As if on cue, there were some amazing examples this week of why the Silicon Valley online tech magazine, TechCrunch, recently wrote that Winnipeg's tech sector was a model for other communities.

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This article was published 7/4/2017 (1661 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

As if on cue, there were some amazing examples this week of why the Silicon Valley online tech magazine, TechCrunch, recently wrote that Winnipeg's tech sector was a model for other communities.

Red River College held its first annual Applied Research Day on Thursday and 30 student groups pitched their projects, all vying for thousands of dollars in prizes.

Michael Ness by the Pixel Box, a student display at the first annual Applied Research and Innovation Day event at Red River College’s Notre Dame Campus that he co-created.</p>

Michael Ness by the Pixel Box, a student display at the first annual Applied Research and Innovation Day event at Red River College’s Notre Dame Campus that he co-created.

It's not news that RRC is focused on applied research, but it has never held such a public demonstration of its commitment to that mode of learning. Many companies have partnered with RRC in applied research projects but it has the capacity to do much more.

Brent Wennekes, one of the organizers of the event, said, "We see applied research being the best learning opportunity we can provide students."

And on Friday, RRC's progressive entrepreneurship course — called the Ace Project — is opening a large new space in partnership with North Forge Technology Exchange, the busy Innovation Alley startup incubator down the way from RRC's Princess Street campus.

Ace Project lines up four or five students to work with an entrepreneur for four months to develop a real business. Yes, it's free labour for the business, but they get to hone their technology skills and they get a dose of the real-life multi-tasking every entrepreneur needs to perform. The program is booked solid.

It's all a very purposeful demonstration of how RRC and North Forge and many other players in the ecosystem play a role in the economic development of the city. It just may be the secret sauce that made TechCrunch say, "Winnipeg’s commitment to cultivating tech companies is unique."

Chris Johnson, the CEO of Permission Click, one of handful of growing Winnipeg tech companies on the verge of hitting it big in the North American market, said the support that exists for new companies in Winnipeg today is like another world compared to a decade ago.

"I majored in entrepreneurship," he said. "When I came out of University of Manitoba 10 years ago there was nothing. I had to get a job at Great-West Life and save money because I did not have $2 million which is how the U of M made you write your business plan in those days. The kids coming out today are lucky."

Johnson is not begrudging their good fortune. As a founding board member of North Forge like many others he is pulling for them as is Paul Vogt, president of RRC who said bluntly that RRC is changing the way it teaches. 

"We're trying to bring companies into the classrooms," Vogt said. "The best way to keep our students on the leading edge is to try to get businesses to share their challenges and then challenge our students to work on solutions. It is an answer for us to the challenge that all post-secondary education has -- how to keep up with workplaces that are transformed by technology."

University of Winnipeg president, Annette Trimbee was sitting with Vogt at the final pitch competition at RRC's Applied Research Day. The U of W is definitely part of the process, having recently formed a partnership with the University of Manitoba's technology transfer office. It makes intellectual property invented at the universities much more accessible to business for commercialization than was ever the case in the past.

The Winnipeg technology ecosystem is getting very good at lowering the cost of commercialization.

North Forge's fabrication lab (the makerspace formerly called AssentWorks) has made product prototyping super inexpensive. In addition to the new Ace Project space opening tomorrow, North Forge is also holding an open house for its expanded Advanced ICT lab and a new user experience lab.

Jeff Ryzner, the CEO of North Forge said with the help of Western Economic Diversification and other of its partners, it has recently invested about $1 million in hardware and software licences that North Forge members use for free.

Among other things it is launching its own cloud infrastructure.

"Products like Amazon's cloud are extremely expensive," he said. "We have invested in infrastructure that will allow our startups to get a similar service cheaper than anywhere in North America."

Some larger companies in town are already queing up to get access to North Forge's new user experience lab. It will potentially save some false starts and addi another unique piece to the process of nurturing and sustaining a home-grown tech sector.

Because, as Ryzner said, "It's my experience that startups usually have just about enough money to do it right the first time."


Martin Cash

Martin Cash

Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.

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