IBM Canada celebrated the official opening of its Innovation Space for entrepreneurs and startups this month. The goal of this initiative is to provide startups and entrepreneurs with the resources needed to scale up their development, specifically, cloud and cognitive technology from IBM as well as a considerable amount of in-house expertise.
The Innovation Space is part of a $54 million program that IBM Canada is engaged in with the Ontario Centres of Excellence and the government of Ontario. Other partners in the venture include the SOSCIP Research Consortium and members of the Ontario Network of Entrepreneurs (ONE).
Entrepreneurs that make the grade will have access to IBM’s compute and networking infrastructure and a full range of IBM cloud, analytics and cognitive business technologies to speed the progress of their ideas from research to commercialization. Experts will also be on site at the facility, located on Spadina Avenue in downtown Toronto, to provide mentoring, support services, education and legal counsel. The main focus of the Space is on companies that use Big Data and analytics to solve problems in sectors such as healthcare, natural resources and financial services.
Several companies have already set up residence (the location has actually been operational since January of this year), including LifeLearn, a developer of intelligent decision support tools for veterinarians; Big Terminal, a financial data search engine developer; and Orenda, creator of an online data offering for tracking consumers attitudes towards brands. All of these are leveraging IBM Watson to develop their flagship products. IamI will be running its security application on IBM cloud; while 4D Virtual Space is using IBM Watson and Bluemix to create a real-time 3D application for the real estate industry.
Dino Trevisani, president, IBM Canada, stressed that the Innovation Space is not designed to compete with traditional incubators or accelerators. Rather it is looking to create a broader ecosystem of partners – from government and academia to enterprises and startups – to close the Canadian innovation gap that is keeping companies from achieving commercialization.
“We don’t compete with other incubators. We’re not interested in venture capital or in finding technology innovators that we could incorporate into our own business. The purpose is to help entrepreneurs that don’t have access to a global marketplace commercialize and build their businesses in Canada – and stay in Canada.”
As a multi-national company, IBM can give startups access they would never have, even through a bank, he added. “The hope is they will be less inclined to move or sell. Rather they will stay in Canada and create new jobs. We’re looking for the next Nortel or RIM – innovators that could grow into big companies right here at home.”
Fostering an innovation community can also be beneficial for a large enterprise such as IBM’s as it brings a fresh perspective to their own environment, he argued. “It changes our own culture. The employees who are involved get energized working with entrepreneurs.”
The Innovation Space is the first of its kind in IBM’s global network, but there has been considerable interest from IBM counterparts around the world, Trevisani said. “Because Canada is a microcosm of the US, we’re like a startup as well in bringing this to market. When we build something like this, it’s great to showcase it through the rest of the company.”
The Innovation Space currently houses 15 companies and has plans to expand. Don Crawford, CEO of Analytics 4 Life (A4L), said his medical information technology company is one of the first to outgrow the Space. Since establishing his business at the Innovation Space, he has grown from 4 employees to 15. He also has a team in North Carolina to support US expansion.
Crawford is part of a scientific research group out of Queen’s University in Kingston that began discussions with OCE and SOSCIP and received a research grant in 2015 to work on advanced signal processing techniques to extract, process, and analyze important data on patient health. “We needed access to Toronto so made the choice to move our services and people,” he said.
The Innovation Space provided a place from which he could recruit and grow his technical resources. “The space was important for attracting new engineers.” Because his services are cloud based, he has worked extensively with IBM technical staff on accessing the infrastructure needed to transmit data. “Having them pay attention to a small company like ours is a big help.”
A4L has now received a new research grant to support its work in machine learning and algorithm development. The company is also engaged in clinical trials in the US – a task that will eventually create five billion data points from which A4L can build its database. “The first half of next year will be about getting FDA approval. Then it will be Europe and Canada. We couldn’t have done any of this in Canada on our own,” Crawford explained.
Allen Lalonde, senior executive, Innovation for IBM Canada Research and Development Centre, said that the collaborative approach has evolved into an open innovation marketplace that draws on the resources from upwards of 15 universities as well as large and small businesses. “We see it as more of a holistic view to commercialization that helps smaller companies do what they normally can’t on their own because they don’t have the technology or skill sets. You could call it a collision space or ecosystem hub. We are creating a continuum that allows businesses to take an idea from the research stage to acceleration and then scale it up to market readiness.”