By Calgary’s Business
For companies looking for support for transformative investments in Calgary, opportunity and scrutiny go hand in hand.
The $100-million Opportunity Calgary Investment Fund was launched by the City of Calgary in April to address local challenges and take advantage of the wave of innovation that’s defining the economic future for cities around the world.
A rigorous vetting of the wide-ranging proposals was essential to the selection of the first businesses to receive support through the fund. The first successful candidate from the more than 150 applicants will be announced this month.
The fund was established to help transform and diversify Calgary’s economy after a restructuring of the oil and gas industry worldwide in the middle of this decade led to large numbers of job losses and empty offices in downtown Calgary.
Funding is open to private-sector companies, non-profit organizations and public institutions. It’s a city initiative that’s overseen by an independent volunteer board of directors and administered by Calgary Economic Development.
The fund is mandated to support business projects that are considered catalysts for economic growth, diversification, increased employment and expanding the property tax assessment base.
The scrutiny doesn’t equate to slow.
“We hope to be able to commit about one-third of our fund by year-end,” said Barry Munro, chair of the board of directors for the fund.
The priority is to support the development of sectors that include, but are not limited to, technology, energy, green economy, financial services, creative industries, biomedical, aerospace, manufacturing, agribusiness, and transportation and logistics.
The projects must also generate a robust number of high-paying jobs for Calgary’s highly skilled labour force.
Proposals must also align with the ability of the city’s major post-secondary institutions – University of Calgary, Mount Royal University and SAIT – to “start incubating talent pools that can sustain new and existing sectors over the long term,” said Jeff Davison, a city councillor and member of the board of directors.
“The big thing we’re looking at is how we can kick-start things,” Davison said. “We won’t be able to solve all of our problems with $100 million, but we’re asking questions like how do we ensure that companies can bring jobs to Calgary? What can we do to keep companies and talent here?”
The qualifications for funding are deliberately broad, said Munro.
“We wanted creative, innovative ideas that allow people to think boldly,” he said. “We evaluate those against a certain set of criteria and whether it will be catalytic in the city and if it aligns with the greater needs of the city.”
The board has given the go-ahead for one proposal, among the original flurry of applicants, that promises to create software engineering positions in the city.
“We see that skill-set as being critical to part of the digitization of the oil and gas industry,” Munro said. “If we can play our part in propelling those types of industries, that’s what we’re looking for.”
The board for the Opportunity Calgary Investment Fund is made up of prominent leaders from a cross-section of industries and sectors. When an applicant completes an online idea submission form, it’s subject to critical analysis by Calgary Economic Development, subject-matter specialists, third-party experts when appropriate and, finally, the board.
The fund is not is a handout to failing businesses, startups or ‘business as usual’ ideas. It is stimulus for projects that are drivers of innovation in emerging industries and sector development.
“I feel a huge obligation to do our best possible job to be a good steward of the taxpayers’ money,” said Munro.
With most of the ideas, the board requires funding to be matched by the applicant.
A series of milestones must be achieved before subsequent portions of funding are released. Munro said the criteria for funding aligns with the city’s newly-released Economic Strategy “with a view to are we creating jobs and ultimately a tax base for Calgary?”
The board looked at a similar municipal funding initiative in Waterloo, Ont., that has been hugely successful in building a robust tech sector. It’s become a city where companies want to invest in the community and has created sustainable jobs for residents.
“For a long time, Calgary has talked about how we diversify,” said Davison. “We’ve been talking about it for 10 or 15 years, but the downturn is very different this time so there is great impetus to diversify and execute a new strategy to effect change in our economy.”
Both believe reimagining the economic landscape must be a made-in-Calgary solution.
“Calgary has had to figure out how we get people back to work,” Davison said. “We have a highly skilled and educated workforce and we’re entrepreneurial.”
“We will only fund those projects that align to our strategy,” Munro said. “While we want to act with urgency to stimulate job and economic growth, we will not act imprudently.”