cover art for Beyond the Breakthrough featuring John Wilson

University of Calgary is the number one Canadian institution for startup creation, according to Autm’s 2020 ranking and it’s achieved that through a range of fascinating initiatives, like its clinical trial design programme.

John Wilson, chief executive of Innovate Calgary, tells us more about that programme on this episode, and also delves into why Calgary, whose economy has been built on fossil fuels, is uniquely placed to put carbon emissions back into the ground.

He also tells us about UCeed, the largest university-based fund of its kind in Canada, ponders why it’s been such a challenge to recruit tech transfer practitioners as of late and looks back on his own career in tech transfer that started at Oxford University Innovation.



Please note that the intro and outro have been omitted.

John, welcome to the podcast.

Thanks, Thierry. Nice to spend some time with you.

I look forward to it. To start with, can you give me an overview of Innovate Calgary, perhaps with some headline figures?

Sure. So, we are a wholly-owned subsidiary company of the University of Calgary. We, like many of our peer offices, were formed in the 1980s. Today, we are about 50 staff. So that is quite a large organization. Each year, we work with 400 to 500 researchers. That is one of my favourite statistics that is not collected. That is about quarter of all the researchers in the university. I am running my own campaign for all universities to collect the number of researchers and I think as you know, Thierry, one of my absolute favourite statistics is that AUTM in the most recent AUTM survey ranks the University of Calgary, Innovate Calgary as number one in startups in Canada. That is something we are quite proud of.

I could imagine. Yes, I think, we obviously had a chat before we recorded this and I had not realized just quite how big Innovate Calgary was. I think, in my head, it was a normal tech transfer office rather than it actually being the number one in Canada. I do not know if that is a response you often get.

Yes, within Canada people know us. I will elaborate a bit more. We are not just a tech transfer office. So, I have four executive directors that run four groups. They are business groups, not all intended to make money, but they are business groups. The first of those is our IP group, which is a tech transfer office/ILO. Perhaps we will get onto which of those we do more of, but then we have three other functions. We manage our own investment funds and that programme is UCeed, we help operate a research park, University Innovation Quarter, UIQ, and we also run a clinical design programme.

So, those four things together add up to about 50 people. One of the things I enjoy about it so much is it is difficult to know at any one time who is working in which group, apart from the executive directors. So, there is a lot of fluidity. It makes it fun, Thierry. It is more than just licensing.

I want to look at most of these components in a second, but perhaps another slightly more general question. How do you generally promote entrepreneurship on campus? Is the Calgary community quite entrepreneurial?

It is, yes. It is a very entrepreneurial city. Specifically, we run fellowship programs. So, we understand that not every researcher, postdoc, postgrad is ready to file a patent and set up a company. So, every year we give away fellowship awards and they are $200,000 each and we give multiple away every year. So, it is serious money. This is to help people develop their research so that it fills our funnel as it were, fills our pipeline. We have been doing that for a number of years.

Then just last year we started a program that we called e2i, which is entrepreneurship to innovation, and we specifically reached out to first time entrepreneurs on campus and we had a hundred applicants. So, and these are pairs of professors and postdocs or postgrads. They have to apply as a pair and they have to have not worked with us in the past. So, there is a hundred new researchers, a hundred new postgrads, postdocs, who are coming to us with their idea.

We then have set up a program around how we help develop their ideas. Then more generally, I should put this in the context and like many innovation offices although we do several things, we do not do everything, at the University of Calgary we have a separate entrepreneurship office embedded within the university and that is called the Hunter Hub and they really manage most of the entrepreneurial stuff going on, which in Canada today is significantly based around work-integrated learning.

Do you engage with the wider local community, or do you just focus on campus?

I often start my talks depending on the audience on describing UCalgary as a university of the city for the city, which is true. We are a 1960s university. We are the fifth largest university in Canada, which is quite remarkable given that we only started in the sixties, but it is within living memory, I think is my point. So, it was the good and the great from the city that formed this university.

Those ties are very strong. So, that is the general situation, but then again, specifically we have these investment funds. We have a group of seven advisors on each investment fund and those seven advisors come from the city and we help to run a research park.

