What do techno fashion, retail incubation and a meeting of chic geeks have in common? All three Calgary groups are part of a new wave of smaller, community-based innovation hubs sweeping across Alberta.
Unlike their larger regional and big-city counterparts, these lean and lively hubs of originality are often fully self funded, or receive modest grants, and apply their brilliance to specialized areas that help Alberta’s economy grow but are not always focused on technology. But like other startup hubs, they gather together in one space to create, share and test novel concepts.
Take Fuse33 for example. In an almost 9,000 square foot space on Radisson Drive SE in Calgary, a group of makers congregate for what manager Shannon Hoover describes as a serendipitous sharing of ideas. “New ideas come out of conversations,” he says. “We believe innovation is born out of diversity.”
Members working in areas as varied as electronic prototyping, welding, fashion, woodworking, and prop and costume design pay monthly memberships ranging from $60 to $130 to access the maker space. In exchange, they gain access to tools, sewing and electronic labs, and get discounts on specific courses and certifications on embroidery machines, 3D printers and computer numerical control (CNC) machines. It’s one of several maker spaces in Alberta, many of which are in schools and have replaced shop and home economics with project-based learning.
Fuse33 is part of a world-wide maker movement, Hoover says, that speaks to a need in everyone to build things. As a kid who grew up on an Alberta farm fixing equipment as needed, he understands why they’ve become more popular in North America. “People want to get back to using their hands to create,” he says.” Hoover believes it’s all part of a pendulum swing back from mass manufacturing to hand-crafted items stemming from a growing concern over our throw-away society. Europe, on the other hand, has maintained its maker culture through fabrication labs or maker fairs, which are held regularly in the United Kingdom.
According to Hoover, makers are attracted to Fuse33 because it offers them an opportunity to share their ideas and often figure out how to build tech into their product/process. They’re not quite ready to open their own space, he says, but here they can perform low-risk experimentation before they scale up and hire employees.
Hoover’s company, MakeFashion, is a prime example. Working alongside artists, fashion designers and techies led him to wearable technology. Today, he produces wedding dresses with glowing sparkles, auroras and even with butterflies that light up and fly, clothes that pulse to music for festival lovers and performance pieces for musicians all over the world. He has presented his work at more than 65 runway shows across Europe, North America and China and is gearing up for others in Japan and South Korea. He’s also passing on his skills to the younger generation by teaching junior high students how to incorporate electronics into plastic fabric for a dress project they’re designing to make a statement about damage to our oceans.
Also working in the Fuse33 space is a woodworker who incorporates LEDs into tables made from recycled wood and resin and a prop designer who uses technology to light up props for such high-profile movies as "Star Trek" and "Alien vs. Predator."
The maker space is part of a business revitalization zone (BRZ) in Calgary that’s using social innovations to boost its cultural district’s economy. Executive director Alison Karim McSwiney sat down with dozens of area residents (many of which are immigrants) to learn the secret to their business success, reviewed business licences and explored home-based concerns. She combined the study results together with insights she learned about key U.S incubators in Oakland, California, to create EmergeHub. The group offers business development advice to existing east Calgary BRZ businesses, which includes everything from business plan development to marketing through local partnership groups BRZ, Momentum, Thrive, and the Alberta Community and Co-operative Association.
As an example of a novel approach, EmergeHub developed an incubator program for retailers who don’t want to sign long-term leases until they’ve tested the market. “We cut one large sea container into two with windows and a door and parked them on the busiest side of the street to test our client’s products,” explains McSwiney. She admits it was a tough project because they had to figure out how to make half of a sea container meet local building regulations. For food retailers, her group sourced a commercial kitchen where they could test the feasibility of their creations and set up food tours to bring their products to market.
In April of 2017, the province threw its support behind EmergeHub by giving it a $300,000 grant under the Community and Regional Economic Support (CARES) program to enhance the hub’s annual Emerge Summer Market, to expand the BRZ’s social innovation activities and promote the district’s ethnic restaurants and retail stores.
McSwiney judges her success partly by the number of entrepreneurs who come through her door, but mostly by economic growth. Over the last two years, 17 new businesses and 13 home-based entrepreneurs set up shop in her community and one incubated retailer has moved to a bricks and mortar shop. Last year, more than 1700 people took part in EmergeHub’s programs, 548 attended workshops and 111 vendors took part in the Emerge Market.
While EmergeHub focuses on a largely ethnic community, Chic Geek is more interested in women in technology. Kylie Woods started the group in 2013 after discovering that less than 30 percent of Calgary’s tech workforce was female. Looking into the possibility of shifting her career to software development she wondered, “Where are my people? Where do I fit in?”
Chic Geek started out with a $5,000 budget, but today gets most of its funding from corporate sponsorships involving companies such as Cisco Systems, Benevity Inc., Clio and the Alberta Treasury Branch. It gets some grants from the Alberta Status of Women ministry and Labour Market Partnership programs. Still, Woods remains the only employee and is supported by 40 dedicated women and men volunteers, all of whom work out of their own spaces spread across the city.
Today, the hub has a following of 10,000 people who have access to as many as 25 annual events, including a Geeky Summit that attracted 230 participants last year. Woods says the group’s purpose is to build a supportive network for women that acts as a launchpad into the broader world of startups and technology. Many of the members she sees at networking events such as Meetntech are women in intermediate positions interested in pursuing novel challenges to take their careers to a new level.
“We’re all about creating a supportive cross-pollination space where women can share ideas, access mentors and sponsors,” says Woods, “but pure tech does not always serve as our focus.”