Innovation boost for Ontario
by Erika Beauchesne
Timing, collaboration will be keys to commercialization
TORONTO—Paul Rak has some advice for anyone trying to commercialize a product.
“Beat the living daylights out of it.”
Rak is president of Veri-Green Inc., an energy management company that wasn’t afraid to get rough with its products before bringing them to market.
“You want to catch any possible flaws and fix them. Make sure it’s bulletproof before it gets to customers,” he says.
That’s how his Cambridge, Ont. company developed VeriControl, a system that senses when bay loading doors are open and turns the heat down to save energy.
The technology is now in the final stages of commercialization and Rak says they’re expecting about 50 orders this winter.
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Veri-Green was lucky enough to have a facility that could double as a test ground for the “beatings,” but for other Ontario companies, a lack of laboratory access is often just one of the barriers to commercialization.
A recent investment from the province could change that.
The Ministry of Research and Innovation has funded VentureLab, York Region’s Regional Innovation Centre.
The centre opened this month and is part of the province’s innovation network, the Ontario Network of Excellence (ONE).
York’s VentureLab will provide entrepreneurs with access to researchers, businesses, government and investors who can help sell their innovations.
Some of the partners on site include York University’s research branch Innovation York, the city of Markham and the federal government’s Industrial Research Assistance Program (IRAP).
“We have about 3,500-square-feet available for project incubation,” says Dan Lynch, industry liaison manager for Innovation York.
He says the lab space will be a breeding ground for the “tremendous” amount of entrepreneurial activity in the area.
“The auto parts sector may have been depressed but manufacturers are finding opportunities in other markets and diversifying,” he says, adding industries such as health care technologies, I.T. and communications are really taking off.
Innovators thinking about branching off into those markets should strike while the iron’s hot.
And Argonault, one area company, has already tapped into the action.
The North Toronto firm developed a high-tech wheelchair in partnerships with Ontario manufacturer ABF MFG and engineer AVN Automation Inc.
The device can independently overstep obstacles, load to and from minivans, and assist disabled people from the bed and toilet.
Inventor and Argonault owner Vladimir Ivanchenko says the road to commercialization hasn’t been a smooth one, citing lack of highly qualified and skilled technicians and financial support as two major hurdles.
Government funding requires a 50 per cent matching investment and many private investors want to see pre-production samples and sales before committing money.
However, he says resources such as MaRS ―an Ontario innovation centre for entrepreneurs―and business partnerships have helped.
“Collaboration is a great commercialization engine. Look around, search partners and harness social networks too,” he advises.
In order to get more made-in-Ontario innovations to market, Ivanchenko says everyone will need to play a part.
“Inventors, especially new immigrants bringing expertise and new technologies, need to be supported right at the beginning with consulting, training and coaching, industry contacts, qualified legal advices, market research and validation.”
When it comes to market research, manufacturers that already offer a product or service may not have to look far. Or spend a lot of money.
Paul Rak says they ironed out the VeriControl by asking current customers if they’d try the product. It took feedback from industrial facilities ranging from 50,000 to 300,000 square feet before Veri-Green got it right.
But when it comes to other steps in the commercialization process, he recommends firms don’t skimp.
“I’ve seen company websites that were just horrendous,” he says.
Print and online sales brochures should be modern and professional because products―especially new ones―will be judged by these, Rak adds.
He also recommends firms take advantage of government funding, such as IRAP and the Scientific Research and Experimental Development program that gives cash refunds and/or tax credits for R&D expenditures. But even with that support, bringing a product to market will take money.
The good news is, more Canadian companies are prepared to shell it out, says Jonathan Kallner, market leader, industrial markets for Canada with consulting firm KPMG.
Kallner says the country’s manufacturing sector is bouncing back, pointing to a recent KPMG survey that found 63 per cent of respondents were optimistic about the next year.
Their sunny outlooks will translate into increased spending on new equipment, processes and ultimately, innovation, he says.
Another advantage for Canada―and especially Ontario―is location.
“One of the things we’ve noticed about commercialization is it helps when manufacturers are close to the markets that they want to penetrate,” he says.
“We’re very fortunate that our neighbour is one of the key consumers of goods in the world.”
Location, location, location
Janusz Kozinski, a researcher at York’s new centre and dean of the university’s faculty of science and engineering, agrees.
“Innovation is most likely to occur where there’s market demand,” he says.
Kozinski says manufacturers can sense that and they’re setting up near York region’s growing health care, IT, and communications industries.
In addition to connecting companies with resources such as training and research, the new centre will promote commercialization just by bringing together so many different disciplines and players, he says.
“Innovation works best when it’s a game everyone can play. The more ideas there are, the better the chances that some of them will prosper.”
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