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Yedlin: Face of Calgary's economy swiftly evolving

Jun 02, 2017

This week is an excellent example of the changes occurring in Calgary’s economic structure, and exactly how fast they’re happening.

Monday saw the launch of a program pairing the University of Calgary’s Haskayne School of Business and local company Beaver Drilling that aims to tackle challenges facing the energy services sector.

The Avatar Program curriculum is designed to accelerate innovation in the drilling space using technology and artificial intelligence — all with a focus to transform the cost curve and give employees the necessary tools and coaching to succeed.

This was followed Wednesday by an announcement of the Hunter family’s donation of $40 million to establish the Hunter Hub for Entrepreneurial Thinking at the U of C.

That same day, Aspen Properties and San Francisco-based RocketSpace hosted a dinner in the old PanCanadian Petroleum building on 9th Avenue S.W., where the tech company intends set up a Canadian hub later this year.  

RocketSpace has worked with more than 1,000 startups that now collectively have a value of US$100 billion. It’s establishing 12 technology centres around the world, including Calgary.

In all cases, it’s about Calgary’s — and Alberta’s — economic future moving in a direction that will offset exposure to the volatility of the commodity price cycle over the short, medium and long term.

One road — the Hunter direction — is longer term because it involves a pedagogical shift at the U of C. RocketSpace will take flight within months, while Beaver Drilling is already making change happen.

At the nub of all that’s happening is the shift toward collaboration across disciplines that previously didn’t occur.

The Hunter initiative is about breaking down silos inherent in the university structure — by no means unique to the U of C — to create an interdisciplinary educational system that encourages students to take courses in other departments and faculties that augment their core focus of study.

“When we did our consultation for our energized Eyes High strategy, this is what the students said they wanted to see happen,” U of C president Elizabeth Cannon said Wednesday. “The business students want to work with the engineering students, with the arts students and social work.

“The creation of the Hunter Hub really provides a mechanism for both a physical space and the programming to break down those faculty silos and make sure we get everybody together and build that (entrepreneurial) culture on our campus.” 

Think of it as creating graduates whose skill set is like a Swiss Army knife. 

The U of C’s involvement — facilitated by the Hunter family’s generous donation — is critical to establishing a vibrant, innovation ecosystem.

In places like Silicon Valley, Austin, Texas, Boston, the Research Triangle in North Carolina or Communitech in the Kitchener-Waterloo region of Ontario, a common denominator is the presence of strong, research-focused universities.

If there was a way to create an innovation corridor linking Calgary and the University of Alberta — it could happen with a high speed rail link — the horsepower of what is possible would be beyond formidable.

The good news is that an entrepreneurial mindset has long been in Calgary. It’s what has led the energy sector to where it is today, and it was through Doug Hunter’s successful business ventures that Wednesday’s donation, following a $5-million contribution to the Haskayne School in 2013, was possible.

The challenge, as his son Derrick said Wednesday, is that capital, talent and office space have overwhelmed other sectors in the Calgary economy.

“It’s easier for a large energy company to raise $1 billion than it is for a brilliant software startup to raise $1 million,” he said.

That is going to change.

Whether it’s applying advanced technology to what is deemed an ‘old’ industry, as Beaver Drilling is doing, the excitement evident at weekly Rainforest meetings or exposure to the companies clustering around RocketSpace, it’s hard to miss the new energy bubbling in Calgary.

RocketSpace is here because it is impressed with the talent, the capital and the ideas being generated in Calgary. The importance of these types of physical spaces, like RocketSpace is creating here, cannot be understated.

“Startups succeed with other startups around them,” said RocketSpace executive Michele McConomy.

RocketSpace has a particular philosophy that will work well in Calgary. The firm calls it a dual-sided marketplace approach. Startups need scale to succeed and corporations need innovation to survive and improve their competitiveness.

To qualify, companies need to be funded, have a product and customers.

RocketSpace can accelerate the growth — because it has become a place corporations look to when seeking solutions and new ideas to fuel their businesses.  

In Calgary, McConomy sees opportunity not just to build on what’s happening in the energy space as it becomes more tied to the digitized world and artificial intelligence, but other areas such as health care, logistics operations and agri-tech.

Will all of this suddenly pull the province out of its economic doldrums, drive down the unemployment rate and diversify the economy? That’s not possible. There will be hiccups and there will be failures.

But something is happening in Calgary. People are talking about the re-emergence of a vibe on Stephen Avenue and — for better or worse — traffic is picking up.

It’s taken some time for the city to shake off the impact of the past two years and find the strength to look ahead at what’s possible rather than lament what was.  

Diane Hunter, a former alderman and a director of the Hunter Foundation, said it best Wednesday.

 “This is Calgary. We make things happen,” she said.

Yes we do.

Eventually.

Click here to see the full article by the Calgary Herald