When Michael Gilbert first arrived in Chile to promote his startup, he was floored to find the Chilean representatives of major telcos had already heard of him – and they were even familiar with his pitch.
Gilbert, the president and CEO of Vancouver startup SemiosBIO Technologies, Inc., had been hoping to get his products to international markets. Semios uses machine-to-machine technology to prevent agricultural pests from destroying crops. That involves using cloud-based computing to monitor the crops, and pheromones instead of pesticides that confuse insects and stop them from breeding.
But since his startup was a small one, Gilbert wasn’t confident that he could connect with major global telecommunications giants like Vodafone Group Plc and Telefónica S.A. on his own.
So in the fall of 2012, he went on two trips to Europe and Latin America with Wavefront, a Canadian startup accelerator for wireless companies that has the backing of the federal government. Wavefront even helped set up his meetings for him.
“On my own, I wouldn’t have gone there yet, that’s for sure,” Gilbert says, adding he estimates it would have taken him at least another year before he would have felt more ready. “It would have been really difficult to organize …When you’re down there for three days, you network with 10 different companies. But it was all lined up and organized. It was a great way to connect with all these potential partners.”
Apparently, his meetings in Europe a month before had really paid off – the Chilean representatives of the same companies as the ones in Europe had already heard of his startup and even seen his presentation, before he even began pitching to them. Gilbert is currently pursuing four major leads that could spell long-term business deals for Semios.
Wavefront is now coming to the southern Alberta region to partner with local accelerator Innovate Calgary, bringing its connections with international telecommunications corporations into the mix. It already has similar partnerships with accelerators in Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal and Vancouver.
Wavefront hopes to launch southern Albertan startups into global markets, says James Maynard, Wavefront’s president and CEO. So far, it has taken 45 Canadian companies on nine trips over the past two years.
It receives support from Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada, the Canadian Trade Commissioner Service and Export Development Canada. The government pays for half of a startup’s hard costs when it’s on an international trip, while the startup fronts the money for the other half.
“Innovate Calgary has built a community, so it’d be disruptive for us to come in and try to build a community alongside Innovate Calgary,” Maynard says. “And it would be very difficult for a regional group like Calgary to build the same kind of international connections and relationships that we’ve built. So we think that the coming together is a very strong partnership.”
Like in the case of Semios, Wavefront does a lot of the homework for startups looking to make it internationally. Wavefront knew Europe would be a good starting point for Semios because the European Union bans many kinds of pesticides, Maynard says.
“[Out in the world], that’s where the business is,” Maynard says. “If you want to grow your business, it’s outside of Canada. It’s just that simple. Canada is a very small market.”
“We put five years into relationships with some of the world’s leading players in mobile,” he adds, naming Ericsson Inc. and Nokia Corp. as some of its connections. Wavefront is also linked to corporations in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia and South America. “They see us as a connection point when they’re looking for innovation in Canada.”
And there are other benefits to being part of Wavefront, Maynard said. For one thing, the accelerator does not take equity in startups because it is eager to see Canadian wireless companies grow.
Wavefront gives advice through wireless industry consultants, and it also provides technical services that startups will find useful, like handset depots where they can rent phones for testing for $10 a day, as opposed to having to buy them on their own. It helps with funding through the National Research Council of Canada Industrial Research Assistance Program.
While Maynard says he considers the international market trips to be successes, time will tell as to whether the government will continue to fund the program and keep it afloat.
He says he hopes so, since so far, the trips have generated a total of about $10 million in initial, qualified leads for some of these 45 companies – a great start for Canadian startups in the wireless communications space.
“If you go back to every wave of telecom innovation, right back to Alexander Graham Bell, there’s been a Canadian wave of leadership in every wave of telecom,” Maynard says. “We want Canadian-headquartered companies to grow and become profitable and hire more Canadians and build another wave of success for Canadian wireless.”