In the Prairie provinces' largely energy-driven boom-and-bust economy, the siren call is again being heard about the need for diversification—something TRTech has been doing since 1985.
The industry-driven non-profit firm—which strives to commercialize new technologies developed in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba and aimed at the information and communications technology areas—can point to dozens of success stories, ranging from projects aimed at harnessing data analysis tools for better monitoring of oil and gas wells to sophisticated cyber security technologies.
And now it can point to more success stories as a result of a six-year-old partnership linking Alberta firms with a similar organization located in the Silicon Valley of Mexico, which has allowed those companies to tap the lower-cost engineering and IT talent available in that area, as well as to better understand export markets.
The Alberta-Jalisco Program, now entering its fourth round of funding, was kicked off by a mid-April symposium located in the Jalisco state capital of Guadalajara, where tech giants like Hewlett-Packard, Intel, IBM and Siemens have a significant presence. The program sees the Alberta and Jalisco governments offering the equivalent of $250,000 each to new participants, who must match that with a cash or in-kind contribution.
The first memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the state government and the province was signed in 2009, but initial projects didn't start until 2011. A new MOU has since been signed to extend the program for at least another three years.
Participants can obtain additional funding of up to $125,000 from each government, based on contributing 50 per cent of the project total in cash and in-kind participation. There's another evaluation and assessment funding model that sees the governments each providing $25,000, with participants kicking in one-third of the cost.
Robert Tasker, the Calgary-based president of TRTech, says despite the downturn in the oil and gas industry, the rationale for tapping the educated workforce in the Guadalajara area, which has a population of seven million people and some of Mexico's best universities, remains the same as when the program was launched.
"It's a technology development and a people development partnership," says Tasker, a former Telus executive. "The aim is to increase the innovation capacity of Alberta through gaining access to qualified people. Guadalajara is a hotbed of young people trained in electronics and technology, and labour rates there are less than one-quarter of what they are in Alberta."
Its TRTech's only partnership outside of Canada, he says.
Other Alberta government departments have links with foreign nations, including Alberta Innovates Technology Futures, which has a similar partnership with an agency in Finland (where wages are as high as in Alberta); Alberta Enterprise and Advanced Education, which has a similar partnership with Germany; and the Alberta China Partnership, which fosters education exchanges with China.
Tasker says that in addition to allowing Alberta-based companies to gain access to Jalisco's talent pool, the program expands the global horizons of the companies involved.
"You learn a lot by working with people in another country, he says. Also, given that the Canadian companies are working in a Spanish-speaking environment, you're potentially opening the door to the South American market."
The two governments have now each spent $3 million, with the new round committing them to spend another $3 million each.