If you are a technology entrepreneur in a rural area like the Kootenays, connection is everything. Tech start-ups have specific needs, from office and meeting space to mentoring, training, funding and connection with like-minded individuals.
Business incubators such as the Nelson Innovation Centre (NIC) are a boon to young tech firms, providing shared access to the resources they need in the community where they are located. Companies that are supported through a business incubator have a survival rate much higher than unassisted companies, and the cost of launching and operating their business can be reduced by up to 50 percent. For the estimated 7,000 workers in the Kootenays` burgeoning technology sector, completion of Nelson Innovation Centre (NIC) in 2020 represented a significant growth opportunity.
Historic architecture houses new innovation
The Nelson Innovation Centre is managed by the Kootenay Association for Science and Technology (KAST), which has supported the regional technology sector for over two decades. Years of research and collaboration within the region`s business and technology community provided the basis for the Nelson Innovation Centre, and the development of its unique physical location in the historic CPR Station in Nelson. ETSI-BC contributed $50,000 towards renovations to the CPR Station to fund startup costs and help tech entrepreneurs to access space for delivery of programs and professional workspace. Funding for the project was also provided by the City of Nelson, Discovery Foundation, the Rural Dividend Fund and Western Economic Diversification Canada (now PacifiCan).
Innovative thinking is built into the design of the NIC, which was carried out under the direction of general contractor, designer and project manager, Joern Wingender. Lofty ceilings, exposed timber beams and extensive use of raw wood throughout the 1,500-foot space respect its history and original construction. At the same time, it has a clean, modern look that reflects the open thinking associated with the Kootenay lifestyle.
The anchor of the facility is The Station Boardroom, a professional meeting space with a massive skylight that invites people to look up to the historic timber ceiling. KAST members and guests can use The Hub Lounge to attend workshops, for professional meetings or simply to work on their laptops. A custom private work booth is available for video conferencing, and leasable office space is available for tech and tech-enabled companies.
Wrap around programs accelerate entrepreneurial success
The programs and services at KAST are tailored to the needs of the rural tech community, particularly companies involved with technology innovation and the gig economy, where contracts and freelance work prevail over full-time jobs. The KAST core programs help entrepreneurs enter or expand in the digital economy, research the feasibility of their ideas, become investor-ready, commercialize their technology, and navigate the economic impacts of COVID-19. KAST also provides concierge referrals for local tech ventures to other businesses, programs to inspire youth to explore post-secondary opportunities in science and technology, and programs to support women in establishing and growing their technology businesses. Over the long-term, NIC will help to create modern, inclusive, high-paying, environmentally and socially responsible jobs, and sustainable wealth-creation.
With revenue from events, workshops and rental of office space, NIC aims to be self-sustaining without the need for continued operational funding. Currently it supports two employees, Manager Melanie Fontaine, and Communications and Programming Specialist, Crystal Swan.
Fontaine points out that KAST has served hundreds of small and medium sized businesses and start-ups since its inception, but its own growth has not been without challenges. After a soft opening of NIC in 2020, COVID-19 restrictions prevented monthly meetups and other in-person gatherings. Planning shifted to emphasize virtual training and these programs have been well attended. As the centre continues to adapt to changing COVID protocols and some lessening of restrictions, a gradual re-opening of NIC is planned for mid-December 2021, including tech meet-ups and information sessions.
“Across the Kootenays, we have an impressive and growing tech community filled with passion to make a difference,” says Fontaine. “KAST is a vital resource for both tech and non-tech businesses in a large rural area, and it benefits from the support of many organizations, including ETSI-BC, as well as the collaboration of businesses working together to grow our region. With our NIC community hub, expect to see much more from KAST as we continue to expand our reach in the Kootenays promoting innovation and economic development.”