Entrepreneur questions need for innovation narrative

· The Pulse

Efforts to tell a unified narrative about innovation in Edmonton may be a distraction, says an entrepreneur whose company has seen significant success at home and abroad.

It's the ideas and talent emerging from Edmonton rather than the city's reputation that makes the difference on the world stage, suggested Myrna Bittner, CEO and co-founder of RUNWITHIT Synthetics, during a panel on telling the city's innovation story at the Rainforest Summit on March 24.

"You may not know where Edmonton is … but it doesn't matter because we have kick-ass, world-winning tech," Bittner said.

RUNWITHIT Synthetics, which uses AI to help create visualizations of complex concepts such as economics, mobility, and energy use, has received lots of local accolades. It was named the Most Edmonton Startup of the Year, was recognized as an emerging digital leader at Digital Alberta's Ember Awards, and won a competition for rent-free office space downtown.

But it's on the international stage where RUNWITHIT Synthetics has really shone, competing to help Bogotá deal with climate change at the Climate Smart Cities Challenge, winning gold at MobileHeroes in Taiwan, and pitching at the Industry Growth Forum in Colorado in April, among other accomplishments.

"The important narrative for the entrepreneurs that this whole system rests on is our success," Bittner said at the event, organized by Rainforest Alberta - YEG. "I think that is really important when we look at community. It's not this common narrative where we need to refer to researchers or Nobel laureates."

Bittner's comments were in response to fellow panellist Christopher Micetich of Brass Dome Ventures. He said that while Edmonton is friendly to startups, it hasn't yet built a narrative that fosters a level of collaboration seen in other cities.

"If you go to places like Silicon Valley, San Francisco, (they're) highly competitive, but they all work together, they all share a common narrative … We haven't learned to do that in Edmonton," he said.

"I think we're starting to learn the importance of working together, but we still don't work together well enough here."

Panellists perch on stools on stage while a moderator at a podium speaks

Christopher Micetich, Adam O'Brien, Myrna Bittner, and Kristina Milke spoke on a panel about Edmonton's innovation story, moderated by Kristina Williams at the Rainforest Summit on March 24. (Nathan Fung)

Sporting an I Heart AB Tech T-shirt, Micetich said Alberta's reputation as an oil-and-gas province used to be an obstacle when he was seeking support for his pharmaceutical ventures. But when former mayor Don Iveson spoke of Edmonton as "Canada's health city" in 2016, that reputation started to shift.

"We're now starting to recognize the darlings that have been here in the cloud of oil and gas … we're not starting from scratch," Micetich said.

Regardless of whether a unified narrative is needed, the talent developed here has to stay. Bittner noted that Alberta is seeing an exodus of young people who don't see a future here.

"I'm concerned about the cuts to the (University of Alberta). That is our talent pipeline," she said. "So I think … we need to be cognizant of how the whole community works together."

The panel, moderated by Kristina Williams of the Alberta Enterprise Corporation, also included Kristina Milke of Sprout Fund and Adam O'Brien of Bitcoin Well and Ghostlab.