Blazing the Tech Trail in Metal Tech Alley
Metal Tech Alley Transforms Trail, BC
Photo Cutline: Fenix Advanced Materials purchases Teck by-products and creates ultra-high purity metals.
Written by Darcy Nybo
Posted in SOAR Magazine
Metal Tech Alley — a new, game-changing economic development marketing strategy — has brought jobs, new residents and a new way of doing business in Trail, BC.
This city saw a boom in the 1960s and by 1966, some 11,600 people lived there. It was the place to get a well-paid job in metal and mining at what is now known as Teck Metals.
However, like many other small, rural, resource-based communities, technology improvements over the years led to streamlined processes and a reduction in jobs. But today, with a population of just over 7,700 people, Trail is on the cusp of another boom, and this time it’s in technology, with a heaping helping of metal.
Located on both sides of the Columbia River in the West Kootenay region of BC, Metal Tech Alley is a regional approach to workforce and business attraction. It includes over 80 companies that are part of the Metal Tech Alley strategy — and many are growing.
Terry Van Horn, the executive director of the Lower Columbia Initiatives Corporation (LCIC), is thrilled at how well the strategy has been embraced and how much it has grown since its inception a mere two years ago. While many communities might aim to draw attention away from a smelter in the middle of town, LCIC took a different approach, deciding to use this key economic driver and all the technology advances to create a different story.
“By showcasing the technology advances that happen every day at Teck Metals and the innovative companies that support the advanced materials industry in this region, we get the chance to embrace our uniqueness and embrace tech and create a sustainable and technologically advanced community. And in doing so, we’ve branded the entire region as Metal Tech Alley.”
The companies of Metal Tech Alley have created a circular economy through this cluster approach to business. Each one helps the others in several ways, all for the greater good of the region; for example, they pool money for marketing and share collective expertise as well as their network of connections.
And as the organizations began to take a closer look at all the Metal Tech Alley assets in the Trail region, some interesting opportunities came to light.
“We realized that Teck Metals has many by-products that contain valuable precious metals, such as selenium, germanium and indium, which could potentially be further developed locally for other markets. We now have local entrepreneurs making a good business from these by-products,” said Van Horn. “Growth has been steady over the years… and to think it all started with us trying to figure out how to market our large area of flat, serviced industrial land.”
A significant player in the Metal Tech Alley strategy is MIDAS (Metallurgical Industrial Development Accelerations and Studies), an applied research, commercialization and digital fabrication training facility.
Brad Pommen, lab director, summed up MIDAS in a simple sentence: “We take ideas and turn them into physical things.” MIDAS is impressive with all its 2D and 3D printers, as well as laser cutters and computer numerical control machinery.
“We have almost half a million dollars in equipment here and entrepreneurs and students come from all over BC to use it and train on it. We’ve created prototypes for mining, forestry, agriculture and many more, including a snowboarding company that 3D-printed a new innovative binding. It was tested on the hill and re-printed with tweaks all in the same day.”
There are also several tech companies within MIDAS, including Fenix Advanced Materials, which purchases Teck by-products and creates ultra-high purity metals for use in semiconductors, solar panels, infrared cameras and some defense products like night vision goggles. Most of Fenix’s suppliers are Canadian companies, but its clients are worldwide. Currently Fenix is partnering with Teck, MIDAS and the Kootenay Association for Science and Technology to develop more products out of its facility.
Also located in the MIDAS facility is Austin Engineering. Led by the dynamic duo of Roger and Mary Austin, the company supports civil, structural, hydro-technical and geo-technical clients, taking an innovative approach to engineering. Among other things, they create 3D-printed hydraulic models, which are then used to construct hydro dams. One of these models received an award from Clean Energy BC. The energy and passion the Austins have brought to their clients and the region is contagious.
“We love what we do,” said Mary Austin. “Our clients are from all over Canada and we love the fact that Pacific Coastal Airlines can fly us and our clients in and out on a regular basis. Without them, we wouldn’t be able to thrive here. It’s great to walk down the street and have people stop us and tell us how happy they are that we opened our business in Trail.” She added, “There are so many people that have helped advanced Metal Tech Alley, and we couldn’t do it without them.”
Another integral part of the Metal Tech Alley strategy is the i4C Innovation Centre — a 46,000-square-foot lab, product and testing facility. Tenants can have their own space while taking advantage of the infrastructure, equipment and professional services. i4C is the brainchild of Pilar Portela, a globally known mover and shaker with a penchant for technology, and former CEO of Accelerate Okanagan in Kelowna.
Another Kelowna transplant is Alvaro Aragon, the communications and commercialization specialist at i4C. “I love living in Trail,” he said. “There’s plenty of hiking, biking, fishing and skiing here. It’s a great place to be if you love being this close to nature. That, and there’s no rush hour here!”
At i4C, he said, “We are the industrial portion of technology. Part of what we do is collect, process and analyze data — a lot of data. Companies looking for process improvements can use our expertise and our testing environment, including augmented reality and 3D modelling to quickly get the results, without spending thousands of hours and dollars on their own time and equipment.”
Executive assistant Cheryl Linkletter pointed out some of the other unique aspects of i4C, saying, “We are a business-to-business enterprise with a female, immigrant CEO, that is doing end-to-end solutions for all areas of industry, agriculture and mining. We bring together expertise and companies all working together under the i4C umbrella.”
After visiting the Trail region and some of the businesses of Metal Tech Alley, it is clear that through this regional approach to economic development, the growth here has just begun.