Opinion Leader: The Rise of the Rest: Building a high-performance innovation ecosystem in Calgary
October 5, 2022
Dr. Terry Rock, PhD, is the President and CEO of Platform Calgary.
First, an admission. I’m a long-time fan of Steve Case, co-founder and former CEO and chairman of AOL. I was an early customer, and since joining Platform Calgary in 2018, I’ve been an avid follower of “The Rise of the Rest,” his big-red-bus-tour approach to finding and investing in compelling startups.
Case is author of the best-selling book The Third Wave: An Entrepreneur’s Vision of the Future. In that book, he predicted the rise of startup ecosystems outside of California, New York and Boston – a phenomenon he calls The Rise of the Rest.
Now, I’m eagerly looking forward to reading Case’s latest book The Rise of the Rest: How Entrepreneurs in Surprising Places are Building the New American Dream, a detailed encapsulation of playbooks he’s been sharing through his venture capital firm, Revolution LLC.
Revolution, located in Washington, D.C., is based on a compelling thesis: there is significant upside potential to investing in geographies outside the known global tech hubs. The company has committed to investing a majority of its capital outside Silicon Valley.
As Revolution says on its website: “We believe great companies can start and scale anywhere, aided by the fact that startups in emerging venture communities are often more capital efficient, offer a lower cost of doing business, and attract talent looking for better quality of life.”
As the head of Platform Calgary, an organization focused on making Calgary the best place in the world to grow a tech company, it should come as no surprise that I concur with Mr. Case & Co: the Rise of the Rest is real.
However, Calgary, which has the highest concentration of corporate head offices per capita among Canadian cities, as well as the highest GDP per capita in Canada, is hardly part of “the rest” of the Canadian economy. But when it comes to tech and innovation, we are a clear-eyed and determined bunch: we know we’ve got work to do, and we’re relishing the opportunity because we can’t imagine a better place to be building in and from.
In 2018, in line with a collective vision of tech and innovation-led inclusive economic growth, the city began to earnestly take stock of our current state. Benchmarking, both formal (such as that done by Rainforest Calgary and Startup Genome) and informal (such as Tech in Calgary), showed that we have significant strengths in our scaleup tech firms, and that we have deep reserves of talent and capital that are beginning to see tech as a core part of our city’s future shared prosperity.
Our benchmarking also showed that, on a per capita basis, there was a lot of runway ahead: a tripling of the size of the sector, creating 10,000 to 20,000 new jobs, would put us on par with leading regions in North America. All in all: a daunting agenda, but cause for optimism.
Momentum continues to grow
Concurrently, momentum was building:
- the $100-million Opportunity Calgary Investment Fund was launched;
- the Calgary Innovation Coalition (now 40-plus organizations strong) was getting underway with a coordinated approach to supporting early-stage ventures.
- CDL [Creative Destruction Lab] Rockies launched, part of a wave of entrepreneurial investments and programming at all of our major post-secondaries.
- the hard work of our founders was paying off with $1-billion-plus valuations at Solium Capital (now Morgan Stanley Shareworks), RS Energy Group (now Enverus Intelligence Research Inc.), Parvus Therapeutics, Benevity, and the latest Calgary unicorn, Neo Financial.
Since opening the Platform Innovation Centre in downtown Calgary this June, our experience of momentum has only continued to grow. At Platform, we have a front-row view on the efforts of a large number of private and non-profit players who are collectively building the city's high-performance ecosystem. More than 100 local, national and international partners have signed collaboration-focused MOUs with us.
Signature investments by Alberta Innovates, Opportunity Calgary Investment Fund, Edmonton Unlimited, and PrairiesCan to attract global accelerator programs and establish Alberta Catalyzer, a province-wide pre-accelerator program, are building deep and wide capacity to coach, mentor, and connect startup founders and teams.
The capital pool is growing through initiatives such as Startup TNT (to foster new angel investors), Platform Calgary’s Family Office Program, and a major capital injection into Alberta Enterprise Corporation (to attract new venture capital).
The talent pool is growing thanks to Alberta’s attractiveness as a place to live and work, including new capacity, new programs at our post-secondary institutions (such as the Haskayne School of Business’s new ScaleUp program for CEOs and their executive teams), and aggressive policy and promotion efforts to attract talent from around the world.
Finally, industry leaders are increasingly interested in home-grown solutions to solve their biggest challenges, throwing support behind initiatives such as Avatar Innovations and their focus on energy transition and carbontech.
Where to next?
So where to from here? How do we capitalize on this momentum and take our city to new levels of shared prosperity?
On the surface, the agenda is pretty straightforward: we cannot take our collective foot off the gas, and must continue to focus on supporting founders, engaging investors, fostering talent, and improving the competitiveness of core sectors. This agenda is simple enough, and it’s happening at scale at the Platform Innovation Centre, on campuses and office complexes across the city.
Below the surface, the challenge is more nuanced and includes tackling key questions such as: How do we move at the speed of trust, and make collaboration our city’s superpower?
How do we ensure everyone is welcome, and that where you start does not determine how far you can go?
How do we make resources as easy to access as possible, promoting faster connections between talent, ideas and capital?
And finally, how do we ensure we are playing the long game, confidently investing now, in people and initiatives that will pay back in 10 or 20 years?
The Rise of the Rest is real, and it’s happening in Calgary, and across Canada in places you may not expect. Now, what are the chances we can get Steve Case and his big red bus across the northern border?