Jim Elliot/Salmon Arm Observer Chad Shipmaker and Lana Fitt stand in front of the soon-to-be open Salmon Arm Innovation Centre on Shuswap Street.

Innovation centre sparks excitement

Salmon Arm facility looking to become a hub for technology, business development.

Excitement is brewing in the brightly coloured building that’s made its presence known on Shuswap Street.

Not just a pretty facade, it will be home to the Salmon Arm Innovation Centre, a hub for the technology sector, business start-ups, innovation and collaboration for entrepreneurs.

The idea of the Innovation Centre has been evolving for the last several years, says Lana Fitt, manager for the Salmon Arm Economic Development Society. It began with tech tables, where tech companies would talk about ways to expand Salmon Arm’s ‘tech cluster.’

Something of a best-kept secret, 77 tech companies are located in Salmon Arm, says board member Chad Shipmaker, who joined the project as chair last summer.

“It’s a bit of an unknown, something we’re trying to elevate. There are another 60 in the Shuswap. It’s a unique aspect of our community.”

He undertook a feasibility study and business plan for the centre. Senior staff or owners of leading industry companies in Salmon Arm were interviewed.

“That’s where we heard very clearly, almost without exception, every successful (tech) company in Salmon Arm started in Salmon Arm.”

So the focus has been on expanding what is already happening in the area.

“Making sure students have exposure to technology as a career opportunity. We knew we were going to be challenged by competing with other urban centres – our biggest opportunity was building from within,” he says.

A lot of innovation came out of Newnes’ wood processing equipment and systems, he says. In Trail, a similar “creation story” happened for Tech Cominco, with complementary businesses originating there.

Research also involved visiting other makerspaces in B.C. An online survey attracted 600 respondents in 72 hours.

Key points gleaned from meetings and interviews were the importance of attracting and retaining talent, particularly young talent. Through meetings with a cross-section of the community including the school district, Okanagan College and Community Futures, demands were crystallized and opportunities pinpointed.

Already people have been touring the building, excited by the promise it holds.

“At the provincial level, they’re very keen on innovation; it’s a bit of a buzzword… I can say unequivocally, the gist of what’s going in here gets people excited – it’s like motherhood and apple pie. The challenge is, it’s receiving so much interest, we have to be disciplined about which ones to pursue,” says Shipmaker.

Fitt and Shipmaker made a presentation at the Union of BC Municipalities convention in September, which ramped up interest.

Related link: Bright spot added to Salmon Arm street

There are three floors on the building, each different but related. On the ground floor is the Community Makerspace, user-led and membership driven, providing access to shared equipment, knowledge and expertise. Members will pay a monthly fee or drop-in rate, just like a swimming pool or gym, Shipmaker says. There could be woodworking, electronics, robotics, possibly sound and animation.

“We’ve done a survey recently about the kinds of things users would want. We’re trying to create the opportunity where people could get access where they didn’t before,” he says.

The school district provides such opportunities as coding and learning electronics. After students graduate, some stay in town.

“That’s the demographic we have in mind; a place for youth in the community to continue to explore innovative technologies. Also newly retired people who have downsized.”

Perhaps they might learn robotics, or how to use a 3-D printer.

“We’re creating the backbone and structure around it – tailoring it to what we’re hearing from the community. Over time it will evolve due to people’s wants.”

The main floor will be quite a different.

Shipmaker refers to what’s called a hot desk.

“If you’re in town, you’re going houseboating and you’re an executive of Apple and you need a secretary and a meeting room, you can get a hot desk,” he says.

“I moved home and I was terribly unproductive – I had two young children. It’s a place where you could go and access free wifi, a boardroom, meeting rooms and, beyond that, a community. It means when you get off a call and come out to have a coffee, there are other people you can talk to. It’s a reason to get up and shower in the morning.”

In addition, the main floor will include a business accelerator program, where businesses can have access to mentorship, investors and other support.

On the main floor will also be the offices of the Salmon Arm Economic Development Society, which will oversee what others need. EDS will be moving in Jan. 1, while the Makerspace floor is Phase 1.

On the third floor will be the anchor tenants – engineers, architects and accountants – professions that would be complementary to the community within.

I am getting more calls than we can address from people who want to be involved in some way,” he says.

“It’s really exciting. We have a database started of interested volunteers and their skill sets. And we’re having dialogue with different provincial ministries. There are so many opportunities.”

The whole Innovation Centre is expected to be up and running during the first quarter of 2018.

“We want to establish a hub for the community for cross-fertilization of ideas and innovation to support economic development and entrepreneurship in the community. This will be a vehicle for members of the community,” says Shipmaker. “Where it will lead is anybody’s guess.”

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