Catherine Warren knows that Edmonton Unlimited’s bold downtown space requires more than scientists and entrepreneurs
By Cory Schachtel | May 9, 2023
The bullet points on Catherine Warren’s résumé start with her roles as “C-Suite Leader,” or “CEO,” or “founder” of companies and organizations that ballooned in value or raised massive amounts of money to help fund startups soon after she joined. But, earlier in her career, she got to spend time at one of the most innovative places on Earth, and it wasn’t the lofty titles of her coworkers that left an impression.
“I was at CERN [European Council for Nuclear Research, located in Switzerland] as a science writer. I got to interview Nobel laureates and tour particle accelerators in the making,” she says. “But no scientists were too brilliant to talk to me. I could ask them all the big questions and be a fly on the wall for the most interesting lectures and conversations. CERN was not just a place for research, it was a place that had artists, technologists, builders, culture makers, journalists and, of course, scientists from every different domain and discipline.”
(In fact, a little more than a decade ago, CERN sent an expert to speak to students at the Telus World of Science.)
Not everyone she spoke with was directly involved in making particles collide, but the interpersonal collisions happening outside the beam pipes helped shape Warren’s philosophy on how innovation happens. “CERN was a very early lesson in the magic of interdisciplinary innovation, of innovation placemaking, and of having a place that welcomed international contributions from people who bring their educational backgrounds, their cultural backgrounds, and just add that much more to the mix.”
We might not be studying what makes the fundamental particles of reality in Edmonton (at least not yet), but the city’s newest innovation centre opened this month and, like CERN, it’s welcoming innovators of all kinds.
After two and a half years as a primarily virtual organization, Edmonton Unlimited has opened its ground-floor doors in the old RBC building on 101st Street and Jasper Avenue. Warren is the chief executive officer, and says that the building’s high visibility and accessibility, wrap-around windows and loft-style ceiling make it great for the non-profit’s world-welcoming innovation approach. But location-wise, downtown was a no-brainer.
“We looked at 11 potential places — they were all downtown, and the reason was two-fold,” Warren says. “One is that there’s already quite a vibrant startup scene downtown, so there’s an interest in keeping that bustling innovation going here. And two, there’s a need for downtown revitalization in general. So, the sustainable and responsible thing to do was to identify a place that had all this potential, and then invest in what I call a sustainable retrofit, rather than building something from scratch.”
Entrepreneurs build things from scratch every day, and they tend to run on coffee, which they’ll find plenty of in Edmonton Unlimited’s Community Café as soon as they walk in the front doors. It’s a free, self-serve cafe designed for collaborations between people whose ideas are at any stage of development (there’s also a wine and keg fridge stocked with local flavours for when after-hours meetings go really well).
An up-and-coming innovator could ask a potential investor to meet there, grab a drink and a seat and have a no-pressure meet, no questions asked. “Or let’s say you are Alberta Women Entrepreneurs, and you want to do a special meetup for female CEOs,” Warren says. “We would welcome you to come as a group and you could do the same thing — go to the coffee machine or the fridge, set up the tables to create a little space however you want, and generally make it your own. That’s the whole idea of the cafe.”
Beyond the cafe is the main space, which opens all the way up to the roof of the building, with a terrace on the far wall. Down in front of the terrace sits a planned 100-person, retractable seating area that faces an adjustable stage, the “Pitch Deck.” This is where entrepreneurs do “full dog-and-pony showcases” at the end of their accelerator programs, and “show off their IPs to future rainmakers,” Warren says. “We want to blast open the doors to arts innovators, sustainability innovators, Indigenous innovators, and other people who maybe haven’t had the physical locations to come and participate in to the same degree that maybe others in the community have in the past.”
Plugged-in and portable office setups, known as “hot desks,” fill the area’s edge. They have the power and ergonomic seating needed to get an innovative idea off the ground. “They’re places to hang your hat, put your head down and do some work,” says Warren. “The area’s designed for the people who are in our programs, who are involved in our coaching, and who are generally early-stage entrepreneurs, brainstorming and making calls, which really should always be happening.”
Behind the amphitheatre is “probably the most important space,” a 100-person programming room that can be divided into two “very beautiful rooms.” It’s where experts can run simultaneous 50-person programs for early and late-stage entrepreneurs, and “the experts, who are themselves entrepreneurs, will be here all day every day. So you can always drop in on someone that you just learned something from, and ask them questions one on one. It’s got more of a campus vibe in the back.” There are also enclosed offices for private meetings (picture whiteboards and glass walls covered in a rainbow of Post-it Notes), and a production studio in the former bank vault.
In between all these often-temporary spaces are the permanent walls, and Warren is most excited for the “innovation gallery” that will cover them. With federal government financial support, Edmonton Unlimited works with architects, popup and festival organizations to make something “eye catching” throughout the space that showcases innovation and will be tied to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. “We want to create an environment that makes people’s hearts soar and helps make innovation come alive,” Warren says.
She knows that work environments like this can be a bit dry, and she’s happy to colour the walls with works from local artists and even the startup founders themselves. But as an entrepreneur to her core, Warren also sees the economic benefit. “We’ve seen studies that show if you invest in arts and culture, you are also more likely to attract innovators and big thinkers, and become a place where talent is going to want to be. Art is important for its own sake, but it’s important for this innovation crucible that we’re all trying to build here.”
This article appears in the May 2023 issue of Edify