11 Questions with Kelly Graves

Cybera is running a series of blog posts that will showcase Alberta's innovative technology and research community. Over the course of 11 months, we are asking 11 people 11 questions related to technology and research in Alberta.

This month's 11 Questions interview is with Kelly Graves, a veteran entrepreneur, now Chief Technical Officer for Loa Networks.

1. What brought you to Calgary and what has kept you here?

I moved to Calgary for the first time in 1991 when NOVA swung gas control from Edmonton to Calgary; I came along with the computers. I left to spend a few years in the U.S., where I "surfed" through the first dot-com boom as a semi-Californian. Following the expected pattern, I tried to retire a decade ago, but retirement just didn't take; too much needed doing! We were living in a quiet place, but had the ability to choose any city in the world for a post-retirement "restart". Calgary was '€” and still is '€” dripping with potential. It was by far the most interesting choice. The drama and suspense of Alberta's potential keeps me here. Calgary could easily surpass Silicon Valley. But will it?

2. What three words would you use to describe Alberta's tech sector?

Holding our breath.

3. What would you say is the greatest challenge of working in the tech sector in Alberta?

We almost certainly misunderstand what a full-blown tech boom would look like in Alberta, and we don't have a good collective notion of how to get there. We keep eyeing what's going on down south [in the U.S.], and we keep trying to emulate it. That is precisely the wrong thing to do. An Alberta tech boom would be a very different phenomenon. Because of this, many of our best efforts to stimulate innovation are success inhibitors. We desperately need to use a different policy palette.

4. Following on that, what would you say is the greatest benefit of working in the tech sector in Alberta?

We have a lot of very smart people in a very affluent society; they have the talent, inclination and time to pursue all kinds of fascinating innovations.

5. How do you stay connected and tapped into Calgary's tech sector?

The problem isn't to find a way to stay connected, it's how to pick and choose a manageable volume of ways among the many available. The innovation community is limited in size, but the number of tech-startup groups, meet-ups and networking sessions are large. If I had to choose, I'd pick DemoCamp, Calgary Technologies International (now Innovate Calgary), and A100, but what I'd really like to see is fewer networking events with much better attendance and a higher leverage factor. An entrepreneur who attended all the Alberta networking sessions and followed up properly wouldn't have time to do much innovating.

6. Who inspires you and why?

My wife. She's building a new career from scratch, and succeeding against all the odds. Every time I think she's stopped, she proves me wrong.

After her, I think perhaps Naheed Nenshi impresses me the most. I hope he epitomizes a new breed of public figure who will discard old ways of thinking to approach some serious problems in a new way. I would love to see him follow in Ralph's [Klein '€” Alberta’s former premier] footsteps and move up to the provincial level. We could sure use his lateral thinking there.

7. What book are you currently reading and what do you think of it?

"A book"? Do people read one book at a time anymore? Everybody seems to have two or three on the go. I try to read books in sets to provide contrast or to expand understanding. I'm reading Paul Collier's "The Bottom Billion", Cormac McCarthy's "The Road", and "The Grand Design" by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow. The "Bottom Billion" does a fair job of explaining a dreary and nearly-inescapable economic reality for a big chunk of humanity. "The Road" offers metaphorical and intellectual equipment that bears on this problem, and Hawking puts it all in a larger perspective. They fit together nicely.

8. What do you think of when you hear the word "cyberinfrastructure"?

Frankly, I don't hear it very often. When I do, it's applied in one of two ways: some people use it in its original sense to refer to research-related computational infrastructure, whereas other people use it as a larger term to refer to all connected infrastructure for computation, transportation, energy, and a handful of similar systems. For that reason, I don't use it very often, either; it seems insufficiently precise. I always have to explain what I mean when I try to use it.

9. In your opinion, what are the most exciting technologies out there right now?

Social networks and crowd-sourcing are of course interesting and will certainly continue to have substantive societal impacts (as we've seen in the past year), but are more-or-less novel applications of existing technologies. They generally produce tertiary value at best. (My social-networking entrepreneurial friends will disagree with this, of course.)

I prefer the fields where whole new technologies are emerging, such as embedded sensor networks, nanoscale computing and medical devices, animal genomics, electromagnetic launch to low-earth orbit, re-working energy supply and storage using fresh new thinking, etc. The depth of innovation here is staggering, and the pace of change (partly enabled by social networks and online tools, to be fair) is accelerating.

10. Are there any other fields you are not currently involved in that you would like to see yourself / your company working with?

Of course. New and interesting fields come up faster than anyone could possibly engage with them. The list of fascinating things is very big, but a person has to be realistic and apply priorities. Aside from our primary interests, we each are increasingly compelled to pay a substantial amount of attention to some pretty serious issues having to do with the environment, the economy, and globalism. If we don't, we may no longer have the luxury to engage with other interesting fields at all. I'd rather see my extra efforts – no matter what area they are in '€” applied against some of these global issues, than having them applied against other new areas.

11. What advice would you give to someone just starting out as an entrepreneur/researcher/business, etc.

Be aware that the newly-struck venture capital funds are not heavily subscribed. If this trend continues, when existing funds are fully invested, we will have a medium-term shortfall of venture-capital money. You should plan accordingly. While you can certainly imagine an exciting end to your corporate adventure (such as "and then Google buys us!") you had better not count on either a big investment or a gigantic exit; that is likely going to be increasingly rare in the next while. While you have to push forward with scope and imagination to demonstrate to potential investors that you can act wisely and strategically with their money, you also must deploy tactical initiatives that allow you to generate early revenue. In most cases, "value" is a better formula for success than "attention". You will be able to find money in affluent Alberta, but, for most Albertan entrepreneurs, it most likely won't arrive through "traditional-style" venture-capital firms.