."

AltaML itself has plenty of success to trumpet. The applied AI firm is in the middle of hiring for an expansion into the U.S., and it intends to raise Series B financing this year. The company now employs about 130 people, with plans to hire 40 to 50 more in 2022, Janssen said.

The I Heart AB Tech campaign won't have a massive impact on its own, she acknowledged, but it builds on other efforts. "It's a step forward, and it goes along with all the other steps ... that Innovate Edmonton is taking, that Platform Calgary is taking."

Participant Randy Goebel has already dubbed this Alberta Tech Week, suggesting the campaign may become an annual thing. But Janssen wants the attitude to be year-round.

"I would put a call out to the tech sector to start talking about the wins. Have some swagger," she said. "Show the province and the world what we've got here."

The challenge of telling Edmonton's innovation story will be discussed by a panel at the Rainforest Alberta Edmonton Summit on March 24. Moderator Kristina Williams of Alberta Enterprise Corporation will discuss "how we can collectively tell a better story about innovators based in Edmonton" with Kristina Milke of Sprout Fund, Adam O'Brien of Bitcoin Well and Ghostlab, Myrna Bittner of RUNWITHIT Synthetics, and Christopher Micetich of Brass Dome Ventures.