We have hubs in themed areas of research and innovation within that research park. I am sitting here, your audience cannot see it, but I am sitting today in the life science innovation hub, and we have 65 life science companies associated with this hub. Some of them are in the building, some are in the city working with us. So, that is a way in which we engage with the high-tech industry in the city.

That is amazing. You have mentioned funds there as well, and I think you mentioned UCeed earlier as well. Can you tell me a little bit more about UCeed and those funds?

Our language is that UCeed is a programme and inside this programme we have themed funds. It is philanthropically driven. So, we are very privileged, very lucky here in Calgary in that it is a fairly wealthy city. So, folks give us money.

The deal is Innovate Calgary does not charge to manage this investment fund and these funds are evergreen. So, any money that we make, we will put back in, we started actually right at the beginning of COVID, so it has been an interesting journey. Much of this, we have done none in person at all, but today we have four funds and they are health, child health, social, and then we have one fund that can invest in anything and that is run by a class of students out of our business school. We are not quite finished.

We are working on energy and agriculture, neuroscience, an indigenous fund and performing arts. The deal is that we need $5m to start a fund. We invest up to $300,000, typically in each opportunity and the investments are very milestone oriented. So, we really are looking to push an idea such that someone else will invest in it after us.

That makes sense. You mentioned healthcare and paediatric healthcare. Is paediatric healthcare something that Calgary is specifically focused on?

Yes. It is an area of excellence in Calgary, in Canada and beyond. We have the Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation, which is, I think I am correct in saying, the largest funder of research at the University of Calgary. So, it is a really big deal.

And in all of the funds we have done so far, we have partnered with a significant entity in the city. In the social fund, we have partnered with United Way, which here in North America is a significant social actor, managing groups of other smaller charities and just coordinating social good within the city. So, lots of bonuses from doing this apart from deploying money into good areas, the partnerships that we are forming are fantastic.

I want to stay on healthcare for a second if I may. Can you tell me a little bit about the clinical trials programme as well?

Yes, a little bit I think is going to be the key here, I am not an expert. I do know it is run by one of our leading professors here, Professor Derek Exner. He also has the role of one of our executive directors. So, there is another way in which we are reasonably flexible.

How many TTOs have a leading researcher as an executive director running one of their business groups? We really enjoy the relationship. His thesis was that clinical trials writ large have been designed for large pharmas, large biotechs. That is the history of clinical trials. Typically, they take one to two years just in the design phase. Very important to get the design right. Historically, no massive time pressures. We all know that as we move to a startup-oriented pipeline for tech, which is what we have been doing for the last 10, maybe 20, years, the importance of getting a clinical trial designed for a startup is significantly more than large pharma. So, we can get an idea to the first patient in trials in three months, whereas typically it takes one to two years.

So, you are a startup looking for money, then you should come and see Professor Derek Exner and it is possible we will work with you and really fast track and the way in which Derek has been able to do that is by lining up all the actors ready to go before you come in. We have also developed some proprietary software, which allow us to move through many of the regulatory processes very quickly, as well as having the hospitals, the researchers all lined up again before you come to us. So, it is pretty fascinating, and I have already said a lot more than I do not really understand myself.

The key component that I got there is just a phenomenal speed at which it moves, three months is jaw droppingly fast.

Yes, your investors do not have time to wait for you to raise the money or to design something for two years. They want it done in three months, preferably six months if it is a more complex trial.

You mentioned the research park as well. Can you tell me a little bit about this as well?

We are the only large university in Canada that had this opportunity. There was 80 acres of land directly adjacent to the main campus. You go to UMontreal or UBC or UofT, they are in heavily built-up cities, space is of a premium. But we had 80 acres directly next to the main campus, which the university bought off the government of Alberta four years ago. There are already some buildings there. I have mentioned before this life sciences innovation hub.

It was actually a large corporate research building that we then transformed into a life sciences building. Even though we are four years in, we are still in the design process. I think this is one of these areas where COVID has produced some uncertainty and just some difficulty. But we think that there are going to be five to six hubs in here in phase one — life, social, energy, aerospace, quantum, maybe one other.

Space is important, but all of the programming and investment that goes along with that. So, we really are attempting to build a complete one stop shop process here in Calgary, where we have all of the elements to produce a successful startup.

