Microsoft throws weight behind Waterloo-based incubator

Infusion Angels, the Toronto-based sister company of the software development and consulting company Infusion Development, opened a Microsoft Canada-backed Infusion Angels Innovation Centre in Waterloo today.

The country’s first entrepreneurship-based innovation centre will be a learning and experimenting space for IT up-and-comers who want to develop their ideas, skills, and business savvy — free of charge.

Mac users and hardware nerds beware, though: sponsored by Microsoft, the Centre’s focus is development of Microsoft-platform-based technologies, although the Centre’s staff are happy to advise on all matters technical, even if it falls outside the range of Microsoft. Twelve Intel-chip-equipped Dell workstations running next-generation Microsoft software (along with a rack of servers and wireless Internet) are set up inside the Centre, which is housed in the Waterloo Research & Technology Park Accelerator Centre. Microsoft Canada and Infusion employees are on hand to offer help.

“To be frank,” said Infusion Development CEO and Infusion Angels partner Gregory Brill, “We’re not doing this because Microsoft is sponsoring us.” Brill’s company has a decade-long history with Microsoft. He said he took advantage of their partnering program that helps companies that are developing off of Microsoft’s offerings build their business by pairing them with potential clients. He is a strong believer in what Microsoft has to offer:

“It’s just frustrating because Microsoft is very underrepresented and people don’t know what they have. There are hundreds of great Microsoft technologies but people don’t know what they all do. If someone at the Centre approached him with an idea built off of a Mac platform, said Brill, “”I’d say, ‘Okay, but is this really the best platform?’ It might not be.”

Microsoft Canada’s Mark Relph, vice president of developer and platform evangelism, said he is interested on the business to be had from growing the software economy, courtesy of the ideas being fostered inside the Centre. “We’re a platform company. We thrive on the innovation of others. Developers add (to our products) to add great things to the marketplace. The health of (Microsoft’s) ecosystem requires innovation,” he said.

The Centre, funded by Infusion Angels and Microsoft, plans to do that by assisting people in developing their ideas or their business plans in person; events and seminars that hone both their technical and entrepreneurial skills; and matching up solid projects with Infusion Angels for investment income. “We want to create a one-stop-shop,” said Brill.

The shop’s location in Waterloo means that the core clients of the Centre are University of Waterloo students and those living in the city of Waterloo, although, said Relph, the Centre is open to all who’d like to come — even companies that have already been in business for a few years. The Waterloo location certainly isn’t random, according to Relph, who said that Microsoft’s other innovation centres are set up in areas where there’s a good fit with the current technological trends — Korea’s is about mobile solutions, while Brazil’s focuses on skills development.

“In Waterloo, it’s a hotbed of technology,” Relph said. “Microsoft Canada wants to find ways to give back and this way, innovation can come from within Canada, rather than from some other place. We want to keep (Canadian talent) here.”  Beating the brain drain is one of Brill’s main goals, too: “(American companies like Google and Microsoft) suck all of the tremendous talent out. Why do they go off to build other people’s empires? We want to build the empires here with the raw materials that everyone else uses.”

When it comes to building these IT empires, said Relph, Canada is somewhat behind. “Canada’s known for a few strong companies, but compared to Silicon Valley or Israel now, where there is an explosion of community and a culture of risk-taking and innovation, we’re doing fairly well, but we can do better than we are today.” He sees that there has been a move in the right direction, what with the government’s interest in the country’s “agility and productivity.”

Relph said, “There has been a diversification in the Canadian economy — we’ve always been an exporter of natural resources, so there’s no reason why software development and talent can’t be another natural resource.”

The Centre is opening in the wake of the numerous closures of other talent-fostering outfits like the incubators Itemus, NRG, and Excel@rator, and a weak track record showing no break-out star companies. Said Brill: “I don’t really think of the Centre as an incubator.” Relph said, “The Achilles heel of the dot-com era incubators and accelerators was that they essentially gave office space to companies. They didn’t give support to foster ideas. This is a different kind of innovation — the Centre doesn’t provide office space. They get help with their ideas and do their work elsewhere because of the experience they got here. It’s a lightning rod for innovation.”


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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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