What Canada needs to get back on the ‘innovation leaderboard’

An inside look at the recent Toronto stop of CENGN’s roadshow, where execs from Allstream and others look at commercialization issues facing SMEs

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I expected to hear a lot of things when the Centre of Excellence in Next Generation Networks (CENGN) brought its travelling road show to Toronto recently.

I expected to hear how small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) can submit proposals for the new program and how the selection process will unfold.

And yes, it was about that. But I also heard executives from some of Canada’s major telecom companies speak in an extremely candid way about the state of this country’s IT sector. CENGN president and CEO Ritch Dusome laid it on the line in his opening remarks.

“It’s time to put Canada back on the leaderboard,” he said. “Let’s try to get some of the mindshare in innovation back.” A moment later a slide appeared on the big screen that read, “Make Canada the global leader in the development of ICT and telecommunications.”

CENGN is trying to do just that. It was created last fall to help Canadian SMEs commercialize NGN innovations. Selected SMEs will receive business and technical support in kind worth $50,000 to $100,000, plus mentoring from a CENGN industry partner like Allstream or Cisco Canada.

Dusome said CENGN is attempting to be as strategic as possible in pairing up SMEs with industry partners. CENGN member firms were asked to list “their top three pain points,” he explained, and SME projects will be chosen partly for their potential to provide solutions to those industry problems.

Some CENGN members talked about their pain points at the Toronto road show. It was interesting to hear these executives speak so frankly about the challenges they feel their companies – and the Canadian IT industry – are facing right now.

“I’m tired of going to Germany for conferences and meeting all these engineers, then finding out they’re all from Canada,” said Dusome.

In an interview at the Toronto event, Allstream’s Michael Haddad told me telecom firms and their customers face similar challenges in their constant quest for high-speed, low-cost technology.

“Customers are looking for that one-stop solution,” said Haddad, Allstream’s director of enterprise architecture and solutions. “The technology has changed so much that right now the demand is (to do) more for less. And that’s the key. How do you balance your internal cost structure plus the demand of the market?”

Yet the CENGN industry partners also spoke about the unique opportunities they see within Canadian IT today. Canada should play to its existing “inherent strengths” in areas like agriculture to create solutions in realms like the Internet of Things, said Paul Howarth, senior manager of corporate investments at Cisco Canada. Dusome picked up on the same theme of real-life inspiration breeding IT innovation.

“A double win for us would be an ICT project that Canadians care about,” Dusome said, citing healthcare applications as one possible example.

“It’s really about fusing passion with innovation,” Haddad added during his own presentation.

At the end of April, CENGN hopes to select 12 to 15 SME projects that will receive support for the coming year. Like the industry partners mentoring them, the SMEs will undoubtedly face some challenges during the program. Perhaps by speaking up about those challenges (just as their mentors did so openly in Toronto) these smaller firms can find solutions to their own pain points. And help put Canada back on the ICT innovation map.

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