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Calgary can be “a global hub of innovation,” says Terry Rock

Terry Rock has one of the most diverse business runs in Calgary.

He has helped Alberta craft beer take off, taught business at the University of Calgary and sits on the board of the Sled Island Indie Music Festival. Many know him as the founding CEO of the Calgary Arts Development Authority.

But the 49-year-old has to fall back on all of these experiences and on some that he takes over as the boss of Calgary Technologies Inc., an organization dedicated to guiding entrepreneurs through some of the most critical phases of business development.

The job brings great expectations.

Alberta wants to expand its economy beyond its dependence on the energy sector. Organizations like Calgary Technologies Inc., often funded through a combination of government grants and service fees, play a key role in a broader “innovation ecosystem,” a network designed to help entrepreneurs turn big ideas into successful businesses.

Young companies face many pitfalls.

We’re starting with a setting that says we can actually do it here.– Terry Rock

Persuading investors to invest in a new technology or innovation is often as difficult as it is important. Albertans don’t necessarily have a keen appetite for investment risk outside of oil and gas.

But Rock feels good about Calgary and believes it has momentum on its side. In fact, he’d love to hear the talk of Calgary as a global innovation hub for the next three to five years.

“Ultimately, Calgary has the opportunity to be a global hub of innovation,” said Rock.

CBC News spoke to Rock about its goals for organizing and innovating in Calgary.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Calgary is striving to diversify its economy, but entrepreneurs face many challenges when it comes to getting their young businesses off the ground. (David Bell / CBC)

Q: You seemed to have had great success as the executive director of the Alberta Small Brewers Association. Why take this job at Calgary Technologies Inc. now?

ON: For many reasons. The first is I think that craft beer is on the way in Alberta and it has been amazing to work with these entrepreneurs and there is a lot of momentum there. A real success story from Alberta.

I think in this case there is a bigger, much bigger agenda to work on and it is actually going to be a much harder job I think. It fits very well with what I’ve been preparing for over the course of my career.

Q: Let’s talk a little bit about it. Your training is in strategic management, is that right?

ON: That’s true. I have a PhD in Management with an emphasis on Strategic Entrepreneurship and Innovation from Texas Tech University.

Q: What skills do you bring to Calgary Technologies Inc.?

ON: Part of that is the experience of helping to take advantage of and give some attention to a fragmented ecosystem that we had in the arts in Calgary. We set ourselves the big goal of being Canada’s Capital of Culture in 2012, and we achieved it in a city that I believe not many people thought was included. And I’m really excited about helping entrepreneurs.

That’s one of the things that work with the little brewers that have been so rewarding to help people make their dreams come true. They build their homes, mortgage their homes, and work incredible hours building a business that employs people, encourages investment, and uses those natural ingredients that Alberta is so famous for.

To be able to have the same attitude and belief in this place is something I think will be very helpful. I’m also used to intergovernmental, nonprofit, and entrepreneurial work and bringing all of these things together. I really like working in this room and making those connections.

Rock was an outspoken advocate of craft beer in the province in his role as executive director of the Alberta Small Brewers Association. (CBC)

Q: You said the art ecosystem is fragmented at one point. Do you currently see a similar challenge in terms of the similar fragmentation of the Calgary innovation ecosystem?

ON: I think there are some challenges, yes. But you know it’s a real opportunity. There is a lot of activity and a lot of attention as this will be part of our long-term solution to diversifying and expanding our economy.

We are home to a major research university and other universities developing the next generation of talent. So the possibilities are huge. And as we go through the transition work must always be done to pull the different pieces together.

Q: How do you rate the success for the organization and for you?

ON: Over the next three to five years, we’ll see people comment on how Calgary has become a hub of innovation not just in Canada but around the world. And I don’t think that’s a route.

We are a city with global connections that is of global importance in a number of industries. To me, this means that Calgary is recognized at the highest level as a place where people want to come to work because of the kind of innovation we create and the new value we create.

Q: When we didn’t shortlist Amazon’s Second HQ, what did you take away and do you think CTI has a role to play in trying to fix these shortcomings?

ON: I think part of the overall success is that we have to work at the ecosystem level. I look at it and say it’s about talent, it’s about space, it’s about investing, it’s about how you work together. There are four pillars of how we might look at building an ecosystem. And if either of them is very weak, you will face challenges.

If anything, it has helped us understand the gaps we have at the highest level. And now we must all be on one side to fill those gaps. We have good early signs.

Despite an aggressive marketing campaign, Calgary’s attempt to gain Amazon’s second headquarters lagged when it failed to get the final cut. Even so, Rock says the process helped Calgary “understand the loopholes”. (@ KIRORadio / Twitter)

Q: We spoke to a number of entrepreneurs following Amazon’s decision. They said one of the big challenges companies face is trying to take them to the next level. Sometimes these companies go to the US to find investors willing to take more risks. How do you overcome this?

ON: I think what is important is that we start with an attitude that says we can actually do it here. Let’s not start by saying, “Well, we’ll never be able to make that kind of investment or change the mindset.” I think I start with the right mindset that we have things that are worth investing in, that we are a city that can support the lifestyle of the people who want to work in these industries.

Then let’s make sure that the opportunities people are supposed to invest in have the best chance of success. Where an organization like CTI can come into play, we can work on the mindset. We can also work to ensure that companies looking to invest there are as prepared as possible.

Q: You have always been quite a public figure in the roles you have held over the years. Will that continue to be the case?

ON: Part of the work here is mindset and I love being cheerleaders for the city and its potential. I firmly believe that Calgary has the chance to be a global city when it comes to innovation. We have all the raw materials here.

There are a number of really amazing initiatives going on in Calgary and I’ll do everything I can to make sure they get the attention and resources they need.

Q: Will this be your biggest challenge?

ON: I don’t know if I would use that word defiantly. I think it’s definitely the most interesting job.

In this case, I think we have so much momentum and raw material that hopefully we’ll be surfing rather than pushing a rock up a hill. I think Calgary is ready for it and excited about the potential.

Calgary: The Road Ahead is CBC Calgary’s particular focus on our city moving through the melting pot of the downturn: the challenges we face and the possible solutions as we examine what kind of Calgary we want to create. To have an idea? Email us at calgarytheroadahead@cbc.ca

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