Strength in numbers

Canadian technology companies – especially these days – need all the help they can get. But there is help available, as long as you know where to look.

The difference between success and failure could depend on whether your company is involved in networking and partnerships with government organizations, universities or other businesses in the industry. With this in mind, the Aurora, Ont.-based technology advocacy group York Technology Association (YTA) recently hosted an event to give Canadian firms the opportunity to do just that.

Profiting Through Partnerships ’99, held in Richmond Hill, Ont., provided a forum for Ontario IT companies to evaluate partnership opportunities with federal labs and Ontario universities.

There is so much talk about the skills shortage in Canada, but you rarely hear about ways to access the resources that we do have, said Mark McAlister, director of networking programs for YTA.

“Companies have a very significant level of investment in IT research and development, but many are not aware of the possibilities of partnering with federal labs and universities,” he said.

“Business is often not a common language, and partnering offers a critical competitive advantage.” IT companies are “a little bit like cowboys,” he said. “They want to do it all themselves.”

Presenters at the event included theNational Research Council Institute for Information Technology (NRC IIT), the Communications Research Centre (CRC) and Communications and Information Technology Ontario (CITO).

Contrary to popular belief, the NRC is not chock full of white-haired scientists in lab coats, said Dr. George V. Forester, business development officer at the NRC in Ottawa. To many companies, the government agency is still a mystery, which is one reason events like this are beneficial.

“We are not in an ivory tower, developing technology for technology’s sake,” he said. If a company has a new word-processing package, then the NRC probably isn’t going to help fund the product’s research and development. But if it is a riskier venture, some “way-out gizmo,” then the NRC is definitely interested in hearing more about it, Forester said.

About 30 per cent of NRC-funded projects are in the area of “freewheeling research,” which concentrates more on “what-if” scenarios than established market needs. Right now, the council is in the process of co-developing a 3D laser imaging camera, which measures surface and colour exactly, independent of light source.

The image can be saved as a colour file or a text file, and has potential uses in medicine, design, art reproduction and countless other industries. According to Forester, there is nothing like it on the market, and it is now a patented Canadian technology.

Typically, if the NRC agrees to partner with a company, it will take care of the “big R, while the company takes care of the big D,” he explained. The NRC would own the patent to the product, while the company would hold the exploitation rights. And any revenue made on NRC’s end is filtered back into more research.

Kanata, Ont.-based CITO, which focuses on the administration of funding for research projects at Ontario universities and colleges, was another presenter at the event. According to Peter Leach, president and CEO of CITO, the support of the academic community is crucial to help keep companies current on leading-edge technologies.

“Only four per cent of the world’s research and development is done in Canada. So there is a lot of difficulty in the industry in reaching out and finding what’s happening in the other 96 per cent,” he said.

It is important to have a global focus, he said, and most universities are connected globally and can transfer their knowledge to industry firms.

“The market in Canada alone is too small. You can’t establish a Canadian company and expect to be competitive if it only focuses on a Canadian market,” he said.

One of CITO’s partners is Waterloo, Ont.-based Research In Motion (RIM) Ltd., which makes a new two-way pager, called the BlackBerry. According to Leach, RIM faced many challenges, including having to design an internal antenna powerful enough to send and receive signals via satellite and develop a new kind of plastic that was resistant to radio waves.

The BlackBerry uses a modified 386 chip, which gives RIM the added competitive edge of securing a mutually beneficial partnership with Intel Corp., Leach said.

“It’s heaven to Intel, because it’s a low-cost way of extending the product life of a technology that was, for all intents and purposes, dead.”