On that note, perhaps if you could expand a bit on it. What are the opportunities in the Calgary ecosystem as it stands today?

Energy has been at the centre of Calgary for a long time. Not always, but before that it was a cattle town and then the history of Calgary is not that old, that the first building was built here about 1880. So, you know, by European terms again, and I like providing these stats for people in the old world, because it sort of blows your mind that the Fort in Calgary was bought in 1880, and that was the first building that was built. Very young, historically cattle.

But then after the second world war, oil and gas was developed here, and the whole city was built on that, and fortunes were made. Calgarians will tell you that they have been bankrolling Canada ever since and there is a significant amount of truth in that. We have had a great ride. It is absolutely not over, and we may get onto the future of cleantech and we absolutely want to be a part of that. But fortunately for us, we had started this life sciences journey before the pandemic. It is only going to be accelerated now.

For security we are going to want to have our own health research infrastructure. I think every jurisdiction is going to want to produce its own vaccines. Aerospace, the university is very strong in space. The city has a major international airport. Calgary International is a big airport, and there is lots of industry around that, all the associated industries around aerospace. So, I think that is something that is quite exciting. Just a few weeks ago, there was a significant announcement in Canada made that Calgary is going to be one of the quantum centres in Canada, and so that is tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions of investment into a quantum centre here.

Exciting times. I almost do not want to ask, but what are the challenges that Calgary faces?

Historically it has not been doing anything else, but energy. The city has been so successful at developing the model and taking the risks at finding oil and gas in the ground and getting it out cleanly and ethically.

Now, we know that things have to change, but still Canada remains one of the most ethical producers of oil and gas and we are going to be with that for some time. So, we do know that there is a future. But to get back to your question, yes, historically we have had downturns, but then quickly we have come out of them. I think we are past that now. I think we fully understand that Calgary wants to be more than an energy town. So, I think the challenges are going.

Is that both a recognition in Calgary and pressure from provincial or even federal government to move away from oil and fossil fuels?

I think so. One of the favourite words in Calgary is maverick. There is a maverick reputation, so many Calgarians would not like to say that they have been persuaded by government to do anything. But there are a lot of smart people here, maverick or not, there are a lot of smart people here and we want to be the most ethical producer of oil and gas. It is not the topic of this conversation, but there is a significant future for Alberta in carbon capturing storage.

It is worth sharing just at the highest level the skills that have been built here since 1947 of heavy geological skills, software skills, understanding how to get oil and gas safely out of the ground, are pretty much the same skills as required to put CO2 back in the ground.

So, we have literally thousands of engineers here and wells which are now empty, which have exactly the right bedrock for putting carbon dioxide back into the ground. So, you are going to see a massive industry and you are going to see Alberta get to carbon zero by putting stuff back in the ground. So, a huge future still in this industry in Alberta.

That is amazing. Even the challenges are opportunities.

I am sure some people saw it a long time before me, but I have only really realized the opportunity by following the number of startups in that space and the programs that the government has and yes, we are going to be capturing much of Canada’s fossil fuel emissions and putting them back here in Alberta. That is a great story, isn’t it? That is us completing the cycle.

You know, we understand that we did not fully account for the full carbon cycle and as luck has it, we are able now to complete that cycle and to put the carbon back in the ground. It should be an amazing journey for the next 50 years or so.

I look forward to keeping a close eye on it. Hopefully I will be around in 50 years still. Can you tell me a little bit about the equity, diversity, inclusion and indigenous engagement committee as well?

So, you have been looking at our website.

I have, yes. I have to do my research, John.

Yes. Look, it is really important. It is as important to us as everyone else. I can say, and I am aware that your audience is more than Canadian, we have separated EDI and indigenous engagement. They are now two different groups of us working on two different projects. Indigenous engagement is massively important in Canada.

I invite your European listeners to do a little bit of research about the history of indigenous affairs in Canada, but in many other colonial territories, and it is not all great. And to your point a minute ago, there is a huge opportunity for us to start making amends. So, I lead the indigenous group and then one of my colleagues leads the EDI group. I can tell you that I met with each of our indigenous researchers here. We have started a discussion. I have regular meetings every month. Innovate Calgary is very project-oriented, very transactional.

