Hidden Innovators: Tech in the Kootenays

A tech industry exists in the West Kootenay — you just have to know where to look for it.

Morgan Dehnel's company

Morgan Dehnel's company

The office was empty when Alex Chapple arrived.

She’d commuted from her home north of Nelson to Rossland for what she thought would be a meeting at the headquarters of Thought Exchange. Except no one was there. Chapple only had to look out a window to realize why.

“It was a powder day,” she said. “Everyone was up at the ski hill and then they all rolled in at 10:30 or 11 after getting in some good runs.”

Thought Exchange, which creates group communications software, has been thriving in the small ski city since its 2009 inception. The company has 100 employees, including 29 who work throughout the Kootenays, with offices also located in Port Moody and Vancouver.

The company had started with its employees working remotely, as they still mostly do. The idea to build an office was done on a whim, according to Chapple who works as Thought Exchange’s director of people and culture. It’s a place for employees to come and go as they need to without having to clock in for a 9-to-5 shift.

“We’re really happy for people to do that,” said Chapple. “They get their work done when they need to and, as long as they’re not [missing customers,] we really want people to run their own lives and work when is really best for them.”

Thought Exchange is just one example of a tech company that has thrived in the unlikely setting of the Kootenays. The region doesn’t has the cache of Silicon Valley or the practical access to developer resources that exist in a centre like Waterloo, Ont. But entrepreneurs are living here all the same for reasons that run counter to convention.

Five years ago Tammy Everts was looking for a change of scenario. She had worked in the tech industry since 1997 and was living in Vancouver with her family, but wanted to get out of the city. The company she was working for at the time was being sold, and she was given permission to work remotely.

“I can work from anywhere,” said Everts.” We looked at across the country, we looked at the U.S., and no matter how short our list got Nelson was always on it.”

Everts is now director of research and editorial for Soasta, a California-based company that analyzes website performance data and is located a short drive from Google’s headquarters. Where her home office was didn’t matter all that much to her new employer.

“The fact that I worked remotely almost worked in my favour,” she said. “I think they just sort of assumed, ‘oh, she’s be doing this successfully for a couple of years and for these other companies.’ It was good PR for me because they figured that if I was doing it and being effective enough for them to notice me, obviously this was working for me from a productivity perspective.”

Kootenay-based tech companies aren’t a new phenomenon. They just don’t usually fly their flags in public spaces.

Bruce Hardy is the National Research Council’s industrial research assistant program representative for the region. His job is to deliver tech and business connections to companies that will help them grow.

He said while it’s difficult to get a picture of the local tech industry, in part because of the nebulous nature of people who work remotely, its economic impact shouldn’t be understated.

“Whether it be products they are providing or actual services they are providing remotely, they are bringing new money into our community and that has a huge impact on the success and growth of our local economy.”

One example of a successful company that operates under the radar is D-Pace. The Nelson-based company operates on the third floor of a brick building with no exterior signage. But what they do, which is designing parts for particle accelerators, typifies the sort of innovative work being done in our own backyard.

D-Pace was founded in 1995 by Morgan Dehnel. The Nelson native was inspired to work on particle accelerators after visiting CERN in Switzerland, the lab that invented the Internet’s first webpage and currently houses the world’s largest accelerator.

When Dehnel’s wife Patricia was hired on as Nelson’s first city planner, he set up shop as a consultant. That small business eventually became D-Pace, a 10-person company that includes Dehnel’s brothers Kent and Kurt.

Dehnel doesn’t think it matters where his company, which is now half-owned by a New Zealand-based company, is located. He says only one per cent of his sales are domestic, so being in the Kootenays hasn’t impacted his business negatively.

“If you want to follow that logic, it’s just another company that’s left Canada,” he said. “But you don’t have to, there’s no preferential spot. It’s all global, we’re selling globally. Is there one spot that’s better than another? Not really.”

Sometimes just being in the Kootenays can inspire new start-ups.

Bradley Roulston and his brother-in-law Rik Logtenberg were operating a design studio in Nelson when anthropologist Wade Davis visited the city for a talk. Logtenberg, a fan of Davis’s work, couldn’t believe it when he realized he missed the event without ever knowing it was happening.

Roulston remembers that as the genesis of their current venture, Time.ly.

“Rik came in one day, he comes into the kitchen table and says, ‘I’ve got it. The calendar. The calendar is the next big social play.’ He’s like, if we change how people think about and use calendars, then when someone puts an event in their own calendar, which everyone in the world is doing, then they can automatically send their event to any other calendar in town that should [then] have that event on it. So all the calendars are all connected together.”

The pair started their community calendar service in 2012. Roulston and Logtenberg spent a year raising money locally from angel investors, but ended up moving to Vancouver to get better access to capital. They were there three years.

Time.ly is now based in Guelph, Ont., which isn’t far from the tech centre of Waterloo. Roulston, the company’s vice president of sales, opted to return to Nelson and work remotely. The move made sense — the platform had taken off locally with the help of Nelson Kootenay Lake Tourism.

Roulston doesn’t think moving developers to Nelson is feasible for Time.ly. Instead, he hopes the company sets up a sales office that can train staff in the same small-town market they have found success in elsewhere.

“If this town is running our software and it’s just around us all the time, it’s the perfect place,” said Roulston. “It might not be the perfect place to hire developers, because we’d have to move people here and housing is an issue. But if we can farm that out to a place where there’s a development centre, like Waterloo, there’s no reason why we can’t build out what we can do here, like support, sales or something like that. I think that would be good.”

There are also plenty of local organizations, such as non-profits Community Futures and The Kootenay Association for Science and Technology, offering support to tech companies. Nelson even has its own space where tech entrepreneurs are being encouraged to work and meet.

Cameron and Deryk Wenaus moved their company Retreat Guru in November to a 106-year-old building originally constructed as a warehouse to store jam. The brothers had previous experience with co-working spaces, and saw what they dubbed The Jam Factory as an opportunity to start a community of like-minded people.

“The space found us,” said Cameron Wenaus. “We were looking for a space, a new home, found this building and we loved it and saw so much potential and recognized the only way to make this work was to magnetize other companies together and to come in.”

The stone building, which smells of the cedar, was renovated into office space with a central kitchen and even a yoga studio. Wenaus describes the building as the ideal home for Retreat Guru, which started three years ago and serves as an online directory for wellness retreats around the world.

Wenaus also doesn’t think Retreat Guru could have started anywhere else in the world. The local industry of mindfulness practitioners encouraged and cultivated the company in ways Wenaus believes wouldn’t have been possible in larger centres.

“Could this happen in Toronto or Vancouver? I don’t think so,” he said. “I think the fact that Nelson can incubate this kind of company, because of Nelson’s characteristics and its connection to wakefulness, I think there’s no coincidence there.”

Coincidence also likely plays no part in the growing tech community. Dehnel says what the Kootenays lack in tech prestige is made up for by a quality of life that draws in talent.

“It resonates with some people to be here and they make it work,” he said. “So yes, if you are looking at it in a logical way, it doesn’t makes sense. But it will self-select certain people. They like this lifestyle. It is exciting in a variety of ways. With the Internet and whatnot, we can interconnect enough …

“We’re starting to create our ecosystem here, little by little. That’s what happens.”