Advice from 3 established tech companies and a plucky little one with gobs of potential

You know those automated appointment reminders your doctor sends out to remind you when to show up? Well, if you are one of a quarter million Alberta patients, they might be coming from the technology of a newer Calgary startup.

Your doctor’s appointment reminders? They might just come from this Calgary startup with 10 staff

Kyle Nishiyama, far left, and Meaghan Nolan, far right, started Mikata Health about 2.5 years ago and it already serves 250 doctors and 250,000 patients. Bryan de Lottinville, centre left, Victoria Brilz, centre, and Marcos Lopez, centre right, have all paved the way and contributed to a supportive tech ecosystem, that has allowed newer companies like Mikata Health to thrive. (Ellis Choe/CBC)
  • This story is part of The Homestretch's Tech for Tomorrow series: An in-depth look at what's being done to grow the technology industry in Calgary.

You know those automated appointment reminders your doctor sends out to remind you when to show up? Well, if you are one of a quarter million Alberta patients, they might be coming from the technology of a newer Calgary startup.

"Our goal is to transform the experience of going to the doctor for patients and clinics," Kyle Nishiyama told The Homestretch.

"To help the clinics run more efficiently, offloading a lot of the tedious tasks so they can focus on patient care."

Nishiyama and Meaghan Nolan started Mikata Health about two and a half years ago with that goal in mind.

"The goal is to keep it really simple for everyone," Nolan explained.

The pair met at university and became fast friends.

"After our degrees, we moved to New York City. I landed a job at a startup," she said.

"Calgary is home for me. A lot of our networks are here as well. We decided we were ready to take the leap."

And so back to Calgary they came.

"We've had a lot of support from the technology ecosystem here in Alberta. That's what allowed us to achieve this level of success and it will help us grow to the next level as well," Nolan said.

But this level of success is already impressive. Mikata Health now works with 250 doctors and about 250,000 patients.

Mikata Health just took Startup Calgary's A100 One to Watch award, given to an early-stage company that's most likely to succeed.

Support everywhere you look

Some tech experts tell CBC News there is support for new tech startups everywhere you look.

Christiana Manzocco at Alberta Enterprise says the latest 2019 reports show investment activity has never been higher in the sector and support has never been more extensive.

Startup Calgary, Rainforest Alberta, Innovate Calgary, Alberta Innovates, 321 Growth Academy, CDL-Rockies and Platform Calgary all have some great resources.

Startups in Calgary currently include applications like cannabis roadside testing, to clean energy technology and health-care apps.

A survey from Alberta Enterprise shows software is the leading sector with about 40 per cent of the overall tech market.

Veteran panel

But what's the future of some more established tech companies, who got off the ground before there was an supportive ecosystem in place?

Marcos Lopez is the founder of Solium, bought out by Morgan Stanley last year for a cool $1.1 billion. He is now CEO at Shareworks that boasts customers like Shopify and Burberry.

Victoria Brilz is a founder of Dynastream Innovations bought by Garmin. She's now chief marketing officer at 4iiii Innovations based in Cochrane, Alta.

Bryan de Lottinville is the CEO and founder of Benevity, Inc. with clients like Amazon and Google.

Paid in beer

Lopez says his start involved some creative financing.

"We had a very early opportunity with Big Rock, when we were both emerging companies. We didn't have enough customers. In the software business you need some customers for the next customer to come on," he told The Homestretch.

"We had a creative barter situation which allowed them to pay partially in cash and partially in product, which made staff functions incredibly enjoyable for the next few years."

Brilz says her success was founded in focus and a diverse team.

"It comes from solid determination, in putting together the business plan but also being focused on where you are going," Brilz said.

"Our team came from different tech companies that were already here in Calgary. We came from IBM, from NovAtel, from the University of Alberta and our CFO came from Big Rock."

Success, still a work in progress at Benevity, involves a lot of smaller pieces, de Lottinville said.

"We help companies help people be their best selves, with social responsibility, community investment and engagement around those things," he said.

"Benevity is still in the growth stage. I am proud of it but I don't feel we have arrived anywhere yet."

Smaller community a deliberate choice

Brilz's decision to set up in Cochrane, a smaller community just west of Calgary, was deliberate.

"Being a startup, we knew our days would be long and a lot of our employees would be out in the mountains on the weekend. Our children were in town, they would be in school a block or two from our office."

Lopez says the struggle is part of the process and very little comes easily.

"We restructured Solium in 2002, got the team down to 17 people. Everyone took a pay cut," he said.

"Part of what makes business rewarding is, there is a struggle and it's not easy. It's sports for people who weren't good at sports. We have our team. It's a competition. We try to win. That's part of the fun."

The evolution of stress, challenges

Brilz says the challenges she faces today are a long way away from a dozen years ago.

"We are in Alberta at a time when it's looking for diversity," she said.

"Our struggles today are much different than they were 15 years ago. There's a recognition for startups now which wasn't there before."

Calgary is a different place for de Lottinville today.

"There is stress all the way along, the stress is just different now. I am not covering payroll with my personal cheques, but we have private equity firm investors who have expectations," he said.

"We are not yet profitable, so that's something we need to work towards."

Avoid tin-cup investing

And what advice would these veterans give their younger selves?

"Find great, aligned investors. Avoid tin-cup investing where you go around and get a little bit from everybody. When times get hard, nobody has enough skin in the game to keep the business going," Lopez says.

"We have lost some good technology companies in Calgary on the back of that."

There are lots of good ideas out there, de Lottinville adds.

"That doesn't guarantee success. One out of a thousand startups has more than 100 employees," he said.

"It's a more complex cocktail than just the ideation."

Bright future here

Brilz says she hopes governments get on side.

"There is a growing awareness of this sector in Calgary. We need to believe it and hang onto it, in spite of the credits being taken away," she said.

"I am still a firm believer that tech belongs in Alberta and there's a bright future here."

Lopez says that's inevitable.

"What we need in Calgary is to just keep building great businesses and they will have tech in them because that's just where the world is today."

And meanwhile, the founders of Mikata Health are betting on that.

"We are looking at ten times our growth over the next year," Nishiyama said.

"And growth outside of Alberta," Nolan added.

  • This story is part of The Homestretch's Tech for Tomorrow series: An in-depth look at what's being done to grow the technology industry in Calgary.

With files from Ellis Choe and The Homestretch


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