And so, although relationships remain important and we will continue those, we need to have outcomes. I am pretty much getting to the conclusion that us working with an indigenous group running an indigenous UCeed is the way that we are going to add value. Lots of good indigenous entrepreneurs.

There are lots of particular issues that indigenous peoples face. And we think we have, if nothing else, some of the project management skills here at Innovate Calgary to then collaborate with an indigenous group who understand the cultural aspects here, such that we can help transform indigenous peoples and communities, and it is important that there are hundreds of indigenous communities here and they are all different. It is a complex and rich path that we are enjoying.

Yes. The only way to get to a better future is to give these people a seat at the table, as you say, and actively engage with them.

JW: It is very relationship oriented. It is very time-oriented and spending a generation with someone is what you have to do, and we are aware of that. But again, given our transactional project management nature, we want to go down this path with them whilst we are trying to help them do something.

Do you track your engagement from women and researchers from a minority background?

We have not done historically. No. So, when we first started looking at this, we looked at the thousands of projects that we have run, and we did contemplate briefly going through the names of everyone and working out and getting a baseline. Even that is challenging, you cannot always identify by a name whether it is someone is a woman or a man. What we have done on a much smaller scale is, we are very startup-oriented, we had around a hundred startups in the last five years, a hundred, and we know those people and a hundred is manageable enough that we have gone through that record.

So, the ones that I know here that I can share is that of those hundred startups over a half of them have had a female founder, so have had a woman founder. What Thierry, I cannot share with you is whether that is good or bad. I mean, it sounds like it is reasonably good, but maybe everyone else has had more than one woman founder. I get some comfort from that. I would not have been very happy if it was 10% or something.

I think generally when I have spoken to people, they were around the 20% to 30% mark, sometimes 40% if they been actively trying to change things, So I think you are, you are doing fairly well. Obviously, you know, there is always room for improvement as there is everywhere.

I would say that our startup model helps a little bit here. Startups have several founders. We also have, and I have alluded to this a bit earlier, we have a number of positive efforts in including students, postdocs, postgrads, and I think you are much more likely to get women participation there. The reality is that there are still more men as professors in universities than women and universities, although they are trying hard to change that do not move on a dime, do not turn on a dime.

Once you are a professor, you are there for a career. So, it is going to take universities a generation to really put things right. If you include students, and I include in that postgrad and postdocs, you can move much more quickly. So, I am pretty sure that is how we get to the above 50% of startups have women involved.

That makes sense. How do you generally find management for your startups? Are there experienced entrepreneurs floating about Calgary?

No. I think we have the same challenges as many others. As I mentioned a minute ago, we do rely on postdocs heavily. I think that is a model that many other universities use. I am comfortable with the notion that our startups get to a certain point and then they are either taken over, are bought up or other management team comes in at a later time.

We have seen that time and time again, we prepare our students, postdocs, researchers to either exit at that point or stay on often in a technical role. Every now and then you get someone who transitions into the CEO role, but there are not many professors that leave to become CEO of a startup, not here, not anywhere, and I am not sure that we are really trying to encourage them.

How easy or not is it to find capital for your startups?

I think we are quite fortunate. Calgary, I said it is an energy city, that energy has been driven by private equity. So, there is a lot of private equity in the city, again, historically invested in oil and gas research. We have something called the Creative Destruction Lab here in Calgary.

It is actually in a number of cities in Canada. I believe it is in Oxford in the UK and then in one or two other cities around the world. So, it is a Toronto founded, based endeavour that is spread throughout Canada and then a few other places. The importance of the CDL is that CDL provides mentorship. So, I put that in because I think mentorship and advice is more valuable than money. It is a difficult thing to say if you have not got enough money, but generally you can get the money. There are far more startups that have made mistakes and done the wrong thing, and that is inevitable to a certain extent, but having a program where there is mentorship and advice I think is very important and CDL is how we do it here significantly. I know that many other places do it in other ways.

Do your companies generally stay in Calgary, Alberta, or even Canada? Or do they go to Silicon Valley or elsewhere?

Well, we like for part of them to stay here and, looking through these questions last night, Thierry, this reminded me, this was quite a big discussion before covid. Covid has just swamped everything hasn’t it? Look, I seriously hope everyone is doing okay, but one of the big discussions we were having, because we are designing UIQ, and so we are talking with investors, et cetera, is, how do we retain all this talent and this effort? But we have already seen that other successes that we have had so far, and we have a great company here that is called Parvus Therapeutics.

