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Pinnguaq’s success helps spread success

Never a dull day at Pinnguaq, the small technology and tech-education company that launched in Pangnirtung, and has since expanded with offices in Vancouver, B.C. and Lindsay, Ont.

Pinnguaq, a small technology company which had its start in Pangnirtung, received the Social Enterprise Award from Startup Canada in Ottawa Oct. 19. From left, social media intern Hailey Bennett, project manager Ted Gerry and lead artist Brandon Bunnie. photo courtesy of Pinnguaq

In September, Startup Canada honoured the small company with the Social Enterprise Award, meant to recognize its work in the North. On Oct. 19, at the Shaw Centre in Ottawa, Pinnguaq won that same award nationally.

Pinnguaq's focus is high-quality technology experiences in a variety of formats, with a focus on the culture and social growth of Indigenous communities, and incorporating play and gaming into wide-reaching applications that can benefit tourism, education and economic development. It is two-pronged: a not-for-profit association and a company.

"Pinnguaq received the 2017 Social Enterprise Award for their outstanding contribution to the communities of the North. Whether it is providing computers to schools, developing apps, or creating curriculum for Northerners, they are leveraging technology to have a positive impact in the North," said Startup Canada chief executive officer and co-founder Victoria Lennox.

"The adjudication committee was impressed with Pinnguaq for using technology as a means of sharing stories, preserving language, and culture, especially with the number of Indigenous languages that are perishing. Pinnguaq really embodies what this award is about and we are so honored to have presented them as the 2017 winner."

The company received "a cool statue," along with the recognition, said Ryan Oliver, who founded the company in Pangnirtung in 2012.

"The idea (of the award) is best start-up with that balance of profit and not-for-profit initiatives. You're pushing technology and industry forward, but at the same time bringing people with it," Oliver said.

"It's not unfettered capitalism."

This recognition come almost a year after Oliver and his crew won a $400,000 Arctic Inspiration Prize for its te(a)ch project – which is on-line infrastructure that will teach programming, game design, engineering and computer science to students at beginner and advanced levels in Nunavut.

"Pinnguaq has grown significantly in the last year, really since winning that Arctic Inspiration Prize. We now have nine full-time staff, and we're on the verge of being able to employ another 12 people over the next year," said Oliver.

"It's not just three people in a basement trying to get a million projects done. We actually have the staff now to be able to focus on stuff."

A 'Tube' for Inuktitut

That level of staffing means Pinnguaq can add new side projects to its roster, such as the recently launched Inuktitube.

"It's an idea we've had for a very long time, and never found the time to put together," said Oliver. "When we first started putting it together a month or two ago I looked at the old design documents I'd done in 2012."

Oliver says he was influenced by an app calls KidsTube.

"The idea is YouTube is full of a lot of junk and tangents. I think there's like 150 million hours of content uploaded every day. It's easy to get really lost and find a lot of amateur low-quality stuff."

Taking a page from KidsTube, Inuktitube functions with YouTube as host, but organizes content on – extracting from YouTube, but vetted and approved.

"With Inuktitut content, it can be very difficult to find anything that's genuinely good and useful. It's not categorized in any way that's meaningful. It's kind of hit and miss," Oliver said.

Roughly 70 videos were curated for the launch, with categories such as Traditional Knowledge and Inuktitut music.

"The idea is it can grow organically as people find stuff and help us keep it up-to-date. Anyone can submit videos at any time. There's a two-second vetting process, where we just have to approve it – in case someone submits stuff that isn't relevant to the site," said Oliver.

Meanwhile, Pinnguaq waits on big news. The company will soon hear whether it will receive federal-government support to expand the te(a)ch deployment to almost every community in Nunavut in the next year-and-a-half.
"The biggest issue with te(a)ch is a lack of sustainability. In Pangnirtung it was easy enough. We could run a course and we'd still be in the community to keep it going. But when we went to Arviat and Baker Lake … when we leave the knowledge leaves with us," said Oliver.

"So we're creating 100 lessons of curriculum. They will exist on-line and off-line, and there will be graduated learning, and available to anyone to use for free. The idea being, we can go into a community and train really high-skilled youth and leave them with all the curriculum so they can start these clubs themselves and keep them running."

Oliver is hoping to hear in the next couple of weeks.

"If we don't get approved, the announcement will just be tears."