Four tips for growing a tech business in Alberta
By 24 November 2022 3 min read
To hear Dr. Caley Shukalek tell it, starting a successful tech business in Alberta is actually not that complicated.
“I think it comes down to a great idea, the right people, and a bit of luck with timing,” says the Chief Medical Officer of PurposeMed. “And then a lot of sheer, hard work, of course.”
Executing that simple strategy is easier said than done, but PurposeMed’s trajectory so far suggests that Shukalek is on to something.
The Calgary-based health tech startup is now Canada’s largest prescriber of the HIV prevention medication PrEP and has helped countless patients across the country access mental health services. With around 200 employees today, PurposeMed is beginning to scale out of its startup phase. Its award cabinet already includes accolades from Start Alberta, the C100 and Communitech’s list of Canadian start-ups in the top 1% of fastest growing tech companies in the world.
Here are four tips from Shukalek on growing a new business in Alberta.
1. Believe in your big idea
PurposeMed was founded in 2020 by Dr. Husein Moloo, Pete MacLeod, and Amaan Banwait, to connect marginalized Canadians with timely medical care.
“The founders wanted to improve care in rural areas and among Indigenous populations,” says Shukalek, who knew Moloo in med school and was one of PurposeMed’s first hires. “It was a struggle to get people to use existing technology.”
The specifics have shifted as PurposeMed transformed from an idea for a business to an actual business, but the commitment of its leaders to their vision is as strong as ever.
“We’re a private business but we’re also mission driven. If we raise awareness and that gets someone to get PrEP from their family doctor, we’re still winning in our minds,” says Shukalek. “Having an impact like that drives you to do more.”
2. Take care when building and growing your team
Shukalek wears many hats. On top of his duties with PurposeMed, he runs his own practice as a specialist physician, does some admin work for Alberta Health Services, and conducts research at the University of Calgary.
“I’ve worked a lot of places over the course of my life,” he says. “And I can’t say there’s anywhere else that I adore the people I work with as much as at PurposeMed.”
This did not happen by accident. PurposeMed takes a very deliberate approach to growing its ranks.
“While I talk about being lucky with people, we’ve also been very careful in hiring,” says Shukalek. “Sometimes it’s easier to do a little extra work for a short period until you find the right person.
“When we’re hiring it’s never about finding the next warm body.”
3. Be careful with your capital
To date, PurposeMed’s growth has been privately funded by its founders and their friends and families.
“When you’re making decisions around hiring and spending and it’s your money in the pot, you’re smarter with it. Or maybe more cautious,” says Shukalek. “We try to be very smart with our burn rate.”
While every startup can’t be self-funded, every entrepreneur can treat all the capital they can access as if it were their own.
If you do need outside funding, ATB’s Capital Markets Team can help you access the resources you need to grow your business, financial and otherwise.
“Our advice and the products we offer both come with a layer of creativity and problem solving,” says Marc Rancourt, ATB’s director of diversified industries. “We don't group our clients into a box or make financing decisions based on checkboxes.”
“We can provide bespoke solutions at a much smaller size than many banks,” adds Tim Hart, ATB’s managing director of diversified industries.
4. Remember that anyone can be an entrepreneur
As a licensed physician, Shukalek faces a clear career path. He’s still getting used to thinking of himself as an entrepreneur.
“I never saw myself doing this,” he says. “I went to medical school to be a physician and a researcher. It’s been a tremendous learning experience for me, and an amazing experience overall as someone who is typically risk averse.”
Essentially, Shukalek boils his methods down to ‘throwing money in a hat, crossing my fingers and working really hard’ and it’s led him to some very impactful results.
“To anyone who is thinking of becoming an entrepreneur: if you have a great idea and something you can be passionate about and pour your blood, sweat and tears into, it just might be worth it,” he shares.