They have had over a billion dollars of investment and the COO is 50 yards behind me. However, they also have labs in Spain and they have labs and their CEO spends much of their time in Silicon Valley. So, we have already seen this distributed model prior to COVID and prior to the Zoom world, where you are building a great tech company, you are building a unicorn. You probably do not need that unicorn to be in one place, yet you can get there with 500 staff, let us say, and they can be distributed around the world and what, again coming back to covid, what it has shown us is that actually that is only probably going to be accelerated more and more.

So, we would like to hold a part of that company and then we would encourage it to grow and have an office in India, have an office in Silicon Valley and wherever else makes sense, and that model we like because it builds relationships and we will try and keep at least a valuable part in the city.

How easy is it for you to find, I think my question was originally specifically tech transfer practitioners, but considering you handle a lot of things, how easy is it to generally find staff for your office?

It is challenging. We spend quite a bit of time hiring. We nearly always have some job adverts out. We are managing to attract people from around the world. We are in the process of hiring a young woman from France. We managed to attract a couple of people up from the west coast in California a year ago. So, we can attract people.

Canada is the world in one country, that helps us is that we do have ties around the world. Then like everyone else you have to sell what you have got. So, let me share with your listeners here that we have a six-month ski season here, Thierry, at one of the world’s best ski resorts.

I am in.

Who would not want that? Send me your resume.

I will do that as soon as we stop recording. You yourself spent much of your early career in Europe, your accent gives it away that you are not Canadian. You have spent three years at Oxford University Innovation. You then moved to Brock University in 2011 and then obviously Innovate Calgary in 2016. Why did you move to Canada? And how did you end up living in Calgary?

Yes, how did I end up here?

Apart from the ski season, maybe.

Well, in truth, that was a significant part. I was at Oxford, as you say, amazing opportunity. Actually, to go back a little bit to your last question. If you get the chance to go and work at Oxford’s innovation office, I would go and do it. I cannot think of anyone on the planet that is better than them and they have many advantages and it is a great learning process. I was still a relatively young person then, clearly much older now, Thierry.

But I just thought there would be more opportunities for me in the US. So, I started looking for positions in the US and was actually offered a position at one large US university, but then a small Canadian university said that they were setting up a tech transfer office and they had pledged certain amounts of funds and would I like to start something from scratch? And that appeals to me, I have run a startup before. I like the building something from nothing. I knew nothing about Niagara, which is where Brock University is, apart from, I think we all know about Niagara Falls, but there is a region, Niagara, and it is a wonderful place to live.

So, I went there, I really enjoyed it. I was reluctant to leave in many ways, but then this position came available. I have already said we are the fifth largest university in Canada, which is interesting. Fifth means I think that we are hungry. We have things to do. I think we can build the best innovation office in Canada here and I mean that in a collaborative way. An AUTM Canada group meets every year, a couple of months ago, it was in Montreal.

We are very happy to share anything we are doing with our colleagues. I learn just as much from my colleagues as perhaps they learn from us.  So, I want to be the best, but I want to share it with everyone because I am passionate about university innovation, and I would like us all to do a better job and be allowed to do a better job.

Is there anything that Europe could learn from Canada or the other way around?

I do not think specifically one region from another, but I do think that we can learn from each other as per my last theme. You know, we have been doing this for 40 or 50 years in a fairly organised way. I think things are changing quite quickly. I would encourage everyone to go to AUTM or to go to the Praxis meetings and there is a lot to be learned.

So, I do think there is a lot for us to learn from each other, but I do not think there is any magic in Canada that I am aware of that folks in Italy or France or the UK should do. I need to get to a European meeting. At some point I will pledge to go and try and learn from my European colleagues. That kind of sharing hopefully would be very valuable to both groups.

Is there any advice that you would give to someone starting out in this career today?

JW: I would say you have already made a good decision. I think it is a fantastic area to work in. I half-jokingly said earlier to you, but to all your audience as well, the address is Send your resume to us, but more seriously, it is a privilege. Learn from others. Do your best.

