Mayor Don Iveson said Edmonton's economy is due for a rebranding as he unveiled plans Monday to market the struggling city as Canada's hub for health innovation.
With 250 health-science companies already based in Edmonton, many of them startups, the new marketing strategy doesn't come with public investment attached. Instead, Mr. Iveson says all the pieces are already there, including a world-class university, a large provincial investment fund and a group of young entrepreneurs.
What's needed, he said, is a vision to make the city known as a global player in health. He cited a trauma device invented by an Edmonton-based physician as the type of innovation he wants to encourage.
"It's a marketing initiative, but it isn't only that. Through telling our story better, it's about connecting our existing companies to resources they might not be getting right now," he said on Monday, sitting down with The Globe and Mail at Edmonton City Hall.
He says the decision to brand the former "City of Champions" as "Canada's Health City" predates the year-old crash in oil and gas prices that has driven Alberta into recession.
"It just happens to be timely right now. The trajectory was there before the crash, the urgency might be there now, but it was a good idea at $80 [U.S.] oil," he said. On Monday, oil was $43.08 a barrel.
One of the tools the city plans to use is an existing business-support non-profit known as TEC Edmonton. A joint venture between the city and the University of Alberta, the non-profit helps new health companies grow.
Alberta Health Services is also based out of Edmonton. The province's sole health authority is the largest health provider in the country and spends $20-billion annually to run hundreds of health centres, as well as purchase pharmaceuticals and equipment.
"If we can find a way to work with that organization to create more opportunities for Edmonton, Alberta and Canadian companies, with a bias towards Edmonton, that supports an ecosystem that is quite robust here," Mr. Iveson said.
Adam Sweet was part of the working group that helped draft the new health strategy. The adviser with Edmonton's economic development agency said the city has much of what it needs to make the leap into a health economy.
"If we look at a diversification play, we want to build off our strengths and we are a health-innovation city," he said. "We realized that the elements were here; we just need to supercharge them."
Rachel Notley's governing New Democrats pull much of their strongest support from Edmonton. Her provincial government has vowed not to cut Alberta's bureaucracy at a time when budget deficits are expected to top $10-billion annually for the next two years. That has helped Edmonton escape the worst impacts of the energy downturn, now entering its second year.
Edmonton's March unemployment rate was 7.2 per cent, one of its highest levels in years, but below the 8.9 per cent recorded in Calgary.
A focus on health innovation will be a significant shift for a city that cheers for a hockey team known as the Oilers, celebrates under the unofficial tagline of oil country and has erected a towering oil derrick at city limits to welcome visitors.
However, Ms. Notley has made economic diversification across Alberta one of her government's central goals – one shared with all her Progressive Conservative predecessors. Deron Bilous, her government's economic diversification czar, said on Monday that the city's health strategy will have his support.
"Mayor Iveson's plan recognizes that Alberta invests more per capita in research and innovation than anywhere in Canada, building some of the best innovation infrastructure and attracting some of the world's best researchers," he said in a statement.