Calgary·Q&A

Calgary can be 'a global innovation hub,' says Terry Rock

Terry Rock has one of Calgary's most interesting resumes. He helped put Alberta craft beer on the map, taught business at university and sits on the board of the Sled Island music festival. Now he's the new boss at Calgary Technologies Inc. So what's he got up his sleeve?

Calgary Technology Inc.'s incoming boss is setting a high bar for the organization and Calgary

'I fully believe that Calgary has the chance to be a global city when it comes to innovation,' says Terry Rock, the new president and CEO of Calgary Technologies Inc. 'We've got all of the raw materials here.' (Terry Rock)

Terry Rock has one of Calgary's more eclectic business resumes.

He's 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 will need to draw on all that experience and then some as he takes over as boss of Calgary Technologies Inc., an organization devoted to guiding entrepreneurs through some of the most critical stages of their businesses' development.

The job comes with big expectations.

Alberta wants to stretch its economy beyond its reliance on the energy sector. Organizations like Calgary Technologies Inc., often funded by a combination of government grants and fees for service, are key players in a broader "innovation ecosystem," a network intended to help entrepreneurs turn big ideas into successful companies. 

Fledgling businesses face many pitfalls.

We start with an attitude that says we actually can do it here.- Terry Rock

Coaxing investors to inject funds into a new technology or innovation is often as difficult as it is vital. Albertans don't necessarily have a great appetite for investment risk outside of oil and gas.

But Rock feels good about where Calgary is headed and believes it has momentum on its side. In fact, he'd like to hear people talking about Calgary as a global centre for innovation in the next three to five years.

"Ultimately, Calgary has an opportunity to be a global innovation hub," Rock said.

CBC News spoke with Rock about his goals for the organization and innovation in Calgary.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Calgary is making efforts to diversify its economy, but entrepreneurs face many challenges in getting their fledgling companies off the ground. (David Bell/CBC)

Q: You appeared to be having a lot of success as executive director of the Alberta Small Brewers Association. Why take this job with Calgary Technologies Inc. now?

A: For a number of reasons. The first thing is that I think craft beer is on its way in Alberta and it's been amazing to work with these entrepreneurs and there's a ton of momentum there. A real, true Alberta success story.

I think in this case there's a bigger, a much bigger, agenda that we'll be able to work on and it's actually going to be a lot more difficult work, I think. It aligns really well with what I've been preparing myself to do over my career.

Q: Let's talk a little bit about that. Your education is in strategic management, is that right?

A: That's right. I have a PhD in management focused on strategy entrepreneurship and innovation from Texas Tech University.

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

A: Part of it is experience with helping to take kind of a fragmented ecosystem that we had in the arts in Calgary and put some attention to it. We set a big goal to be cultural capital of Canada in 2012 and achieved that in a city that I think not a lot of people thought had that in it. And I just really am passionate about supporting entrepreneurs.

That's one of the things working with the small brewers that has been so rewarding is that you're helping people achieve their dreams. They're putting their houses up, mortgaging their homes and working incredible hours to build a business that employs people, drives investment, uses these natural ingredients that Alberta is so well known for.

Being able to take that same attitude and belief in this place is something that I think is going to be really helpful. I'm also used to working across government, non-profit and with entrepreneurs, and sort of pulling all those things together. I really like working in that space and making those connections.

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

Q: You said the arts ecosystem was fragmented at one point. Do you see a similar challenge right now in terms of  how the Calgary innovation ecosystem is similarly fragmented?

A: I think there are some challenges, yeah. But you know it's a real opportunity. There's a ton of activity and a lot of attention on how this is going to be part of our long-term solution to diversify and expand our economy.

We're home to a major research university and other universities that are developing the next generation of talent. So the opportunities are huge. And as we were going through transition, there's always work to be done to pull the various pieces together.

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

A: In the next three to five years, we start to see people commenting on how Calgary has emerged as a centre of innovation, and not just in Canada, but globally. And I don't think that's a stretch.

We are a city that has global connections, that is globally important in a number of industries. So that, to me, would be, at the highest level, you start to see Calgary being recognized as a place that people want to come to work because of the kinds of innovation that we're creating, the new value that we're creating.

Q: When we failed to make the shortlist for Amazon's second headquarters, what was your takeaway and do you think CTI has a role in trying to address those shortcomings?

A: I think part of the overall takeaway is that we do have to work at the ecosystem level. I look at it and say it's about talent, it's about space, it's about level of investment, it's about how you work together. It's four pillars of how we might look at building an ecosystem. And if any one of those is very weak, you're going to have challenges.

If anything, it's helped us to understand the gaps that we have at the highest level. And now what's required is that we're all on the same page about filling those gaps. We've got good early signs.

Despite an aggressive marketing campaign, Calgary's bid to win Amazon's second headquarters fell short when it failed to make the final cut. Still, Rock says the process has helped Calgary "understand the gaps." (@KIRORadio/Twitter)

Q: We spoke to a number of entrepreneurs after Amazon's decision. They said one of the big challenges companies face is when they try to take them to the next level. Sometimes those companies end up going to the U.S. to find investors willing to take more risks. How do you overcome that?

A: I think what's important is that we start with an attitude that says we actually can do it here. Let's not start by saying, 'Well, we're never going to be able to get that kind of investment or be able to change the mindset.' I think where I start from is let's start with the right mindset, that we have things worth investing in, that we're a city that can support the lifestyle of people that work in these industries want to have.

Then let's make sure that the opportunities that people are being asked to invest in have got the best chance of succeeding. Where an organization like CTI can come in, we can work on the mindset side of it. We can also work on making sure that the companies that are there seeking investment are as prepared as possible to get that.

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

A: Part of the job here is mindset and I love being a cheerleader for the city and its potential. I fully believe that Calgary has the chance to be a global city when it comes to innovation. We've got all of the raw materials here.

There are a number of really amazing initiatives underway in Calgary and I am going to do what I can to make sure they get the attention and the resources they need.

Q: Will this be your most challenging job?

A: I don't know if I'd use that word challenging. I think it's definitely the most interesting job.

In this case, I think we've got so much momentum and raw material to work with, hopefully it's going to be more like surfing than it is pushing a rock up a hill. I think Calgary is ready for it and is excited about the potential.


Calgary: The Road Ahead is CBC Calgary's special focus on our city as it passes through the crucible of the downturn: the challenges we face, and the possible solutions as we explore what kind of Calgary we want to create. Have an idea? Email us at calgarytheroadahead@cbc.ca


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About the Author

Tony Seskus

Senior Producer Western Digital Business Unit

Tony Seskus is senior producer with CBC's Western Business unit in Calgary. He's written for newspapers and wire services for more than 25 years on three continents. In Calgary, Tony has reported on the energy sector and federal politics.

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