Keyword founders now lead host of new ventures

In its time, Keyword Office Technologies Ltd. was a modest success story in Calgary’s drive to build a high-tech community.

At its peak, the software firm employed about 165 people in its offices above Deerfoot Trail in northeast Calgary, and boasted clients that included BellSouth, Abbott Laboratories and Coca- Cola.

Keyword vanished off the Calgary map in 1994. The firm and its technology for exchanging documents between previously incompatible computer systems were snapped up by a Massachusetts company, FTP Software, for $3.4 million.

But that’s really where the story begins. While most people are no longer familiar with Keyword, its founders have gone on to build or help lead companies that now represent some of Alberta’s best prospects in the technology race. Companies like Smart Technologies Inc., IVRnet Inc., and Replicon Inc. are all tied in various ways to the Keyword legacy.

It’s also an example of the kind of self-supporting ecosystem that has helped turn other centres such as Ottawa, Kitchener-Waterloo, and Austin, Tex., into mini-Silicon Valleys.

“Keyword showed us what we could do if we dreamed,” says David Martin, a co-founder of the company back in 1979 and now president of SMART Technologies.

Robert Blackshaw's latest venture is fast-growing, Calgary-based IVR Net.

“It gave us the skills and confidence to go out and do business on a global scale.”

“Back then, a lot of people said you couldn’t run a global tech company out of Calgary — unless it was connected to the oil and gas sector,” adds Robert Blackshaw, a childhood friend of Martin and his partner back in ’79. “We proved it could be done right here — I mean, we even sold software to the White House.”

Martin is perhaps the highest-profile alumnus to come out of the Keyword fold.

He left the firm in Blackshaw’s hands in May of 1986 to pursue another dream with his wife Nancy. The couple were fascinated by the possibilities for electronic whiteboards that could be used to capture presentations on a touch-sensitive board, and display them immediately on a screen.

The boards could be combined with emerging Internet technologies to transmit corporate presentations to boardrooms around the world, or to teach classes in remote parts of the country.

The Martins have since sold more than 50,000 of their “SMART” boards around the world and employ about 380 people in Calgary and Ottawa. Sales of their products topped $50 million in 2000, and Martin says the company is on target to close about $92 million in sales in 2001.

Blackshaw hasn’t been letting the grass grow under his feet since his Keyword days. For a while, he ran his own consulting firm, Solution Source, and consulted to such industry stalwarts as Intel Corp. He served as chairman of the Canadian Advanced Technology Association (CATA), was on the board of the now-defunct Super Computing Centre in Calgary and was a founding member of the Alberta Science and Technology Leadership Awards.

In 1995, he took over the helm of Ziran Corp. (now Zi Corp.) and underwent the challenging task of commercializing its Chinese language translation software.

His latest venture is another Calgary-based company called IVRnet, which is developing interactive voice response (IVR) systems that will allow people to access a wide range of computer applications over the phone, or from the Internet. The system is already being used by more than two dozen golf courses in Canada and the U.S.

IVRnet has just about doubled its employees over the last five months to 32, and is threatening to burst out of its quarters in the former army communications bunker at the Currie Barracks.

Other Keyword alumni have been just as industrious:

* Raj Narayanaswamy, a software developer at Keyword, went on to found Replicon Inc., a Calgary firm that offers Web-based applications for every-day processes like time-sheet management and expense reports. The company boasts more than 300 customers, including Hewlett-Packard, Lucent Technologies and Kraft Foods, and recently brought in $2 million in venture financing to fund further growth.

* Steve Corbett, an executive vice-president at Keyword, tried to hit an Internet home run with a venture called Samsports.com. The firm created a variety of interactive software programs to teach everything from baseball to football, hockey, golf, and tennis. It also attracted such household names as four-time Cy Young Award winner Greg Maddux to its cause. Samsports has fallen on hard times in recent months and is now disposing of its assets, but Keyword alumni are still batting for Corbett.

* Gus Esposito, vice-president of U.S. sales, still owns a piece of the Keyword legacy. When the firm sold out to FTP Software, Esposito acquired the rights to a product called Keypak, the original Keyword document exchange software. The software still brings in a tidy sum for Esposito today, with corporations such as Abbott Laboratories paying for annual licences for 30,000 seats. In the meantime, Esposito purchased and later sold three professional hockey teams in the East Coast Hockey League, and also founded a wireless Internet application development company called NetSearch. NetSearch was sold nine months ago to Aether Systems of Owings Mills, Md. for $90 million.

* Art Monk, vice-president of marketing and general manager of Keyword’s U.S. operations, consulted for a variety of firms after the Keyword sale, including Telus, the University of Calgary and the now- defunct Super Computing Centre in Calgary. He went on to co-found PointBase Inc., a Silicon Valley firm that develops Java-based database management software, and is currently chief executive officer of eZedia Inc, headquartered in Winnipeg. EZedia has created a digital media platform that pulls together such formats as video, text and MP3 files to create multimedia presentations.

* Pat McGuire, vice-president Canadian Sales, co-founded a computer technology services firm called BridgeTech Systems in Kanata, Ont. in 1994, which he recently sold. He is now dreaming up his next opportunity.

As impressive as this list is, there are probably many more Keyword success stories to tell. It has been almost eight years since the company was sold and the founders have lost track of the progress of the hundreds of employees who passed through the doors.

“There was a definite can-do attitude at the company in those days,” says Monk.

“It was the kind of environment where you were allowed to try things to see if they’d work. Sometimes they didn’t, and that was OK as long as you picked yourself up and got crankin’ again.”

Esposito says in many ways, Keyword was an early version of an Internet startup. “And once you get the taste of being part of a successful startup, you don’t forget it,” he says. “You become a serial entrepreneur.”

While Calgary has an ever-growing number of technology success stories today, that wasn’t the case as little as a decade ago. In fact, the local business community had adopted the mistaken belief that because there was a lot of oil and gas money around, and because the oil industry was used to taking risks, technology was a natural fit for Cowtown.

Martin says his early attempts to raise funds for SMART were met with stubborn resistance. “Oil and gas people are comfortable taking risks — as long as its in oil and gas,” he says. “It takes a generation to build a base of entrepreneurs who are comfortable investing in technology. Pioneers like Keyword created that first generation and we’re starting to see the impact in Calgary now.”

“It’s like a snowball effect,” adds Blackshaw. “Once people learn how do it, it just keeps growing and growing.”