Ontario contest recognizes innovation, inventiveness

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Three 20-something entrepreneurs snagged the top prize in a contest meant to promote innovation among Ontario’s small, early-stage businesses.

At a function in Markham, Ont. last week, the trio’s company – Flatline Solutions Inc. (FSI) – was awarded the grand-prize after being named the business most likely to grow within the next year.

The three young founders of FSI have developed a Web-based system that enables consumers and operators to read data from smart meters.

The contest, dubbed Markham Space Race, was held to encourage entrepreneurs across the province to think “Growth and Innovation” in planning the future of their businesses. Judges picked FSI of Pickering, Ont. over more than 200 contestants.

The grand prize consists of a furnished and wired, 1,000-square-foot “Class A” office space for a year in the Town of Markham, and is worth $50,000, the organizers said.

FSI provided the most compelling growth strategy, noted Mike Egan, who was one of the judges.

“Almost all the contestants presented good business plans, but Flatline was right on the money,” said Egan, who is founder of portal and document management software firm InSystems Corp. of Markham.

Another judge echoed his sentiments.

“These three young men had clearly scoped their market,” said Eileen Fischer, professor, Schulich School of Business, York University in Toronto.

The FSI founders were also very smart in seeking advice from experts outside their organization “to provide knowledge in areas they did not specialize in,” Fischer added.

FSI administers a network of more than 7,000 metering points in Canada and the U.S.

Readings from electricity, water and gas smart meters are delivered to utility operators and consumers via secured transmission control protocol/Internet protocol (TCP/IP) over the Internet. The company says its system provides high-speed, two-way, 24/7 connectivity to each meter for effective energy management.

While 7,000 metering points might seem small, there are strong indications the adoption of smart meters in North America will grow dramatically in the near future.

In Ontario, Premier Dalton McGuinty has charged the Ontario Energy Board (OEB) with overseeing the deployment of such meters in homes within the province by the end 2007. Some 4.3 million electric meters in the province’s commercial facilities are also scheduled to be upgraded to smart meters by 2010.

The three FSI principals – Shawn Lim, Neel Parikh and Zaid Mian –were high school buddies at Woburn Collegiate in Scarborough, Ont.

They expect to face stiff competition from some U.S.-based companies that will be bidding for government contracts to establish smart meter reading networks. Lim is confident FSI is up to the challenge. “We’re already serving clients in Canada and our biggest competitor’s system still operates on DOS (disk operating system).”

Winning the contest has provided FSI with much needed exposure and publicity. “Now people in the industry will also know we’re serious and credible,” said Parikh.

Rescue 7 Inc. , a Markham-based first aid supplies and training firm, placed second. Third place went to Valt. X Technologies Inc. http://www.valtx.com/ of Toronto, a developer of security chips that enable computers to instantly recover from virus attacks.

The two companies received $18,000 and $12,000 respectively, in business consulting and professional services designed to accelerate the growth of their businesses.

The Markham Space Race idea was hatched by Jim Brown, a sales rep for Toronto-based commercial real estate firm Colliers International Inc. and several of his friends during a game of hockey last year.

The contest was premised on encouraging companies formulate a growth strategy by offering attractive prizes as an incentive.

“Too often entrepreneurs are so focused on the technology they are developing, or the service they are providing that they forget a business needs a plan to grow,” said Bob Glandfield, president and CEO of the non-profit business advisory organization Innovation Synergy Centre in Markham (ISCM).

The contest is also seen as a promotional vehicle for the town of Markham which has been described as the technology hub of the province.

“We want the small and medium business (SMB) community to realize our town is a great place to put up a company,” said Stephen Chait, director, economic development, development services commission, Markham.

Chait said the town of Markham’s image as Canada tech centre began when IBM moved its Toronto research and development facilities to Markham in 1982.

However, SMBs have recently formed a strong tech cluster in Markham. “Of the more than 910 high tech companies in the town only about half have more than 200 employees,” said Chait.

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