Precarn earmarks $2 million for robotics and smart systems

Precarn Inc. on Monday said it would invest $2 million in a handful of small businesses to design robotics and intelligent systems for commercial use.

The not-for-profit said the first round of requests for proposals for the Small Community Pilot Program will be issued this month and may become part of its regular funding cycle. The money will go towards companies that employ five to 50 people with revenues of $500,000 to $10 million

Paul Johnston, Precarn’s president, said the organization isn’t sure what kind of volumes to expect in response to the RFPs, which is one of the reasons it’s being run as a pilot. Unlike Precarn’s other programs – which award in the range of $1 million for projects that could span two-and-a-half to three years – the Small Community Pilot Program will see projects completed in about a year and a half, he said.

“It’s still about research. If this was just product development, that’s not our business,” he said. “We wanted to see if we could create a faster, simpler process with smaller amounts of money and shorter timeframes.”

The application process for Precarn’s regular programs can be daunting for smaller firms, Johnston admitted, including a 25-page form plus documentation that could involve 50 pages or more. The Small Community Pilot Program will be a 10- to 15-page form, and the number of criteria applicants have to meet have been reduced to eight from 12. Precarn is also hoping for a faster turnaround. Normally decisions from peer review panels take six months, but this program should see funding decisions announced within three to four months.

“There’s less to read, frankly,” Johnston said, adding that the Small Community Pilot Program is an opportunity to look at projects with slightly more risk. “If you’re risking a million, it takes time to make sure all the Ts are crossed and the Is are dotted.”

Precarn has a long history of working with small companies. An example is St. John’s, Nfld.-based C-Core, which in the mid-1990s received funding to create a system with another local firm, Canpolar East, to inspect fish fillets that were being packaged for sale. That system attracted the attention of Inco, which has since worked with C-Core to tailor it to the mining industry for use in difficult conditions.

“(The Precarn funding) catapulted us into a new sector using a new technology,” said Judith Whittick, C-Core’s president. “It mitigates the risk of development, and that’s crucial in a small business.”

C-Core now has about 15 people dedicated to marketing its intelligent systems all over the world, Whittick said. “(The money) is very much geared towards the intelligent people, not just the intelligent systems,” she said. “There’s not many opportunities to have that kind of investment made available.”

Late last year, Precarn contributed about one million dollars towards a research project to examine how current surveillance technologies can better gather information to improve national security and guard against natural disasters.


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