January 27, 2021

100 years of advancing research and innovation to help Alberta and Albertans

A group of SIRCA scientists in 1926

A group of SIRCA scientists in 1926.

For more than a century, Alberta Innovates has been an integral part of the province’s scientific and economic history. Although it has seen different forms — and several name changes — the philosophy at the core of the organization has always stayed the same. For 100 years, it has used science, research and innovation to help Alberta and Albertans grow and thrive.

Past Names of Alberta Innovates

1921-1930: Scientific and Industrial Research Council of Alberta (SIRCA)

1930-1981: Research Council of Alberta (RCA)

1981-2010: Alberta Research Council (ARC)

2010-2016: Alberta Innovates – Technology Futures (AITF), Alberta Innovates – Bio Solutions (AIBS), Alberta Innovates – Environment and Energy Solutions (AIEES), Alberta Innovates – Health Solutions (AIHS)

2016-Present: Alberta Innovates / InnoTech Alberta / C-FER Technologies

In 1921, Alberta was just like any other 16-year-old; it was a place in the process of discovering what it was and its potential. The population was a little shy of 570,000 people. For the most part, agriculture still dominated both Alberta’s politics and its economy. High unemployment and a weak economy fueled unrest, especially among those readjusting to life after returning from the battlefields of Europe.

Henry Marshall Tory was one of those who found his outlook changed by the First World War. Tory, the first president of the University of Alberta, had a passion for education and scientific inquiry. The war convinced Tory that scientific research should not stay hidden within the halls of academia — it was a matter of importance for governments and industry as well. He felt that Alberta’s resources presented untapped potential. The young province would benefit from an organization that would perform research and foster private development. It would also serve to diversify Alberta’s heavily agricultural economy that was currently suffering due to years of poor crop yields and low grain prices.

Tory lobbied the government to create such an organization. In 1921, the provincial government created the Scientific and Industrial Research Council of Alberta (SIRCA), the first province in Canada to do so, a bold move soon replicated across the country in coming years. The new organization had an ambitious mandate: supporting industries in developing new research, mapping out Alberta’s geological resources and discovering new commercial uses for things Alberta produced.

Tory was put in charge of SIRCA. He brought along with him Karl Clark, a researcher he had hired to work at the U of A the previous year. Clark would be put in charge of SIRCA’s road-building research division. His work on investigating bitumen as a possible paving material would eventually have a massive impact on the province.

Soon, the organization was working on research relating to coal, forestry, mining, the oil sands and natural gas. It also completed the first full geological survey of the province, finally giving a clear sense of Alberta’s mineral resources. In 1930, it became a Crown corporation and was given a less wordy moniker: the Research Council of Alberta.

Three years later, the research council was in serious trouble. Like many other government initiatives, it was seen as a luxury during the Great Depression and its funding was cut. The organization was kept alive with minimal funding from the U of A and the National Research Council.

Research and development in resource industry leads to transformation

However, a growing interested in the province’s northern oil reserves brought renewed funding in 1943, and the research council’s involvement would go on to be instrumental in the development of Alberta’s oil sands. Methods pioneered by the council’s researchers allowed companies to efficiently extract bitumen from deposits in the north of the province. And once it was proved possible, the research council was central to efforts drawing investors and entrepreneurs to the industry, although commercialization of the oil sands would take decades. The result was a complete transformation of the province, as resource development overtook agriculture as the primary industry.

A Research Council of Alberta conducts microbiology research related to coal and petroleum. C. 1950s.

Over the next couple decades, the organization increased its presence in agricultural research and other areas such as the atmospheric sciences. But the main emphasis was on the province’s growing energy industry, both through research and development of new technologies and attracting investors to the province. Beginning in 1960s, the Research Council started focusing on applied research. It began accepting research projects for private companies on a contract basis, a practice that continues today through Alberta Innovates’ subsidiary InnoTech Alberta.

As new industries like biotechnology and computing emerged in the 70s and 80s, Alberta sought to maintain its economic advantage through diversification. The Research Council of Alberta, renamed again in 1981 as the Alberta Research Council, broadened its focus, adding to its existing research in the earth sciences.

The research council created several research centres in the province, including a new headquarters in southeast Edmonton that opened in 1986, lauded at the time as one of the most advanced research facilities of its kind in the country. With new programs and facilities dedicated to electronics and computing, automation, forestry products and biotechnology, the Alberta Research Council was able to work closely with industry to solve challenges in a variety of sectors.

Genesis of the Alberta Innovates family

The Alberta Innovates family was born in 2010 when the provincial government created four corporations – Alberta Innovates Technology Futures, Alberta Innovates – Health Solutions, Alberta Innovates – Energy and Environment Solutions, and Alberta Innovates Bio Solutions. These four comprised numerous research and innovation organizations that had operated separately – including, among others, the Alberta Research Council, the Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research, Alberta Energy Research Institute (formerly known as the Alberta Oil Sands Technology and Research Authority), and several other centres and institutes for forestry, agriculture, biotechnology, ecosystem services and prion studies.

In 2016, the four provincial corporations merged to become Alberta Innovates – one provincial corporation with two applied research subsidiaries: C-FER Technologies and InnoTech Alberta. As the organization enters its second century of innovation, it does so as an integrated entity with an expanded focus and a co-ordinated strategic direction.

Today, Alberta Innovates is the province’s largest research and innovation organization, but its core role is not so different than it was in 1921 —to foster and accelerate research, innovation and economic growth in the province.

Learn more about where Alberta Innovates is today.