Winnipeg’s Innovation Alley: Where Creative Density Creates Opportunity

Contributed by Marina R. James, president and CEO of Economic Development Winnipeg Inc.

Marina R. James, president and CEO of Economic Development Winnipeg Inc.

Marina R. James, president and CEO of Economic Development Winnipeg Inc.

Although it could certainly be said that ‘innovation’ is an overused buzzword these days, the smartest cities are embracing the concept at a grassroots level as a means to stimulate productivity and enhance quality of life. From computers to cellphones, and from email to the Internet, innovation has triggered irreversible paradigm shifts in the way we interact with our environment and each other. Unsurprisingly, the top-down hierarchy once a staple of the business world—a holdover from the industrial age—is no longer getting the job done. Instead, as intelligent communities become increasingly embedded in the information age, the inexorable uptake in the kind of networking that inspires early-stage innovation is creating new, sustainable and exciting growth in every imaginable field. 

As much as we might like to romanticize otherwise, innovation almost never happens within a proverbial vacuum. It happens when certain conditions are met that allow innovation to occur, and these conditions rarely happen by accident. Innovation results when expertise, collaboration and a series of novel ideas come together to create something bigger (read: better) than the sum of their parts. When those conditions are present, the impossible can become conceivable, and the conceivable can become reality.  

Southern vantage of Innovation Alley in Winnipeg’s Exchange District, where historic buildings house cutting-edge entrepreneurship and innovation

Southern vantage of Innovation Alley in Winnipeg’s Exchange District, where historic buildings house cutting-edge entrepreneurship and innovation

And that’s precisely what’s happening in a storied part of Winnipeg’s historic Exchange District, where a blend of turn-of-the-century architecture is the setting for an inspiring new spirit of entrepreneurship and innovation taking shape along what has come to be called Innovation Alley. It’s a place where incubators, accelerators, coworking spaces, startups and established yet expanding companies all coexist within a four-block radius of each other. This is where Winnipeg’s ‘creative class’ both gravitates to and thrives in large part due to the complementary ecosystem that welcomes new innovators, then exposes them to the requisite peers, programs and mentors needed to take their ideas to the next level.

Scott MacAulay is a Red River College (RRC) instructor and a co-founder of Permission Click, an online tool—recently named the ‘Most Promising Startup in Canada’ at the 2014 National Angel Summit—that delivers digital permission slips and payment collection for K-12 schools and daycare centres. When he takes participants on a two-hour tour of Innovation Alley, he aptly begins at his own stomping ground, RRC’s Roblin Centre campus. This, he says, is the place where business, programming and creative arts students (whom he refers to jokingly as hustlers, hackers and hipsters) begin journeys that steer an impressive number toward careers along other Innovation Alley stops.

AssentWorks’ Robert Elms holds up a miniature version of his own head created on one of seven 3D printers on the premises

AssentWorks’ Robert Elms holds up a miniature version of his own head created on one of seven 3D printers on the premises

Next up is Startup Winnipeg, home to AssentWorks and Ramp Up Manitoba. AssentWorks is a beacon for attracting and developing inventors and makers who need access to specialized equipment. Fully staffed by volunteers and co-founded by local entrepreneur Michael Legary, who established current cybersecurity heavyweight Seccuris Inc. while still a teenager, AssentWorks gives aspiring innovators access to over $3 million worth of fabrication and prototyping equipment, including seven 3D printers, three computer-pneumatic-controlled routers, laser-etching machines, woodworking and metalworking tools, etc. AssentWorks runs like a gym membership: 24/7 access costs just $150 per month (less if you volunteer).

A few steps across the hall from AssentWorks is Ramp Up Manitoba, a support community for startup entrepreneurs. Its coworking space offers up a desk and chair, printers, a boardroom or two, and cutting-edge fibre-optic Internet connectivity sponsored by Manitoba Telecom Services (MTS) that budding entrepreneurs can use for just $50 per month. This is where Permission Click got going, where the team behind the Cattle Track app is busy perfecting their prototype and where many other startups are currently entrenched. At Ramp Up Manitoba, the whole idea is to begin with a scalable concept that can eventually create substantial job and GDP growth within Winnipeg.

Ramp Up Manitoba’s coworking space for startup entrepreneurs, costing just $50 per month, is where promising, scalable ideas are created and tested 

Ramp Up Manitoba’s coworking space for startup entrepreneurs, costing just $50 per month, is where promising, scalable ideas are created and tested 

What happens when a startup outgrows Ramp Up Manitoba but isn’t yet big enough to warrant its own dedicated office? Enter the Manitoba Technology Accelerator (MTA), which is just a short walk away in another beautifully converted Exchange District jewel. This is where ideas with real potential come to scale up as efficiently as possible. For around $150 to $200 per month, startups can rent desk space alongside equally motivated service-based peers like Vine Multimedia, a small but full-service marketing agency fellow MTA members can access to brand their businesses to maximum advantage as they seek out angel investors, consequential clients and anyone else interested in helping to grow their businesses. Among other promising ventures, this accelerator is currently home to up-and-coming digital advertising firm AdVolve Media and entertainment-focused Fannex, which lets spectators become an intimate part of a live event via their smartphones.

It’s at this stage that startup financing becomes a real concern for innovators like these, so where can they turn for help? As it happens, they just need to wander over to a corner of the MTA space that houses the Winnipeg branch of Futurpreneur Canada, a non-profit organization funded both publically and privately that provides financing, mentoring and support tools to aspiring business owners aged 18 to 39. Loans of up to $17,000 can get the ball rolling for these firms, which can then lead to further financing from other entities. The proof is in the pudding: of the 105 businesses funded to date, Futurpreneur Canada’s local arm boasts a 95 per cent success rate.

PO-MO Inc., another Innovation Alley success story, shows off one of its interactive floor projections at its Albert Street office

PO-MO Inc., another Innovation Alley success story, shows off one of its interactive floor projections at its Albert Street office