How Energy and Tech Can Work Together – And Why They Must Start Now

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Guest post written by Max Fawcett. This article originally appeared on the Canadian Digital Media Network website.

Over the last few years, the energy sector has been the driving force behind the Canadian economy. Meanwhile, the high-tech sector has seen some of its brightest stars fade, even as startup activity has skyrocketed. But on Oct. 28, the two will meet in Calgary as part of the Canada 3.0 program at the annual Canadian Energy Supply Chain Forum (CESCF), to build relationships and develop networks that could help both sides solve each other’s problems.

And make no mistake: while Alberta’s energy sector has been responsible for nearly all of Canada’s job creation and economic growth of late, it faces some very real problems that it has to address.

Rob Tasker, CEO of TRTech, a not-for-profit technology commercialization company charged with growing the ICT industry in Western Canada, says it’s high time the two sides started to work together.

“This is a national issue. It’s not just an Alberta issue. And it’s a national opportunity,” Tasker says. “So much of our GDP in Canada is resource-based, and so we’re missing an opportunity by not doing this.” And, he says, that opportunity isn’t just about helping the energy sector lower its costs or meet its growing environmental obligations. It’s also about growing the kind of energy technology companies that can compete on a global scale.

“It’s not that we’re not finding ways to solve our problems – we are. But we’re not necessarily using our own technologies to do that,” he says. “So often, we underestimate our own ability and our capability on the technology side. It’s a classic Canadian dilemma – why do we not look to ourselves to solve some of our own problems first?”

A more recent Canadian dilemma when it comes to developing world-class technology companies is the absence of a national champion that can create an ecosystem of entrepreneurs and capital needed to create opportunities to bring the two together.

“We don’t have a Nortel anymore,” Tasker says. “We may not even have a BlackBerry anymore. And in the oil and gas sector, if you look at the players who are in the product space, it’s companies like Schlumberger and Halliburton and GE – they’re not based in Canada.”

And while Canada does have its share of big companies in the oil and gas space, Tasker says they don’t have the kind of appetite for risk-taking in their DNA that’s conducive to developing new technologies. “These companies are all operators, and operators are risk averse. They don’t want to be at the leading edge – they don’t want to be the first to use a new technology. They want tried and proven technology, because they’re making tons of money off the existing way of doing things.”

The challenge then, Tasker says, is finding ways of “de-risking” those new technologies. Ian McGillivray, director of events and conferences for JuneWarren-Nickle’s Energy Group, which is producing the CESCF, says a key part of that – and a key part of the Canada 3.0 portion of the conference – is educating technology companies on how and where they can bring their ideas forward.

“These oil and gas companies are so huge,” McGillivray says. “You can’t just show up at Suncor or call Suncor and say, ‘Hey, I want to talk to someone about selling my software.’ We help guys from that end understand where they fit in the supply chain, and who their customers actually are.”

Learning about those customers and what they want ought to be an objective for tech entrepreneurs attending this year’s event, McGillivray says. “Any good marketer of any product or service knows that your path to success is understanding your customers and understanding the market you want to serve. This is a really good event to come and do that – especially for new or emerging technology companies that maybe haven’t had a ton of experience in the oil and gas business. This is a great place to come and learn about where to get started.”

That’s another objective conference participants should be pursuing, Tasker says – not coming up with the mother of all solutions to the mother of all problems, but building the foundations that might one day lead to that.

“What I’d love to see is new pilot technologies and new things being opened up as a result of this conference – new relationships being made where people are saying ‘yeah, let’s give that a try.’”

It’s long past time Canada did a bit more trying too, he says. “The issue, for me, is the magnitude of the opportunity that we will miss if we don’t do something different. And we will miss it. We have missed a lot of it already. Are we going to continue this way, or are we going to change? In the big picture, there’s an enormous opportunity that I fear is going to go to waste if we don’t do something differently.”

Canada 3.0 is part of this year’s Canadian Energy Supply Chain Forum in Calgary, Oct. 28-30. Early bird is on sale until Sept 26. Register now!