If you had a magic wand, is there anything that you would change about how tech transfer is done?

Yes. And this is true in Canada, as in other places. I am aware at Innovate Calgary, I think we are quite lucky. The president of the university is very supportive. I get regular meetings every month with the president of the university. I do not think many of my peers have that kind of access. Vice president of research, other vice presidents on my board, regular meetings, numbers in cell phone. So, we, and you can tell from what we do, have great support here, but that support is not guaranteed, and many of my colleagues do not have it now.

And in Canada, there is no central funding of innovation at universities, and that is true in many places around the world. So, my magic wand would be, let us say 1% of the university’s research budget, that a government of some kind should give that to every university for innovation. For Innovate Calgary, that would be about 5 million, and we could do some great things with that 5 million. I am sure that my colleagues at universities around the world would love to have those kinds of sums of money to do great things as well.

Yes, I think they would probably share that wish. Can you give me some examples of Innovate Calgary startups?

I am going to share with you three in chronological order, and they also go social, health, energy. They are the three buckets that we live in, that we deal with here in Calgary. So, in the 1980s, right at the very beginning of our journey, we helped to set up a company called Living Works. This was a company that was a collaboration between two clinicians here in the med school and two social workers, and they were doing research on suicide interventional protocols.

So, we worked with them right from the first invention disclosure, lots of discussions. I have had a look at some of the historical files, lots of discussions about, should this be for profit or not for profit. In the end, we went the for-profit route and this was such that we could finance it significantly. The company Living Works had a significant breakthrough in the nineties, was able to present at a United Nations meeting, got significant take up from governments and militaries around the world. And so now today, the Living Works suicide intervention protocol is used around the world, in different countries, different militaries.

I have seen statistics. I saw one recently that 200,000 people have been trained up as practitioners in this suicide intervention protocol. So, we can only guess how many interventions have been made and how many lives have been saved. So, that is a really great story for university research, and in the 1980s. There is lots of talk about us doing more social work, we were doing it right from the get-go. A second company, this is topical because this company exited, was sold to an American private equity firm this year.

We started it in 2004, we were significantly the management team. The company’s called Circle Cardiovascular Imaging, recently sold for about $220m. It develops software that allows you to triage and design treatment pathways for people who are having cardio issues right up to cardiac arrest. So, when someone is having a serious cardiac event, there are a number of different things you can do that take you down different paths, very important you take the right path if you are going to give the best outcome for that patient.

Because we have recently had an exit, the CEO came to one of our events, gave a great talk about the history and some of the things that are going on. Of the 50 leading hospitals in North America, 40 deploy this software. So again, we are talking about hundreds of thousands of interventions every year, saving lives.

Then the final one is Carbon Engineering. This was started again in the two-thousands by a UCalgary professor, David Keith. He is actually now a Harvard professor, but he still lives locally because he likes the skiing. He started Carbon Engineering. Today, it is the largest direct air capture company in North America. I think there is one other in Europe that rivals it. I for sure do not know what is going to be the balance of how we get to carbon zero, but direct air capture is in the mix.

Again, research that came out of UCalgary. I saw in some press, just in the last couple of weeks, today they have one large direct air capture facility in British Columbia here in Canada, and they just have plans to go from one to 100 facilities in the next few years. And so, hopefully going to be a big part of the, how do we get to carbon zero? So, three UCalgary companies. We have done a hundred in the last five years. Let us hope that a few of those hundred go on that same journey.

Yes. Those three, planet saving, life-saving technologies. So, they are some very good choices. We are almost at the end. Is there anything else that we have not talked about that you want people to know or something you want to reiterate, other than perhaps the hr@Calgary?

I really enjoy this profession. I decided to do this, having worked in the private sector and worked in academia. I think it is amazing. If anyone listening to this is interested, would like to meet with me or some of my colleagues, or knows how Zoom works, I am more than happy to have a discussion with you and help to inspire each other all doing a great thing.

John, thank you so much for joining me today. It has been a great pleasure to talk to you and learn more about Innovate Calgary.

Thank you, Thierry. Thank you for your time.

Thierry Heles

Thierry Heles is the editor of Global University Venturing, host of the Beyond the Breakthrough interview podcast and responsible for the monthly GUV Gazette (sign up here for free).