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Wooden pallets hardly seem like high-tech components of the supply chain. Yet one Calgary-area company aims to bring these ubiquitous, all important cogs in the logistics industry into the internet of things (IoT) age.

Established in 2015, mcThings develops low-cost, miniature devices that can be embedded in pallets, so shippers can not only track individual pallets, they can also monitor humidity, vibration and even whether a pallet has been dropped in transit.

Already, the company is garnering attention from leading pallet manufacturers. Its technology also has the potential to expand beyond pallets, especially as consulting firm Mckinsey has predicted that the IoT market will grow to $6-trillion by 2025.

“The problem we solve is connecting low-power, small devices to the cloud at low cost,” says CEO Tom Groenland. “Specifically, we have developed software that allows companies to deploy hundreds of thousands to millions of sensors without a big impact on their bottom line.”

The IoT firm isn’t the only Calgary company engaged in creative digitization, developing new technologies that disrupt old ways of doing things – be it in energy, health care, agriculture, clean tech or logistics. The city renowned for oil and gas is quickly earning a reputation as a hub for tech innovation, and it has a host of successful startups to prove it.

Some are well established like Pason Systems, using big data andreal-time analytics to reshape the drilling industry, or corporate finance software-as-service provider Solium, which has a growing book of large multi-national partners and clients.

It’s their successes and those of other tech innovators that have paved the way for a busy hive of tech entrepreneurialism to emerge in Calgary today. According to a 2014 Global Entrepreneurship Monitor report released by Canadian research centre THECIS, Alberta’s entrepreneurial and total early stage activity are the highest in Canada.

A 2016 study of tech deal flows from government-backed Alberta Enterprise Corporation also reveals that despite the oil and gas downturn,deal flows for tech companies in Calgary have grown by 55 per cent in the last four years.

Central to its ascent as a plucky tech hotbed are two critical qualities: a vibrant and knowledgeable investment community and a good pool of talent.

It’s Calgary’s leading community of investors with bench strength in oil and gas and a strong customer base in that sector that drew startup Ingu Solutions to the city from Kitchener-Waterloo in May of 2017.

“We saw a major opportunity to grow our business in a global energy center,” says its CEO John van Pol, something the company found challenging out east.

That unparalleled expertise, combined with Calgary’s ecosystem of innovation fueled by the likes of incubators like the Creative Destruction Lab (CDL) of the Rockies, provide a perfect environment for Ingu Solutions. “CDL has not only provided us with excellent industry access, says Mr. van Pol, it has also allowed us to successfully close a $1-million dollar seed round within a 3-week timeframe.

Just this past year, major operators like Chevron and Shell were assessing Ingu’s technology, and in 2018, Ingu will go fully commercial, initially targeting the large cluster of pipeline markets in Canada and the US.

“We developed a golf-ball sized (spherical) device that literally goes with the flow through the pipeline for oil, water, gas, and even chemical lines,” van Pol says.

A potential game-changing technology for oil and gas, it’s not difficult to see why Ingu has found it easier to scale in Calgary than elsewhere in Canada. But Mr. van Pol says the city has offered other pleasant surprises, including a large pool of talent stemming from local post-secondary institutions such as the University of Calgary.

That talent base has also made it easier for traditional oil and gas companies like Zedi Solutions, which helps oil and gas companies leverage IoT, to “pivot” and make inroads in other industries. The company has expanded into agriculture and clean tech in recent years.

“Currently, Calgary is perfectly positioned to become a hub for innovation and you can see the innovation ecosystem becoming stronger,” says Zedi Solutions CEO Matt Heffernan. “Calgary has a reputation for being a high performer and for adapting to what is to come,” Mr.Heffernan adds.

Mr. Groenland of mcThings agrees. “I don’t think the conditions to form our company would have come together as well anywhere else,” he says. “That’s really the value proposition of this city – being able to draw on the talent, expertise and capital.”

This piece appeared in the Globe and Mail on January 27, 2018.


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