Creative Destruction Lab – Rockies
UCalgary's innovation ecosystem bolsters next-generation entrepreneurs — and the local economy
Innovation program helps create value from waste
Innovative agricultural company Ceres Solutions Ltd. is thriving with help from the University of Calgary’s entrepreneurial programs and business networks.
The environmentally focused company, which is home-grown in Alberta, up-cycles agricultural by-products into gourmet mushrooms and livestock feed.
Turning an idea into a company that can scale massively while maintaining its commitment to supporting locally grown food and sustainable agriculture takes help, says founder Alex Villeneuve.
“Philanthropy and the kind of assistance we’ve received through the University of Calgary’s entrepreneurial programs have allowed us to advance and scale the company,” he says.
Ceres participated in the Creative Destruction Labs (CDL)-Rockies mentorship program in 2019-20. CDL works with start-up companies that employ innovations in technology and business models that promise a chance of delivering large-scale improvements to economic productivity and human welfare.
CDL-Rockies operates within UCalgary’s Haskayne School of Business and the program that Villeneuve and his company benefitted from is part of the UCalgary innovation ecosystem, which is supported in part by UCalgary’s philanthropic community.
“CDL-Rockies and the University of Calgary have helped prepare us to succeed and create something really exciting; a company with more impact than I could have imagined,” says Villeneuve. “The mentors at CDL are highly qualified and their willingness to donate their time and provide feedback and help the next generation is really special.”
One of those mentors is Mark Blackwell, BComm’11, a Haskayne graduate and associate with CDL-Rockies. As a leader in Calgary’s rapidly growing innovation ecosystem, he knows first-hand the critical role philanthropy plays in the future of this city.
“Philanthropy can be in the form of time and money and, as we’ve seen with organizations like CDL, the time that those in the community donate to work with some of our best and brightest stars, like Alex at Ceres, is invaluable,” says Blackwell. “As we envision what the future of this city looks like, I have never been more excited about the opportunity we have ahead of us. Calgary was built by amazing entrepreneurs and innovators, and that spirit is now living on in the next generation.”
Brewing an idea into a business
That innovative spirit — and the roots of Ceres Solutions — started to take shape in Villeneuve during early childhood, when he helped in the family garden in Edmonton, hoeing potatoes and soaking up the ways his parents would experiment with methods to increase yields and lengthen the growing season.
“Seeing how your food is grown really left an impression on me,” he says. “It inspired me during my time as an apprentice chef and was a major factor in starting Ceres.”
Villeneuve’s diligent patience and talent for seeing opportunity in what others may consider a liability is paying off. After graduating from a high school that had a culinary arts program, Villeneuve enrolled in the Olds College Brewmaster Program, where he had an “aha” moment sparked by beermaking.
He noticed the spent grains left over after the brewing process, which were costly and challenging to remove from the school’s brewery, could be repurposed rather than discarded as waste. Villeneuve built on what he’d learned growing mushrooms — to pair with a craft beer he was brewing — and discovered a way to boost the protein content in the spent grains, enriching it as livestock feed while also producing gourmet mushrooms that are now making their way to Alberta restaurants and onto people’s plates at home.
Philanthropy and the kind of assistance we’ve received through the University of Calgary’s entrepreneurial programs have allowed us to advance and scale the company … to succeed and create something really exciting; a company with more impact than I could have imagined.
Founder of Ceres Solutions Ltd.
A growing industry
An estimated one-third of Alberta’s land use is agricultural, growing crops and raising livestock. Alberta exports of primary and processed agricultural and food products totalled $11.4 billion in 2019. As the province seeks to diversify and grow other industries, agriculture-related technology and businesses are becoming increasingly important.
It’s a shift made possible by programs and resources that support innovation and entrepreneurial thinking, like those at UCalgary — and it’s paying off for both the city and province. An independent analysis of UCalgary’s economic impact shows how significant the university is to the local economy — with an annual footprint of $16.5 billion that supports more than 22,400 jobs.
For Ceres Solutions, the confluence of two popular trends — sustainability and locally grown food — have helped attract the interest of private investors, some of whom have been introduced through the CDL-Rockies and UCalgary innovation ecosystem.
“It’s cutting-edge stuff,” he says. “We are looking to make local food production sustainable, affordable and massively scalable. We’re building a food cultivation system that we can implement — we already have international interest.”
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What Giving Gives Me
From the Haskayne scholarship that helped pay for my tuition to the Shell Experiential Learning Program that allowed me to travel the world, the kind donations of others to UCalgary is what made my student experience what it was. Jackie and I wanted to make sure that the experience we had as students can be offered to the next generation.
Mark Blackwell, BComm’11
Blackwell and Jackie Fong, BA’10, pledged $2.2 million to entrepreneurial-thinking initiatives