Quebec City becoming digital mecca
Written byTaylor Ireland
A few weeks ago Quebec City hosted what was an extraordinary event by any measure. More than 25,000 people from around the world gathered to talk digital at the third annual “Semaine numerique de Quebec” – Quebec Digital Week.
The event, held at a series of imaginative venues in the city, from hip clubs to museums, libraries, incubators, a monastery, and even on a city street, brought together professionals, researchers, students, entrepreneurs, artists and start-ups, all intent on exploring, sharing and seeking inspiration from the digital revolution that is sweeping the planet.
The scope, enormity and boldness of the 10-day whirlwind of talks and workshops on everything from artificial intelligence, virtual reality, IoT (internet of things), robotics, blockchain and cryptocurrencies, prompted a Forbes magazine contributor to declare Quebec Digital Week “the South by Southwest of the North.” No faint praise considering SXSW, held in Austin, Texas, is deemed to be the largest such tech gathering of its type in the world.
The Quebec City version, though hosted in fickle spring weather, has grown exponentially since its debut, prompting Martine Rioux, general manager of Quebec Digital Week, to now declare it to be the largest technology-sharing event in Canada. That’s a pretty significant pronouncement given the level of digital activity in other major centres in Canada. It is also a big step forward for the Quebec capital whose high technology sector has been known mostly for its concentration in video game development.
While the city remains a major hub for video games, with literally dozens of players, there has been a surge in the IT sector developing products for more practical areas of human activity. One shining example that was showcased during Quebec Digital Week is LeddarTech which has become a leader in the development of the systems that guide autonomous vehicles (AV), one of the most exciting and fastest growing fields.
LeddarTech picked up two innovation awards at the massive Consumer Electronic Show (CES) in Las Vegas last January. The company is on the forefront in the world-wide stampede to develop lidar (laser imaging and ranging) technology that allows vehicles to recognize and respond to the driving environment. Leddartech, founded 10 years ago, says its technology can produce images 25 times more vivid than its rivals. It is already partnered with several automotive companies in developing its systems.
Interestingly, one of Leddartech’s main competitors in the field is also based in Quebec City. Phantom Intelligence has been working with giant Korean auto-parts maker Sungwoo Hitech for the past few years in testing AV technology. Both outfits figure on in the list of cutting edge companies around the world developing lidar systems in anticipation of the coming explosion in availability of AV vehicles.
What is remarkable about the booming digital sector in the once sleepy town, noted more its concentration of civil servants than its technology incubators, is the diversity of the niches local companies are tapping on a global scale.
A recent survey by Canadian Business magazine of Canada’s fastest growing companies listed several in the Quebec City region as rapidly rising stars. A few examples: Procontact, which offers consulting, technical and supply services for companies to manage and grow in the digital world; Libeo, already boasting a staff of 70, the company just expanded to Montreal where it is targeting the digital needs of the finance and health sectors; Crakmedia specializes in helping companies monetize their web traffic, and operates an advertising network generating web sales in 200 countries.
While the proliferation of tech companies in the old city may seem like a recent phenomenon, with start-ups springing up almost every month, Quebec City was a pioneer in establishing the infrastructure to nurture the growth of digital. The Metropolitan Quebec Techno Park, located in the city’s west end, was established in 1988, at the dawn of the digital age, and was the first such infrastructure in Canada.
Laval University, with its ahead-of-the-curve information technology programs was, and continues to be, a major player in the development of the Techno Park and the overall digital industry in the city. The university has just bolstered its status as a digital leader with the establishment of a masters program in artificial intelligence.
The Techno Park, with dozens of innovative companies working in an incredibly diverse variety of digital fields, has been such a success it has almost outgrown its current space. The city is pursuing other projects to accommodate and encourage continued expansion in the sector. One of these is an ambitious plan to build a technology and light industrial park in the sector of the city where the new giant Ikea store has become a magnet for commercial and residential development.
One of the major players in the Techno Park is OPTEL, which has become a world leader in the technology of traceability systems, meaning systems that
“ensure the quality of consumer health products and help stop counterfeiting of pharmaceuticals and medical devices throughout the world.” Founded in 1989, and now with operations in Ireland, India and Brazil, OPTEL technology helps companies ensure quality control and efficient use of resources. It is also in the vanguard of companies preparing for the transition to “smart manufacturing,” rapid-response, highly automated methods, which is being called the “fourth industrial revolution.”
Another Quebec digital company excelling in the booming global quality control field is Eddyfi, whose specialty is “non-destructive technology” for the inspection of everything from pipelines to manufacturing plants. The company has projects in more than 80 countries around the world and employs more than 360 people at its base in Quebec City. It recently won the contract to inspect all the welding on the Mars rover vehicle slated for launch in 2010 on the NASA mission to explore the possibility of life on the red planet. Eddyfi has also worked with another force on the interplanetary front, SpaceX.
One of the most intriguing success stories in the Quebec digital world is that of Coveo, whose CEO, Louis Tetu, was a pioneer in applying cloud technology to the domain of human resources. Tetu sold his Taleo company to Oracle in 2012, then turned his attention to other possibilities of the internet. Coveo is a world leader in using AI technology to help customers, in their words, make “websites, ecommerce, contact centers and intranets efficient, effortless and content-rich.”
Coveo just signed a $100 million deal with one of Silicon Valley’s most powerful investors, Evergreen Coast Capital, to help it pursue its aggressive expansion agenda.
Finally, we couldn’t talk about the digital boom in Quebec City without mentioning the important role Quebec International plays in nurturing promising digi
tal innovators. Specifically, Le Camp is an incubator-accelerator offering support to tech companies in need of a helping hand in the formative stages of business development.
Le Camp is administered and run by Quebec International, with financial support from Quebec City’s economic development agency. Current “campers” at the lively space in the city’s happening Saint Roch district, are working on marketable ideas ranging from artificial intelligence to help communications companies, to digital aids for tourists to access cultural sites, to digital tools to help companies predict and avoid natural disasters; and yes, there are some innovative video games in the works at Le Camp.
This bee-hive of digital activity helps explain why the Forbes article declares Quebec City to be such a focal point of the tech revolution sweeping the world. Next year’s edition of Quebec Digital Week promises to be even bigger and more exciting.
Photo credit: André-Olivier Lyra