Canada 2017

The Arctic startup that's bringing tech to the North — and keeping it there

For a tech company that constantly faces poor connectivity online, Pinnguaq has always been good at finding creative solutions.

Pinnguaq is Inuktitut for 'play' — and teaching code to kids

Ryan Oliver is the owner and lead producer/designer with Pinnguaq. (Pinnguaq)

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High-speed internet access is an issue in many remote places in Canada. But trying to run a tech company in Iqaluit really tests the limits of what's possible.

"Getting online is our biggest problem," says Ryan Oliver, owner and lead producer/designer with Pinnguaq, one of Canada's first Arctic startups. Oliver started Pinnguaq as a non-profit dedicated to building games and other apps in Indigenous languages. It has since grown, creating curriculums to teach youth in Nunavut about the video games industry and how to code through their program te(a)ch.

Pinnguaq, whose name means "play" in Inuktitut, now has offices in Nunavut, Ontario and British Columbia — which menas scheduled online meetings are essential for the offices to communicate, even if they aren't easy to orchestrate.

One app-happy Inuit youth (and Pinnguaq owner and designer with Ryan Oliver at work in the background). (Pinnguaq)

"More often than not, Nunavut comes into the call, then jumps out, comes in, then the broadband dies. I think that's a fair criticism of us and an issue that we have to deal with is how we can make things better for our Nunavut employees given those limitations," says Oliver.

Such limitations force creativity though, and when Oliver was starting up in the Inuit hamlet of Pangnirtung, he had to work with the knowledge that sending large files over the internet there was not possible. "If your file is bigger than 50 MB, it's going to take too long to transfer it, and so I was forced to make everything small," says Oliver. "Our first app as a result of that was 16 MB, and you end up making these design decisions built around this idea: number one, we have to make this small; number two, it has to be useable."

Nunavut youth getting their code on during te(a)ch sessions. (Pinnguaq)

In a province where computer science classes tend to focus on how to use computers for government jobs, such as creating documents in Microsoft Word, Pinnguaq offered something unique and exciting. It also created real opportunities for young people in a place where those can be sorely lacking. "Our three Nunavut staff that we have right now came out of our courses," says Oliver. "We've been able to directly employ people."

Talia Metuq, for instance, took Pinnguaq's first programming course — a five day electronic sync-up with Electronic Arts in Burnaby — when she was only 18-years-old and just graduating high school.

Oliver notes that Metuq's participation was supported by a scholarship.

"She got really into it, and ended up going to school in British Columbia for animation and 3D modeling," says Oliver. "And when she came back we were able to hire her."

We can be facilitators for the creation of something really amazing.

As Pinnguaq became more successful as both a tech company and in its not-for-profit endeavors, Oliver had to set up offices elsewhere in order to be sustainable. "The hardest thing about the Nunavut side is the cost of living there. It's nearly impossible  to run a sustainable operation there unless you are in mining or government," he says. The company does advertising work for large clients "just to keep the bills paid," says Oliver. "Because the sustainability of the Nunavut side of the business is a constant challenge."

Oliver and company find time for analog games, too. (Pinnguaq)

Despite the many issues that come with doing business in a place as remote as Iqaluit, there are rewards beyond knowing they are doing good in that community. "If we can constantly challenge ourselves and bring in people that a tech company wouldn't necessarily think of bringing in, we're allowing the type of storytelling that's really unique, but extremely competitive too, to be shared with the world," he says. "From a sustainability side of things, that's going to bring more eyeballs to it."

As challenging as it is, Oliver intends to keep working in Nunavut, because he sees it as a vitally important part of what makes his business successful.  "At the end of the day we are a tech company that can do work at a really high level, and part of our business is devoted to sharing that with a community that a lot of us are really devoted and attached to," he says. "For us, a big part of it continues to be that we can be facilitators for the creation of something really amazing."

The sustainability of the  Nunavut  side of the business is a constant challenge.

In the near future, that creation includes an Inuktitut book-reading app, a medical app targeted at doctors and nurses entering the territory, multiple VR projects for both the Canada 150 venture Sesqui and imagineNATIVE Film & Media Arts Festival and at least two other game projects that they will announce this summer.

With these multiple projects on the go, Oliver says they also continue to be true to the company's roots and are working on the expansion of the te(a)ch program. "This program will always be at the core of everything we do moving forward to ensure we build a sustainable community of computer science and game development across Nunavut." 

About the Author

Freelance writer Lola Augustine Brown moved to Canada in 2004, but was born in England and has lived in the U.S. and Australia. She loves her adopted homeland and is settled in Nova Scotia with her husband, three kids, two dogs and 12 chickens.

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