Prince about to go up Innovation Alley

Downtown hub plans to keep it real for visit

Byline: Martin Cash

There won’t be high tea or a fancy white-tie soiree happening when Prince Charles and his entourage go up to the third floor of a grungy Exchange District warehouse building during his one-day visit to Winnipeg May 21.

What he will find will be 50 or 60 eager young entrepreneurs and craftsmen, some of whom have helped turn AssentWorks into what can now be considered a world-renowned makerspace.

The prince is likely to leave with sawdust on his brogues.

Volunteer-founded and run, AssentWorks is full of equipment such as high-tech laser cutters and 3D printers. Close to 150 active members of the city’s growing cohort of new entrepreneurs are churning out prototypes and new designs.

The prince’s visit is being advertised as a trip to Innovation Alley, the assumed name of the strip of Adelaide Street from McDermot Avenue to William Avenue where it hits the downtown campus of Red River College.

As well as RRC, the two-block strip includes AssentWorks and RampUp Manitoba (its information-technology partner that shares the space), the Manitoba Technology Accelerator, the cyber-security firm Seccuris, ACI Manitoba (the Arts and Cultural Industries Association of Manitoba) and the Canadian Youth Business Foundation (CYBF).

Joelle Foster, the irrepressible head of the CYBF office in Winnipeg, was the one who pitched the province’s protocol office to get the prince to see what’s happening in the startup community in Winnipeg.

A dynamic is shaping up in which RRC students can go to RampUp or AssentWorks and flesh out their idea to see if it will work. Once validated, they can apply for funding from CYBF and, if it makes sense, hook up with the incubator and accelerator and take the product to market.

Dwight McCawley, the head of protocol for the province, said his office gets dozens of pitches from organizations and companies to entice a royal visit. He said there was already a good awareness of AssentWorks.

“There’s some magic happening there,” he said.

Foster knew first-hand it’s something that’s in Prince Charles’ wheelhouse. He is the benefactor of Youth Business International and Foster represented Canada at a YBI event in London last September.

“He really challenges business leaders to make a difference in their communities,” Foster said.

The AssentWorks crowd is not the type that cleans up well at the best of times, and Foster said the protocol people luckily told them not to worry about the bare-bones look of the place.

“The prince wants reality,” Foster said. “His visit with us is going to be truly grassroots. I think he will enjoy our visit the most. He will be with young people who are innovative and creative and truly making a difference in the community.”

Not to say there are others who aren’t, Foster added, but the energy and charm at AssentWorks is unmistakable.

David Bernhardt, the Winnipeg industrial designer, is one of the three founders of AssentWorks, along with Michael Legary and Kerry Stevenson. Chris Johnson, of RampUp Manitoba, joins the three on a new board of directors being created that will also include representation from sponsors including Princess Auto, the Eureka Project and Western Economic Diversification, which invested close to $500,000 last year for new equipment.

“We’re excited,” Bernhardt said of the royal visit. “We never thought anything like this would happen.”

He said while the RCMP and the prince’s advance people have been checking out the premises, it hasn’t caused any more mayhem than is the norm.

“It’s a pretty busy place,” Bernhardt said. “This week alone we’re having 15 tours going on outside the normal Tuesday-night open house.”

As befitting a facility that gives everyone free run of the equipment with not a boss in sight, everyone gets the same tour.

“There’s really no preference,” he said. “It’s neutral territory. Whether you’re a CEO or a student, we try to keep a neutral mindset for everyone.”

But he said the prince’s tour will probably be a little quicker than most. It will focus on the stories and the people rather than the equipment that attracts many of the members.

“It will be about the effect AssentWorks has on the community and the world,” Bernhardt said.

And it is interesting what kind of effect Innovation Alley is having.

As Foster said: “They want the prince to see what makes Winnipeg tick. This is what the city is evolving into. It’s growing and very innovative.”

Winnipeg Free Press | Winnipeg, Manitoba