Innovate or fade away, tech experts tell IT firms

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“Innovation is essential to a tech company’s survival” and “Google is a role model for innovation”…these two key messages emerged from a panel discussion by a bunch of tech executives in Toronto yesterday.

The discussion was part of the opening session at this year’s Centre for Advances Studies Conference (CASCON) being held in the city.

Hosted by the IBM Centers for Advanced Studies, CASCON is an annual eventthat brings together scientists, students, entrepreneurs, developers and technology industry experts. Participants share ideas, learnings and best practices in a series of workshops and forums.

Panelists noted that Google had succeeded in creating a company environment that fosters innovation. “The best place to be for an innovator is Google,” said Elliot Noss, president and CEO of Internet software developer and download site Tucows Inc. in Toronto.

Another panelist echoed this sentiment. “Google [has] managed to create an environment that’s both challenging and fun,” according to Andrew Trossman, co-founder of Canadian automation software maker ThinkDynamics Inc., acquired in 2003 by IBM.

It’s the practice of innovation that enables start ups to compete effectively with companies that have been around much longer, and far greater resources, panelists noted.

Innovation is essential for the survival of many start ups, said Pierre Berini, founder of Spectalis Corp. an optical subsystems provider based in Napean, Ont. He said new firms that innovate often manage to get around patents set up by larger companies, and it helps startups adjust to a changing market.

While many panelists cited Google as the paradigm for “innovation”, keynote speaker Steve Bourne had a word of caution. The pace of innovation at Google might not be appropriate for other organizations, said Bourne, chief technical officer at El Dorado Ventures of Menlo Park, Calif.

He said some companies may have “risk adverse” clients who want to stick with tried and tested technology.

Bourne, whose company provides venture capital funding to technology-based companies, said he also noticed that investment on technology has been slowing down and “has not been as significant as it was 10 years ago.”

Noss and Trossman agreed, and added that some recent innovations are actually re-applications of existing technology or the amalgamation of several technologies to address a new need.

Bourne said industries might be concentrating on “innovations of yesterday that have become the platform [of] today.” For instance, he said, the Internet has become the take off point for a lot of products and services that are flooding the marketplace.

Bourne cited open source technology as “one of the most significant innovations in recent years.” Open source, he said, has changed the cost structure of markets and the way things are being developed.

To foster innovation, panelists suggested that even larger organizations should think like a small company. “It’s harder for large companies to innovate as they have lots of innovation anti-bodies…people who say no,” quipped Brian Barry, CEO of Bedarra Research Labs Ltd. an Ottawa-based computing research and development firm.

Other panelists echoed this observation. “You almost have to force innovation in large organizations because everything goes through a longer process,” said Mahshad Koohgoli, CEO of Nimcat Networks Inc. a peer-to-peer software company acquired by Avaya Inc. Trossman of ThinkDynamics called upon organizations to create a sharing and collaborative environment. He said one way to do this is to open up a portal where developers can exchange ideas and discover opportunities to join a project that might appeal to them.

Panelists emphasized that for innovation must also be made a fun thing, should be built into company culture. Innovators, they said, need to be challenged as well as supported, and money is not the only reward.

Berini also cautioned against overplanning, which he said could be sometimes be an obstacle to timely action. “Just do it, push things as far as you can go.”

His advice for managers: “Assemble a good team, point it at the right direction and get out of the way.”

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