‘Open Innovation’ network spins off 7 communications startups

Nine months after its inception, Ottawa-based developer network Coral CEA is already seeing strong success for its member tech start-ups.

Coral CEA focuses on communications-enabled applications, or programs that help automate communications processes. It uses the term “open innovation” to describe it’s business model, lying somewhere between open source and commercialized development for software. The term was originally coined out of the University of California, Berkeley in the 1960s to describe the process of creating and profiting from technology.

“You can reinvent the wheel and go out on your own,” says Brian Forbes, executive director of Coral CEA. But tapping a developer network is helpful for sharing ideas, especially when you’re looking to commercialize your product. “Developer communities are critical now to go to market,” he says.

When it launched, Coral CEA received $9.3 million of Ontario provincial funding over five years from the Ministry of Research and Innovation. In the past nine months, though, it has raised nearly $20 million more in private sector investment from large corporations like IBM Corp. and IP services firm Genband. Ottawa-based Carleton University has also kicked in some funds.

For a membership fee, companies can come to Coral CEA with a prototype and through networking with other developers, grow their idea into a market-ready product. The companies can then respond with in-kind services.

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Seven new companies and 34 jobs have been created through Coral CEA, according to the organization. FreeBird Solutions Inc. is one of the companies that has expanded since the non-profit network’s birth. The company developed a cloud-based data analytics platform that also incorporates social media aspects.

The application is data analytics for more than just corporations who traditionally use similar services, says company CEO Robert Poole. “The challenge isn’t getting access to the data but having meaningful value from that data,” he says. “It’s a true binding of context and knowledge to data.”

The product integrates an open innovation Web conferencing capability called “Big Blue Button” that allows a Web conference to be recorded and then tied directly to relevant data and knowledge created with FreeBird’s platform.

“This platform would give the city the opportunity to say ‘here are our numbers’ and everyone can come to a single version of the truth,” Poole says.

“Business intelligence has been around for many years,” he says. “The real difference is the business model. Our model is one where we’ve created an open platform,” he says.

A city councillor could put up crime statistics for his or her ward, then citizens and experts could comment on that information to give it context. An expert might be able to point out aspects of the research methodology that the average person may not know, for example.

FreeBird has already gained the City of Ottawa as a client. Eventually, the application will expand to other municipalities and levels of government, Poole says. Municipalities pay for the application then offer it free to its citizens. The pricing is still being worked out, Poole says.

Going through Coral CEA was an advantage for Poole because he had the principles of open source software development, but could also see how to value his company and bring the application to market, he says. “At the end of the day, it’s about connecting with people,” he says.

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Videotelephony Inc. was another company that used Coral CEA to grow its business. It developed two applications through working with the network by marrying its own software with software developed through Coral CEA and also hired three new employees.

“What we’re able to gain is a way to develop an application and develop our technology in a vendor-neutral environment,” says the company’s founder and president Maciek Kozlowski .

The first, Global Interpreters Now (GIN) is a simultaneous interpretation applications. Through a social network feature, language interpreters can have profiles and video demonstrations available for clients to find. Then, customers can use interpreters based remotely, rather than paying for travel costs and booths at business meetings or government hearings.

The application also has an “on demand” function. When customers are at a point-of-service location like a doctor’s office, and face a language barrier, they can use GIN through their tablet or smartphone to find an interpreter.

“Our mission in GIN is to enable world dialogue,” Kozlowski says. The application is a platform, not an agency, he says. Interpreters are paid directly from clients; GIN simply facilitates the connection.

The second application that Videotelephony developed through Coral is a captioning application for the hard of hearing to use with Web conferencing services. A stenographer is remotely connected and provides captioning services when a client is chatting through the Web.

“When we speak with companies that are members of Coral, it’s a pre-competitive R&D world,” Kozlowski says. “We’re not competing. We’re more collaborating and complementing each other,” he says.

Harmeet Singh is a Staff Writer at ITBusiness. Follow her on Twitter, and join the IT Business Facebook Page.

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