The recent announcement of the construction of the Okanagan Innovation Centre, to open in Kelowna in 2015, is one of many signs that our economy at large is trending towards investment in small, agile tech companies, or at least that institutional support for small entrepreneurs outside of the usual tech hubs and big urban centres is expanding.
Incubators, hubs and accelerators that may have seemed peripheral to the health of the economy just five years ago, such as Communitech in Waterloo, the MaRS building in Toronto and GrowLab in Vancouver, are increasingly seen as drivers of healthy local economies looking to join the 21st century and as models that can be replicated almost anywhere.
Not to mention that the economic impact these hubs have generated makes the prospect of investment by provincial and municipal governments in their development kind of a no-brainer.
“Building on the momentum of other downtown initiatives, Council’s priorities this term included exploring a technology centre to aid in the continuing revitalization of Downtown,” said Kelowna mayor Walter Gray. “The City supports driving the knowledge economy, innovation and entrepreneurship, which in turn will create high paying sustainable jobs.”
A 2012 Deloitte report estimated Communitech Hub’s economic impact at $14 generated per $1 of public money spent. Considering that Communitech’s goal when it opened in 2009 was to attract $100 million in equity investment for the companies under its roof, and that by 2012 it had attracted $350 million, the initiative would appear to be a success.
We’ve witnessed the remarkable benefits of densifying the eco-system in places like Boulder, Colorado and Austin, Texas and the success of similar innovation hubs such as Skysong in Arizona, and we couldn’t be more excited to see this project get off the ground in Kelowna.
Communitech’s success may partly be attributable to its first mover advantage, but it also signaled that dramatically interesting investment opportunities exist outside the usual venues. The question now is whether investors are willing to trek outside the already established pathways of Kitchener-Waterloo or downtown Toronto and expand their itineraries to include places like Kelowna.
While it probably helps that Kelowna already has an international airport, as well as a nascent tech scene and world-class academic infrastructure, the announcement for a new Innovation Centre represents a formal push to “promote, nurture, and support Kelowna as the most innovative, creative, and entrepreneurial technology and innovation community in Canada.” The Centre’s website puts forward a threefold purpose: driving growth, creating jobs and building community.
Construction on the 106,000 square-foot facility will begin this summer, with the first occupants slated to move in for autumn 2015.
The $35 million project is being funded by a consortium of private investors calling themselves the Kelowna Sustainable Innovation Group, and will be jointly sponsored in partnership with the city by Okanagan College, Accelerate Okanagan, the Central Okanagan Economic Development Commission, and the non-profit Kelowna Innovation Society.
Although the Innovation Centre’s emphasis will be on accelerating entrepreneurial tech companies, space will be shared with these other institutional stakeholders, with the Kelowna Innovation Society managing the actual allocation of available space to prospective start-ups, early stage companies and social enterprises.
“We’ve witnessed the remarkable benefits of densifying the eco-system in places like Boulder, Colorado and Austin, Texas and the success of similar innovation hubs such as Skysong in Arizona, and we couldn’t be more excited to see this project get off the ground in Kelowna,” said Jeff Keen, CEO of Accelerate Okanagan. “Strategic support for entrepreneurs and technology companies will further boost the region’s reputation as an attractive location for entrepreneurs and investors, and help us attract and keep skilled workers, something that’s good for the entire community.”
The future site for the Innovation Centre is currently a city-owned empty lot beside the downtown Kelowna branch of the Okanagan Region Library, at the intersection of Ellis Street and Doyle Avenue. The city is preparing a long-term lease for the new facility and says that current zoning laws allow for its six-storey height. The city also intends to retain ownership of the land, in exchange for a share in its development.
The Kelowna architectural firm Mieklejohn Architects Inc. intends to adhere to LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) principles and to install a rooftop garden with trees and a walking path. The building will also be connected to the library on the ground floor and first floor.
An open house explaining the project to the public and interested parties will be held May 28, from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the Okanagan Regional Library.