Canadian innovators bridge “valley of death”

Thomas Ducellier has invented a way mining companies can zap a rock with high levels of radiation and determine what base minerals it contains in about five minutes.

Currently the mining industry has to obliterate ground samples, grounding them into a fine dust suitable for chemical composition tests.


John Kao says Canada can take a page out of Denmark’s innovation book.

This can take a day or two if you have your own laboratory, or weeks if you’ve got to send it out to be tested elsewhere.

You’d figure Ducellier’s product is a lock.

But the start-up, Ottawa-based Heliocentric Technologies Inc., is in its early phases and has trouble attracting the sort of venture capital it needs to perform tests and hone its equipment.

“We are not quite ready for prime time venture capital,” he says. “But we want to advance the proof points so we can bridge that gap.”

He’s talking about is the innovation gap. It’s alternately referred to by some as the “valley of death” and it’s even more difficult to cross now than ever, according to an author that describes himself as an “innovation Sherpa.”

“These are uncertain times,” says John Kao, the author of Innovation Nation. “We’re going to have to deal with the problems we have, and we’re going to have to innovate our way out of them.”

Kao says there’s no better time that the present one to focus on innovation, he says. It’s a great way to turn anxiety faced over a severe economic disruption into excitement for the opportunities presented. But too much of innovation literature has a narrow focus on the enterprise.

With blinders on to the role played by educational institutes and state governments, you just don’t get real innovation, Kao says. The author addressed the audience at “Powering Innovation”, a national summit held at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre in Toronto earlier this week.

The summit brought together innovators in science, research, education and IT from Canada and across the world to discuss and showcase technologies that are transforming the way we conduct research, collaborate, teach and learn.

Kao described “innovation” as creativity applied to some purpose to realize value.”

Ottawa-based non-profit group Precarn Inc. shares Kao’s philosophy on innovation. The group – funded from federal and provincial government coffers – helps Canadian start ups bridge the gap between the research and commercial application phase.

Recently, Precarn forked out $668,000 to 12 tech start-ups it deemed promising. Ducellier received $50,000 of that. It will help him perform tests on rock samples from a mine in Northern Quebec.

“We will now be able to get to the next stage,” he says. With the product demonstrated, wooing investors will be easier.

For 21 years, Precarn’s recipe to promote tech start-up success has been simple. Take a developer, add a research partner, and incubate with a customer for every project funded.

“We insist on collaboration between the small, hi-tech company and university research, and we also want an end-user to be involved,” says Precarn president Tony Eyton.

The company founders saw good research at Canadian universities going to waste, he says. It would yield a citation in a journal somewhere, or generate some royalties at best. So Precarn tasked itself with getting that research into the private sector.

Since then it has funded over 230 projects to a tune of $65 million. Precarn only puts forward 40 per cent of the total money needed, and relies on private partners to put up the remaining chunk of cash or equivalent resources needed – meaning they’ve spurred $225 million in private sector development.

Funding success stories include Ottawa-based Neptec Design Group Ltd. The company’s intelligent digital camera is now a component of the International Space Station, thanks to a deal with NASA.

Providing an early funding opportunity to a new start-up is an essential part of the innovation process, Kao says.

“Between the people in the white lab coats and the fulfillment of full innovation, there’s a long way to go,” the innovation Sherpa says. “You need the kind of venture capitalism that is comfortable with making a big investment on the back of a napkin.”

Heliocentric’s university partnership was with Carleton University. The Ottawa-based school supplied an engineer to help with the design of the rock analysis tool, and two students who also contributed to the company’s work.

Having a model where creativity is focused on accomplishing something for a definite person ensures real innovation, he adds. Otherwise you’re just creative new stuff that can be sold for profit – but nothing transformational.

That’s why Precarn makes sure to include an end-user in its process of innovation, Eyton says. It’s an organization that needs to be served by a technology product, he says.

Precarn received 56 applications for its latest funding offer and awarded 12 of them. Other tech products funded include a 3D facial recognition system and a video analysis system that can translate a sports video into recorded statistics. All of them have a clear market.

The latest funding handed out by the non-profit was through its Industrial Technology Gap program. It has several other funding mechanisms, including one for small business. But Eyton wants to do more than just pour money into the industry.

“I’d like to have individuals in here who know what a start-up goes through and what it takes to be successful,” he says. “A separate unit to provide services to the companies we work with.”

The unit of “innovation agents” could work with start-ups and identify what they need to succeed. Whether it’s a bit of funding, or the right CEO to take the helm, the organization could help make it happen.

For Ducellier and his core sample analyzing technology, Precarn has already made it happen – he’s confident he’ll soon be ready for “prime time” funding. Then he’ll market the product to the mining industry.

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