Nelson’s future digital innovation centre picks up steam

How intelligent is Nelson? An “intelligent community” is, as they say, a thing.

Rose Hoeher works for the Kootenay Association for Science and Technology (KAST)

How intelligent is Nelson?

An “intelligent community” is a term used to describe a community that is successful in the digital economy.

Andrea Wilkey of Community Futures Central Kootenay is one of a group of local people busy envisioning and planning a digital innovation centre for the city.

She thinks Nelson at this point is “pretty intelligent” but she says, “We could be brilliant.”

In addition to broadband Internet, Wilkey says, intelligent communities have an “innovation ecosystem” and the ability to attract and retain knowledge workers.

At left: Andrea Wilkey, photo courtesy of Community Futures Central Kootenay

What’s an innovation ecosystem?

“It means you have the environment, physical spaces, and culture where people can come together, share ideas, and collaborate and as a result innovation comes out of that. You have a place where people are going to bump into each other and talk about new ideas and brainstorm, see what each other is doing, saying, ‘Hey cool, you’re working on this and I’m working on that, we could put our ideas together and do this.’”

‘Strategic doing’

Wilkey explains that Community Futures held a “strategic doing” session in Nelson in February to talk about Nelson becoming an intelligent community.

“One project that came out of that was a group of people wanting to create an innovation centre in Nelson, so Brad Pommen stepped up as the project leader.”

The project is called STREAM or STREAM Labs. STREAM stands for science, technology, research, engineering, artisan, and maker.

“Six years ago,” Pommen says, “I started the Nelson Tech Club, an all-ages hacker space, and it has grown beyond my expectations. The first couple of years we had 10 to 20 people coming. Now we have 25 to 50. It’s 70 per cent youth so I’m tied into every school in the district, and Selkirk College and the Kootenay Association for Science and Technology (KAST).”

Add the Nelson and Area Economic Development Partnership, the City of Nelson, and the Chamber of Commerce, and you have a powerful constellation of players interested in the innovation centre, even though their roles, and the shape and size of the project, still aren’t clear.

A gym pass for your mind

Let’s say the plans come to pass. Walking through the door of the new innovation centre, what would we see?

“You will see a technology social ecosystem,” says Pommen. “University and college students, entrepreneurs and businesses. We are looking at having anchor tenants, all related to some side of the innovation cycle so they may deliver broadband or provide support in-house. There might be rented work stations, and also labs and all the tools required in them. So think of it as a gym pass for your mind or business.”

Wilkey says there would be operating businesses with staff offering mentorship to other people in the space, including start-ups.

At left: Brad Pommen

“Also there would be a maker space, something like the tech club,” she says, “and then drop in makers could use the equipment and anchor tenants could use it. We would also have a co-working space people could rent. All those would have access to 3-D printers and computers. We would have common areas for people to bump into each other and generate new ideas, boardroom meeting space, virtual conferencing equipment, that sort of thing.

“And there would be youth and post secondary, makers, artists, filmmakers, people in the community who want to tinker. An energetic hub full of people working.”

She said services already being provided, such as KAST’s business mentoring and Community Futures’ business training, could be provided there.

‘Dream consultant’

Pommen says it would be a place for people who have an idea but don’t know where to start.

“We would have something like a dream consultant who is just aware of what everything in the building can do and who to connect with, so we might say, ‘All right, we have 3-D printing courses or we have intro business courses. You start learning how to use the material and the tools and start prototyping and building your product, building your business plan. Let’s hook you up with financial or legal partners or any of the infrastructure pieces you would need as a fledgling business.’”

“We have no money and no physical space yet,” says Wilkey. “Just a lot of of excitement from dozens of people in some key organizations.”

Rose Hoeher, who facilitates the Nelson tech meet-up group and works as the “inopreneur director” at KAST, says the interest is overwhelming.

“There is so much momentum, I can’t even tell you,” she says. “It is moving so fast and there is so much interest. But there is a very concrete practical component to it, which is landing this thing, getting a home for it, getting some money, and we only have one shot to make it successful.”

Time, money, and models

Pommen says a feasibility study will be done by September and the group is accepting bids for the development of a business and marketing plan. Then in October they will apply for up to $500,000 in starting capital from the provincial government’s Rural Dividend fund.

Innovation incubators, innovation hubs, accelerators there are many names and models are springing up fast around the world, but most are in big cites and connected to universities, according to Hoeher. There are also a variety of different funding models, with various mixes of private and public funds. Pommen says this will be a non-profit social enterprise that will need outside funding for the first few years.

Some well-known companies that grew out of innovation hubs are Airbnb, Dropbox, and Hoot Suite, Hoeher says. But a different model is needed for a rural, remote community, and Hoeher points to a good example close by: Accelerate Okanagan in Kelowna.

There’s also MIDAS in Trail, a partnership between Community Futures, KAST, and Selkirk College, that is oriented toward metallurgy because of Teck’s presence in the community.

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