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Manitoba tech start-ups starving for money

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Last Friday evening, more than 50 people met in a Smartpark building to hear technology pitches from seven University of Manitoba researchers.

The idea was to try to connect these early-stage technologies -- including a colour-correction technology for heads-up displays, concrete corrosion sensors, probiotics for animal feed and a microfluidics technology -- with entrepreneurs who might be interested in advancing them to a stage where they might be ready for licensing or sold for commercial use.

The event, called Vision to Venture, was the first of its kind by the university's technology-transfer office.

"It was well beyond our expectations," said Darren Fast, the university's director of the office. "Getting 60 people out on a Friday night in January with a Jets game on, it was great. Given the feedback I've received, I suspect we'll do it again."

It's part of the U of M's attempt to refresh interest in technology generated by its researchers.

This year, the university launched a program that would dispense with legally onerous licensing agreements and allow U of M technologies to be used by the private sector, with any royalty or commercial agreements back-ended once the technology is commercialized.

But this community does have a crippling deficiency in the availability of capital to get these great ideas off the lab table and on the way to the commercial marketplace.

Gary Brownstone has been running the business incubator at Smartpark, called the Eureka Project, for many years. He's a big fan of the way new technologies are nurtured in Israel.

Brownstone was part of the large group of Canadian business and community leaders who recently travelled to Israel with Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

"In Israel, they have identified where the market won't go," Brownstone said. "For instance, in Manitoba by and large the market will not invest in pre-revenue technology companies. In Manitoba, if you are a knowledge-based company that does not yet have customers or cash flow, the chances of you attracting meaningful investment are almost zero."

In Israel, the government provides funds to these kinds of start-ups. But rather than disperse the cash directly to the actual inventors or researchers who are attempting to start their own companies, the money goes to the professional incubator managers who become, in effect, the senior management of the individual companies (as well as taking a minority equity stake in each of them).

"The government of Israel recognizes the same problem in getting early-stage money into developing companies," he said. "But they wanted to hedge their bets a little. They didn't want to just entrust the money to people who are brilliant when it comes to the technology but more than likely have no business experience."

It's an interesting model that Brownstone has tried to advance locally in the past. The current reality is that plenty of companies are forced to find capital elsewhere and then must leave the province to get started.

But just because it's hard doesn't mean there aren't some examples of success. As if to make that point, Manitoba Technology Accelerator, another Winnipeg incubator, held an event last week where past winners of its entrepreneur pitch event spoke about their relative accomplishments.

Between them, the five companies that presented have raised about $5 million since 2011 (the lion's share by Kane Biotech, a public company that has also started to makes sales) and created close to 40 jobs.

Marshall Ring, MTA's chief executive officer, said: "It's a way to show that there are some treasures that have started and blossomed into companies that are making a go of it."

Some of that success comes from the existence of an angel investor group, called Manitoba Knights, which Ring helped organize, who have provided some early-stage money for a few MTA companies.

But they will all need to raise further rounds that will require larger amounts than the Manitoba Knights would be able to provide.

It's long past overdue for the province to revisit this style of priming the pump if it is serious about this kind of economic development in Manitoba.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 6, 2014 B7

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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


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