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Growing capacity in city's technology sector

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About 65 people engaged in various capacities in the technology industry in the city met one morning this week to hear about the launch of a specialized technology sales-training course to be delivered by the Information and Communications Technology Association of Manitoba (ICTAM).

While it was somewhat ironic the event took place in a meeting room at the now-underused National Research Council building (about one-third of its scientists received layoff notices earlier this year) the initiative is all about building capacity in a sector that is growing.

But it's one that needs plenty of care and attention to become obviously sustainable.

Encouraging innovation and commercialization of R&D is one thing, creating sales and sustainable revenue streams to support those enterprises is another thing.

On a stand-alone basis the acknowledgement that technology sales is different than traditional sales may not sound significant. But this initiative is happening at the same time as a number of other things that indicate there is capacity-building taking place and real momentum in the technology/innovation sector.

For starters, the city's major clearinghouse of new research and technology, the University of Manitoba, has just filled the vacant director position at its Technology Transfer Office (TTO).

Darren Fast, a PhD in biochemistry with a long career that spans the spectrum of product development, commercialization, venture capital and independent consulting has taken the helm. The TTO averages about $2.2 million a year in royalty revenues from the licensing of intellectual property developed at the university.

Digvir Jayas, the U of M's vice-president of research said the TTO is in the process of a thorough review of its operations and while he would not come right out and say it, there is evidently a growing determination at the university to partner its technology with local players from throughout the Manitoba community.

"At this stage we are looking at many options," Jayas said. "The goal of our assessment is to come up with model that is a win-win for the university, the community and our partners."

One of the strategies seems to be more purposeful community outreach to find the right local partners to help commercialize or implement U of M research.

"There is lots of great science at the U of M," Fast said. "There is great technology that has the potential to be turned into products and the local ecosystem is in a really nice spot."

If the university is at the top end of that ecosystem, there's lots happening at the intermediate and grassroots levels as well.

The latest iteration of a government/private-sector initiative to foster innovation, called Innovate Manitoba, is finding its legs. It was recently able to secure for one year the services of Doug Buchanan, a U of M professor in electrical and computer engineering and a longtime staff researcher at IBM's prestigious T.J. Watson Research Center in New York State.

Dynamic, grassroots community groups such as AssentWorks and RampUp Manitoba are creating forums for entrepreneurs to test their ideas among peers and are attracting lots of activity.

In a couple of weeks, RampUp Manitoba is holding its second Start-up Weekend event in which would-be entrepreneurs pitch an idea and receive feedback from their peers. Teams form around the top ideas and over the course of a weekend, a business is formed.

It's part of Global Entrepreneur Week and there are serious prizes for the top company.

Later this month, Innovate Manitoba is holding its own Pitch Day for entrepreneurs who have budding businesses, again with some substantial prizes for the winners.

The big Alberta angel investor group, VA Angels, is setting up a Winnipeg chapter because there is a critical mass of potential deals to be had in this province.

It's no wonder a gap has been identified when it comes to professional technology sales. The technology and business development gets established before a systematic sales operation is in place.

But progress is taking place.

At the launch of the technology sales accelerator program this week, Kathy Knight, the chief executive officer of ICTAM said, "We're on the threshold of something big."

martin.cash@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 1, 2012 B5

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About Martin Cash

Martin Cash joined the Free Press in 1987 as the paper’s business columnist.

He has spent two decades chronicling the city’s business affairs.

Martin won a citation of merit from the National Newspaper Awards in 2001 for his coverage of the strike and subsequent multi-million-dollar union settlement at the Versatile tractor plant. He has also received honours and awards for his work on agriculture and technology development in Manitoba.

Martin has written a coffee-table book about the commercial and industrial make-up of the city, called Winnipeg: A Prairie Portrait.

Martin Cash on Twitter: @martycash

martin.cash@freepress.mb.ca

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