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Yedlin: Alberta Innovates critical to advancing province’s growth agenda

Deborah Yedlin had a must read piece in yesterday’s Calgary Herald. I’d like to thank her for her support and highlighting the important work Dean Doucet and I are doing with Alberta 2.0. You can read the full article below:

It can be argued the most important job vacancy in Alberta is finding the right person to lead the newly consolidated Alberta Innovates.

The NDP government announced in April it would fold the four separate branches of Alberta Innovates — Alberta Innovates Bio Solutions, Alberta Innovates Energy and Environment Solutions, Alberta Innovates Technology Futures and Alberta Innovates Health Solutions — into a single entity. Until legislation is introduced in the fall, however, the branches continue to operate separately.

Arguably, the province has one shot to get this right.

As the prolonged slump in oil prices has painfully demonstrated, it’s imprudent to believe continuing with an economy dependent on the health of one sector — and not seizing the moment to commit to innovation and diversification — is an acceptable strategy for ensuring sustainable growth.

Thankfully, many related conversations are taking place around the province. Think of it as water droplets falling in the same direction but lacking the critical mass needed to form a puddle.

Alberta Innovates will be critical to fostering an innovation ecosystem that will be a critical part of this deliberate, diversification thrust.

“The province, and by necessity Alberta Innovates, is in a new era,” said chair Judy Fairburn, who wants the province to play in what’s been characterized as a global innovation race.

What gives Alberta a head start in this space is that the ingredients needed to make this happen are already resident in the province. There is a wealth of technical talent, financial expertise, creativity and an ever-present entrepreneurial spirit.

The challenge is harnessing it all and building on it to position the province for the future.

The new CEO of Alberta Innovates, says Fairburn, will need to bring together the four distinct areas of focus, with the expanding digitization of science and business as the glue that brings the disciplines together.

If there are two phrases that continue to be heard in the context of the innovation discussion, it’s the importance of collaboration and the need to harness the potential of ‘big data.’

“We are only 4 million people, and not collaborating is an impediment to our success; collaboration needs to be augmented,” Senator Doug Black said in a recent interview.

Black and Joseph Doucet, dean of the Alberta School of Business at the University of Alberta, convened a gathering of 60 people in Edmonton in May to launch their Alberta 2.0 initiative aimed at advancing the innovation agenda.

Their perspective lies in creating the position of a provincial innovation champio, which sounds a lot like the Office of the Chief Scientist in Israel, a position within the Ministry of the Economy charged with fostering economic growth through technological innovation and entrepreneurship.

The innovation champion, or innovation backbone, however it’s defined, would need to be backed up by appropriate support in terms of taxation and regulation.

“We are losing our tax advantage in Alberta. We need to make sure we are competitive from a tax perspective and we are (now) overregulated,” said Black.

The collaborative aspect must connect across technical disciplines and sectors, as well as generationally. Creating an environment for innovation and risk-taking is important, but there is a tremendous amount of business expertise among the province’s older generation to provide the guidance and wisdom also critical to the success of new endeavours.

“It’s about knowing how to build a responsive, strong ecosystem that leverages our strengths, creates a diversified economy and delivers value for money while at the same token they need to be able to lead a complex organization internally and externally,” said Fairburn.

When it comes to delivering value for money, Alberta Innovates does a good job of leveraging funding it gets from the province. Every dollar it invests leads to $9 invested by other parties, with 81 per cent of that $9 received from private investors.

This means whomever leads Alberta Innovates and its 580 employees has big task ahead of them.

And there is plenty else going on across the province to complement the mandate of Alberta Innovates.

Next week, coinciding with Stampede, is something called the Innovation Rodeo, a four-day event taking place in partnership between ATB and Bow Valley College, with 25 other organizations supporting the event.

The brainchild of Craig Elias, the entrepreneur in residence at Bow Valley College who’s charged with getting students thinking about an entrepreneurial path, the Innovation Rodeo is meant to capture the interest of locals while at the same time reaching those visiting during Stampede Week.

“We want to inform, instruct and inspire people to become entrepreneurs,” said Elias, who is looking for four characteristics in the incoming Alberta Innovates leader.

“They have to be connectors able engage others in their goals, to build alignment and consensus, action-oriented and not afraid to fail. You also need someone who understands there will be mistakes and can manage both the political and public expectations,” he said.

Much is riding on the various efforts underway to diversify Alberta’s economy. It’s about ensuring the young talent already here doesn’t pack up and leave while leveraging existing intellectual and financial horsepower outside the energy space.

It’s also about the province being willing to stick with the innovation agenda, even if oil prices stage a dramatic recovery and bail out provincial coffers.

Despite the existing challenges, there is an opportunity to reimagine the Alberta economy of tomorrow and get off the commodity-price roller-coaster.

Finding the right person to lead Alberta Innovates will be an important step in that direction.

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