Calgary wants MaRS to complement its innovation ecosystem, not add competition

Mark Lowey
October 7, 2020

Discussions to bring some components of the MaRS Discovery District to Calgary are making progress, though key players say the $60-million “MaRS West” initiative should enhance and complement — not compete with — the existing innovation ecosystem in the city.

The University of Calgary, the Alberta government, and local innovation organizations are involved in the talks, which have emphasized that MaRS West must find a strategic fit with local innovation entity Platform Calgary, in which UCalgary is a shareholder, the players say.

“Platform Calgary’s strategic steps and positioning are very key to this [MaRS West initiative] coming into place,” Dr. William Ghali (PhD), vice-president, research at UCalgary, told Research Money. “We at the University of Calgary want to and commit to partnering with Platform and supporting Platform.”

Contrary to some media reports, exploratory discussions haven’t been about building a new MaRS-UCalgary innovation hub or tech accelerator in Calgary, Ghali said. Rather, MaRS has proposed offering some of its programs and services in Calgary, with UCalgary as a partner and potentially other partners.

“The discussions have been around thinking about where MaRS West would fit into a Calgary ecosystem that already has the University of Calgary entities and that also has Platform Calgary and some other entities,” Ghali said.

Platform Calgary is building a new “Platform Innovation Centre” in downtown Calgary and has already signed MOUs with 20 local, national and international innovation partners, said Dr. Terry Rock, PhD, president and CEO of Platform Calgary.

“We’re keen to work with MaRS and anybody that wants to contribute to a growing ecosystem,” he said in an interview. “But in the long term, it is really important to have the local community take responsibility and build its own capacity.”

Platform Calgary’s 50,000-square-feet centre will be located in a new $80-million structure that includes a parkade with 500+ stalls. The Platform Innovation Centre is designed to concentrate tech entrepreneurs, high-impact programs, partners and investors under one roof. The centre is on track for a spring 2021 completion.

MaRS West in search of a location

MaRS is seeking support for an initial five-year mandate that includes a seed-stage venture capital fund, startup venture services and an in-person convening space for entrepreneurs and programming, Grace Lee Reynolds, MaRS chief ecosystem officer, said in an email to Research Money.

Reynolds said MaRS intends to work with UCalgary and other parties, as needed, to identify an ideal physical location that brings together entrepreneurs, ventures, relevant corporate partners and also houses MaRS West and local partner programming and events.

Among a few location options still being discussed are UCalgary’s new “University Innovation Quarter (UIQ),” vacant downtown office space, or in the Platform Innovation Centre.

UIQ is a research and innovation cluster being developed on 77.4 acres previously known as the University Research Park and located adjacent to UCalgary. The UIQ is dedicated to commercializing innovation and new technologies from university research and attracting new research-oriented industries to Alberta.

On October 2, the Alberta government announced the transfer of all ownership of the land to the University Innovation Quarter Trust, which is developing the UIQ.

Ghali said MaRS has indicated in a document provided to stakeholders that the MaRS West initiative would cost $60 million. Of that amount, $10 million would be for the physical infrastructure for MaRS West, he said. A further $25 million would support programming, and another $25 million would establish the seed-stage venture capital fund.

Reynolds said MaRS plans to work with UCalgary to potentially seek funding from the Alberta and federal governments, the City of Calgary’s $100-million Opportunity Calgary Investment Fund, and individuals. MaRS West would be managed and funded independently from MaRS’ Ontario operations, she added.

Depending on securing funding, MaRS hopes to begin operations at MaRS West within one year, she said.

Finding the best fit for MaRS West

Reynolds said Calgary’s early-stage innovation community is already well served by Platform Calgary, along with several organizations affiliated with UCalgary, including Innovate Calgary (the university’s business incubator), the Hunter Hub for Entrepreneurial Thinking, and CDL (Creative Destruction Lab)-Rockies.

MaRS plans to partner with UCalgary to provide next-stage startup services to maturing companies as they move through their scaling stages, she said. “Leveraging the research focus of the University of Calgary, coupled with the commercialization expertise of Innovate Calgary and the city’s well-known entrepreneurial mindset, MaRS sees its role as being a catalyst to increase the size and success of the growing ecosystem.”

Extending the MaRS network to other Canadian nodes to complement and amplify local innovation ecosystems is one of the organization’s strategic goals, Reynolds said.

Rock said MaRS could help Calgary’s innovation ecosystem accelerate into a “globalization” stage and connect with global networks in capital, talent and customers.

However, he noted that Calgary doesn’t yet have enough tech companies that are reaching the scaleup stage, unlike more mature innovation ecosystems in Toronto, Waterloo, Montreal and Vancouver.

Platform Calgary has identified the biggest gap in the city’s ecosystem as the lack of tech startups, he said. Platform has compiled information on about 280 tech startups, most having five to 15 employees, currently operating in Calgary.

“That number should be 10 times higher, it should be over 2,500. It should be on par with where we are on a per-capita basis,” Rock said.

Ghali said the Alberta government in September announced investments aimed at strengthening the provincial innovation ecosystem, modernizing Alberta’s intellectual property laws and attracting tech investment.

Those initiatives include the $75-million Alberta Investment and Growth Strategy, along with up to $750 million for new projects in energy efficiency and in carbon capture, utilization and storage, to reduce industrial emissions.

“I think there’s some really positive energy, a conviction to move on things,” Ghali said. Given that, he said, it is possible some pieces of MaRS West could be in place by the end of this year.

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