Nov. 5, 2019

Got an idea? New UCalgary initiative streamlines support for innovators and entrepreneurs

Launch of Innovation@UCalgary helps students, faculty, staff, and community put their ideas in motion to solve societal challenges
Innovation Fair 2019
2019 Innovation Fair Photo credit: Adrian Shellard

A community of microbes from alkaline soda lakes in northern B.C. holds the key to scrubbing CO2 from the air while producing a valuable natural vibrant blue pigment called phycocyanin, which is currently very expensive to extract. Phycocyanin can safely replace synthetic colour additives used in the food and cosmetics industries.

Working with the microbes, the team behind Synergia Biotech has developed a sustainable, scalable and cost-effective technology to cultivate, harvest, and extract the phycocyanin, all using CO2 from the air as the food to fuel the microbes.

The promising technology was developed with the support of a powerful research and innovation ecosystem at the University of Calgary. Now, with the launch of Innovation@UCalgary — a new initiative designed to support innovators and entrepreneurs who have ideas to solve society’s most pressing problems — ventures like Synergia Biotech will be able to quickly access the resources and support they need to get their ideas out into the world. 

“We’ve been working on the CO2 capture technology for five years through the Bioenergy Team, led by Professor Marc Strous. When we discovered that we could produce phycocyanin at scale, the resources at the university, especially the Global Research Initiative, allowed us to start up a company so that we could commercialize our discovery,” says Dr. Angela Kouris, CEO of Synergia Biotech.

The food industry is largely moving away from artificial food colouring to satisfy customer preferences, opening a $1.6B global market for phycocyanin. “The innovation environment at the university has been encouraging, and working with CDL-Rockies is allowing us to move quickly.”  

Innovation is a word that can mean many things. For UCalgary, innovation boils down to taking ideas and discoveries, connecting with the right people and resources, and finding a pathway to create meaningful impact in our community.

“There’s a misconception that to be innovative, you have to start a business or be driven by money,” says Dr. Stephen Larter, associate vice-president (research-innovation). “What we have seen at the university, and what we hope to continue to inspire, are ideas that make a difference when they’re deployed out in the world.”

In 2018, the university’s Research and Academic Plans stated that innovation would be a priority, recognizing that the most enterprising universities focus on linking needs with great ideas by enabling the processes to help drive innovation.

Innovation@UCalgary is a campus-wide initiative to support and connect people, infrastructure, training and resources to support the innovation cycle. It is designed to enable collaboration and reciprocity across the core nodes — the Hunter Hub for Entrepreneurial Thinking, Innovate Calgary, and Creative Destruction Lab Rockies — and create a central connection point for the faculties, units, and programs that are spread across campus and throughout our community.

“Innovation@UCalgary is really about getting the right people in the room,” says Larter. “Co-operation between innovators in different sectors, at different stages of their careers, and with different perspectives is absolutely vital to implementing solutions in a real way. Innovation@UCalgary aims is to make this type of collaboration the new normal.”

“Our vision for Innovation@UCalgary is to facilitate a culture shift at the university,” says Andre Buret, vice-president (research). “We want to provide students, postdocs, faculty and staff more opportunities to engage with innovation, so we’re breaking down traditional barriers and building up the support system.”