Incubating Indigenous talent in tech and science

Joelle Foster, CEO at North Forge Technology Exchange
Joelle Foster, CEO at North Forge Technology Exchange

Technology is integral to modern life, and it’s disrupting businesses and industries daily. It’s also creating ways for people to step into entrepreneurship—and building opportunities for those who may not have seen themselves as founders.

Ivy Châtelain is a 26-year-old Indigenous tech founder who has spent the last three years building her startup. “A friend of mine cares for their elderly grandmother with dementia, and she ‘got out’ one day, as can happen with patients like her,” says Chȃtelain. “Their grandmother was gone with nothing but her clothing and her hearing aids.” After a frantic day-long search, the hysterical and terrified woman was found after midnight at the train station by a good Samaritan. 

The incident had Chȃtelain thinking about how the situation could be avoided again. Inspiration struck with the hearing aids. What if there was a way to track her friend’s grandmother and people like her through hearing aids? Would an app also work to help people keep track of such a vital health aid in less extreme circumstances? 

Chȃtelain began to explore the idea. “I knew that there would be others, say parents of children with hearing aids, that would also be interested in ensuring their kids and their devices are safe.” Her passion for the idea also comes from a desire to help people with disabilities have a place in the mainstream market. “I am also autistic, and I know what it’s like to navigate the world when you’re ‘different’,” she says. “This is one way I can help bring the market to people who need it.”


Tech founder Ivy Châtelain
Tech founder Ivy Châtelain

She got to work on the idea and shifted gears from her acting career into becoming a tech founder. Châtelain developed a business plan for Foundit, an app that uses Bluetooth technology to track hearing aids, with the help of Equal Opportunities West. She then entered the Founders Program at North Forge Technology Exchange, and today, she’s working with Microsoft on her app and planning for an early 2023 launch. 

“I can’t thank North Forge, and Joelle Foster, enough for the help to get my idea and my company off the ground,” she says. “The support system, the mentors and the advice has been incredibly helpful. Plus, if my work can help inspire one other person who is different like me, that’s amazing in and of itself.”

North Forge Technology Exchange
North Forge Technology Exchange is a business incubator accelerator for science-based, technology-enabled, and advanced manufacturing startups. It started in Winnipeg, where it has 27,000 square feet of space and runs North America’s largest not-for-profit fabrication lab. Since its inception, it has worked with over 370 startups, and has expanded to Manitoba’s north to build even more companies and focus on Indigenous entrepreneurs.

“Nearly 75 per cent of Northern Manitoba residents are Indigenous, and an even higher percentage live in Thompson and surrounding communities,” says North Forge CEO Joelle Foster. “We have entered into discussions and meetings with people and organizations in the North with a desire to listen and seek to understand their hopes, dreams, challenges and opportunities.”

Since their move into Thompson and the opening of its newest fabrication lab—FabLab—they have seen their membership triple in just two months. “We have no hidden agenda except to help others, so by extending invitations to come by our new facility and tell us in what ways the expansion of North Forge might also meet their needs into the community we have developed respectful trusting relationships,” says Foster. Many North Forge staff also have roots in the North.  FabLab Operations Coordinator, Don Glenn (aka Shorty) lives in Thompson with his family, regional director Rick Martin has had a family cabin outside The Pas for 39 years and spends every spring and summer in the North, and one of the Entrepreneurs-in-Residence, Jerome Conaty, lives in The Pas. 

Foster herself was born in The Pas, lived in Churchill in her early years and comes from a family of entrepreneurs who started businesses in the community in the past. “There is a strong commitment to make a difference in the North because of the strong relationships we have with the North,” says Foster. 

North Forge is always looking for ways to connect Indigenous founders with the larger business community. “As a not-for-profit, our funds and human resources are limited, but we strive to build quality relationships. We have partnered with many local businesses who have provided materials, supplies, equipment and resources, which will enable us to better expand into Indigenous communities,” Foster says “We ask the Manitoba business community to continue supporting us as we build out the resources and programming that Indigenous founders need.”


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