Calgary emerges as fintech innovation hub

October 6, 2021
Financial Services Opportunity Calgary Investment Fund
Harvest OCIF announcement

Chris Simair, Managing Director, Harvest Builders, at OCIF media conference July 22, 2020.

Calgary’s innovation ecosystem is turning out tech startups across diverse sectors. The city’s leadership in tech innovation in industries like energy and agriculture is well known, but what is gaining attention lately is the city’s new-found strength in emerging sectors like fintech.

One of the rising stars in fintech headquartered in the city is Neo Financial. Neo is representative of the new wave of ambitious companies looking to do what Calgarians have always done; embrace technology and transform business. 

Neo Financial currently offers the Neo Card, a rewards Mastercard issued by ATB Financial; and Neo Savings, a high interest savings account provided by Concentra Bank – all with a 100 per cent digital experience so customers can “say goodbye to branches and long lines” and manage transactions from their mobile device or web browser. 

Neo also recently partnered with Hudson’s Bay to offer a new Mastercard rewards program that allows customers to earn points on purchases outside of the department store, while getting cashback at thousands of local and national Neo partners. 

Driving key aspects of the city’s embracement of digital transformation and the growth of a diverse tech and innovation ecosystem is a City of Calgary initiative, the Opportunity Calgary Investment Fund (OCIF). Neo Financial is one of the promising companies to emerge from the OCIF-backed business accelerator Harvest Builders

After building SkipTheDishes into a top 10 brand in Canada, Cofounder and Former CEO Chris Simair continued his journey in tech by starting Harvest Builders, a venture builder that builds and supports scaling startups right here in Calgary. Harvest Builders was launched in 2019 and will receive up to $4 million over three years from OCIF to build, grow and scale new technology ventures in Calgary and across Western Canada. 

Working together as one of its studio ventures, Neo Financial continues to make waves in Calgary, raising $50 million in Series A venture capital in 2020 and $64 million in Series B in 2021, with both rounds led by Peter Thiel's Valar Ventures. 

They quickly outgrew their original office space in the East Village and recently moved into new 49,000 sq. ft. downtown digs in The Edison building as their team expanded to over 350 in their Calgary headquarters. Neo is adding team members weekly and opened a second headquarters in Winnipeg. 

From fintech to proptech 

“Calgary has a really strong entrepreneurial history and, building off of that, I think we’re seeing that momentum move into the tech and innovation space,” said Arianna Dametto, Head of External Relations at Harvest Builders.  

In April, Harvest Builders announced the launch of two new companies in their studio’s fintech portfolio, OneVest and Propra, which are set to add over 300 new jobs in Calgary over the next three years.

“They’re moving quickly,” said Dametto. “You’ll see a lot of open roles over the next few months as they develop out their products.”

OneVest is a digital wealth management platform and Propra is a property management solution to improve the rental experience for landlords and tenants. To attract and grow tech talent, Harvest Builders hosts monthly open houses and is engaged in the local innovation ecosystem.

“There is a really great community behind Calgary's growing tech ecosystem,” said Dametto. “If we can keep up the momentum we have seen in tech over the past couple years, we have a really good shot at becoming a powerhouse for innovation in Canada. We have started to see government and industry really pay attention to the opportunities within the tech sector and start asking the questions of how as a city can better enable this innovation.”

Tech talent in high demand

The hunt for tech talent is a global competition as companies worldwide respond to the accelerated digital transformation of industry. 

“Tech is not specific to any one industry, especially as companies go through their own digital transformations, you’re going to see tech applications across all industries,” said Dametto. “There’s so much opportunity for tech and innovation in every industry we have here.”

For Calgary, there is a critical mass of tech companies from startups to unicorns for the ecosystem to foster and grow its pool of tech talent. Calgary recorded double-digit growth in tech talent and total tech jobs over the past five years and is listed among the Top 50 North American markets in CBRE’s 2021 Scoring Tech Talent report.  

“It comes down to the people and the experience. The more experienced founders, entrepreneurs and teams you have that have worked in the startup space in general – that’s when you’re really going to start to see some momentum in the community,” said Dametto. “That experience really triggers a flywheel effect in the community.”

Dametto, who joined Harvest Builders from SkipTheDishes, saw many of her former colleagues move on to either start their own companies, or join other early stage startups. “That’s what I mean about the flywheel effect – the experiences people gain from working in these fast growing businesses gets passed on, and as a result builds a stronger ecosystem for new innovation.”

And as for what it will take for Calgary’s tech scene to reach even higher heights, Dametto notes the importance of a connected and engaged innovation ecosystem.

“There's been a lot of movement towards this already, so I think it's all about continuing down the path of better organization and collaboration,” she said. “There's a lot of people and organizations that are working to boost up the ecosystem here and as we become more coordinated, it’s only going to get better and better.” 

A word from the wise to those thinking about transitioning to tech: “You don’t have to be an engineer or product designer to work in tech,” she said.

“Whether you are interested in sales, customer service, or marketing, there’s so much opportunity to grow your career. One of the best things of being part of a growing startup is that you are not bound by the traditional career paths that are normally set out.” 

In addition to their portfolio of studio ventures, Harvest Builders also works with several tech companies in Calgary making names for themselves – including Circuit Stream, StellarAlgo and Village Wellth.

“The more people realize the opportunities and exciting businesses being built here in Calgary the more we are going to see our ecosystem grow and benefit.”

For more information on working in Calgary’s tech innovation ecosystem, visit Live Tech, Love Life. Visit the Opportunity Calgary Investment Fund page for more information on the City’s investments to drive innovation and spur transformative economic development in Calgary.

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