Eureka! Backing bright ideas
Posted Thursday, July 26, 2007 1:52 PM
 
Caption below story. Photos by Dale Barbour.

Smartpark is building a community of innovators.

And now with the eureka project it’s helping ensure that the next generation of innovators have all the tools they need to succeed.

The eureka project was launched at the beginning of this year to act as an incubator for new innovation companies – the visual of an egg being warmed under a heat lamp isn’t completely inappropriate.

"They get a turn-key office that is fully outfitted with desks and computers and they get access to two boardrooms so they can have professional meeting space," eureka project director Gary Brownstone said. The package includes tradeshow displays, photocopiers and any material items connected to running a small business.

The eureka project provides business and marketing expertise to the start up companies – including offering guest speakers on how to protect intellectual property.

"One of the first things they do when they come here is establish milestones and we help them monitor those milestones to ensure that they’re progressing the way they want to be," Brownstone said.

While the eureka project has only been up and running since January it follows in the footsteps of Incubat – a business incubator approach that relied on a partnership between venture capital and Smartpark. As that project wound down at the end of last year, Smartpark – the university’s research and technology park – stepped in to run the incubator directly.

The eureka project helps complete the loop in Smartpark, giving it representatives at every stage of the developmental ladder. From the start up companies that include one person and an innovative idea to the mature companies that are Smartpark’s regular tenants.

Brownstone said they foster that relationship by creating mentorship links between the eureka project clients and tenants in Smartpark – allowing the fledgling companies to tap the expertise of Smartpark’s success stories.

ISO Polar signed on with Smartpark last year and has been able to watch the eureka project get rolling.

While it might not seem like a big deal, ISO Polar president and Asper School of Business professor Barry Prentice said having access to that equipment is critical for a fledgling company.

"Purchasing a fax machine or a photocopier can be a huge financial drain for something you might only use once a day. But at the same time you need to have access to that equipment," Prentice said. By the same token, a company might only have a meeting once a month – not enough to justify renting an office with a meeting room. But the eureka project set up ensures that space is there when the companies need it.

The other advantage the eureka project gives its clients is the power of the University of Manitoba name with a location directly adjacent to the Fort Garry campus.

"Everyone has questions about you when you’re a developing company, but here you’re starting off with the university’s credibility," ISO Polar vice-president Henry Lasslo said. And that credibility goes beyond just having an office on university territory. Smartpark checks the credibility of start up companies to ensure they have a viable business plan and checks up on them every quarter to ensure that business plan is on track.

Prentice said for ISO Polar it makes sense to be at an arm’s length from the university because it allows them to follow a business plan that includes partnering with the private sector and bringing in an airship as part of a demonstration.

But if the choice of location was all about practicality, the group has still found itself drawn into the Smartpark community.

"I hadn’t really anticipated this as one of the benefits," Prentice said. "We were talking with one of the chaps about doing software development and we found they could help us develop a website application to track airships across the Arctic. I’m sure we would not have found them if they were not our neighbours."

ISO Polar has also had conversations with the Composites Innovation Centre – a natural fit given that ISO Polar is working to grow the airship industry, which relies on lighter-than-air ships, and the Composite Innovation Centre is geared towards developing new materials.

ISO Polar vice president Henry Lasslo said the eureka project and Smartpark encourage the sort of relationships that typically only happen in academic settings.

"When you get out into an open business market people are not encouraged to link with each other," Lasslo said. But apart from being able to bump into each other in the hallway, and trade ideas, Smartpark has also ensured the eureka project members are able to come to special events ranging from meet and greet bbqs to lectures and special events.

"The eureka project has a really good philosophical structure – the idea that people can come in, develop and then they’re encouraged to move up," Prentice said.

It’s not a free ride. Initial rents are meant to be affordable to the start up companies, but as the companies develop the rent moves up accordingly and eventually moving on to a new location is the right business decision.

Prentice said the system is working for them.

"We’re gradually attracting corporate members, developing our project plan and ultimately we’ll need to find another address," Prentice said.

ISO Polar has been in existence for about 12 months and Prentice said he anticipates they’ll be ready to move out of the eureka project in about 16 to 18 months. In an ideal world, they might even be able to move to a new location in Smartpark.

One client that has done exactly that is Apptius Computer Solutions. It worked its way through Incubat and eventually graduated to become a regular Smartpark client employing 22 people in 135 Innovation Drive.

Apptius president Dean Clarke said the incubator system was a perfect fit when they were starting out.

"We started with about eight people and this gave us a professional appearance with access to new facilities and equipment," Clarke said. But while they’ve grown up and moved on, they’re also still participating in the eureka project. Clarke said they’ve spun off Vantage Innovations, their software development wing, into a new entity and it is housed in the eureka project.

"We’re trying to develop our shipping application, which was originally created for the pharmaceutical industry, into products that can work for other industries," Clarke said. Setting Vantage Innovations up in the eureka project allows them to make use of the business assistance and shared equipment while keeping the office down the hall from its parent company.

Clarke said the more hands on approach offered by the eureka project gives it a clear advantage over the previous system. Having Brownstone on staff gives the client’s direct access to business expertise and having Smartpark in charge of the entire process has helped build bridges between the incubator clients and the rest of Smartpark.

Ensuring that there is space for eureka project and Smartpark tenants to grow will be one of the challenges facing the park as it moves forward.

"We’re managing five buildings with a total of 350,000 square feet," property, development and management director Larry Paskaruk said. "Our biggest challenge now is dealing with internal growth."

Smartpark has readied its next phase for development and the questions now focus on who comes in and where they should go.

"We are exploring developing another facility and the preliminary interest looks promising," Paskaruk said.

Top photo: ISO Polar president Barry Prentice, left, and vice-president Henry Lasslo joined the eureka project because it keeps them close to the University of Manitoba, even as they pursue their goal of promoting the airship industry. Bottom photo: Apptius Computer Solutions president Dean Clarke, front, and chief financial officer John Thistlethwaite are graduates and clients of Smartpark’s incubator. While Apptius has moved into a new office in Smartpark, its spin-off company Vantage Innovations is part of the eureka project.

 
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