The tech sector of London, Ont., is going places, according to Marilyn Sinclair - and she should know.
As general manager of TechAlliance, she's already taken it to Mars.
OK. Not that Mars. The MaRS Discovery District in Toronto, but there are better business opportunities there than on the Red Planet.
TechAlliance is a not-for-profit organization supporting technology-based business in London. Formed in April 2002, it merged a diverse group of smaller organizations, including the London High Tech Association, IT London Council, the Life Sciences Council and members of the advanced manufacturing sector.
TechAlliance receives $85,000 in annual funding from the City of London, but received an additional $110,000 grant from the city this year. The Province of Ontario kicked in $700,000, to be spread over three years, to hire additional staff and expand its programs.
"There has been a perception that London doesn't have a tech sector," says Sinclair. "We have been known more as a financial and insurance centre, but that started to change a few years ago when our head offices were bought out. We felt there was a need to throw our support behind our tech community."
The 31 founding members included IBM Canada, 3M and the National Research Council. Membership has since grown to 150 businesses and institutions.
"Our objective was to strengthen the programs and services available to our business community, to accelerate business formation," says Sinclair. "To do this, we developed stronger relationships with key partners and government, both locally and abroad.
"For instance, externally we partnered with BioTech Canada, and the MaRS Discovery District in Toronto (a not-for-profit centre that develops commercial ventures), while internally this meant firming our relationships with the University of Western Ontario, Fanshawe College, local hospitals and research institutes."
Key among the organization's programs are its venture services.
"Small companies find it hard to get the funding they need to grow," says Sinclair. "We created a council of experienced finance and business people to help entrepreneurs vet their business plans and presentations, so they don't blow their shot at winning an investment. With our help, a local company named Scisense recently raised $600,000 in investment."
Scisense Inc. develops advanced technology in the medical research market, primarily microscopic catheters to measure pressure and volume within the hearts of lab animals for medical research and drug testing.
A southwestern Ontario city of more than 350,000, London hosts such educational institutions as the U of Western Ontario and Fanshawe, the largest college in Ontario.
The Robarts Research Institute is a leader in medical research along with the London Health Research Institute. For Alex Navarre, director of Western's technology transfer office, this puts London in a good position for high-tech growth.
"London is a hotbed of technologies," says Navarre. "With its university and hospitals and the Robarts robotic research institute, it has a fantastic critical mass in terms of innovations.
"This region has a tremendous potential to develop new products, and with partners like TechAlliance, we are helping to translate our research into commercial activity.
"A fair amount of our growth is based on the strength our institutions have developed in the life sciences, and also in other fields such as bio-energy or nano-technologies," he adds. "With the hospitals, there is a lot of clinical experience and a strong medical faculty. Indeed, our region is the fourth-largest biomedical research cluster in Canada."
More than $221 million in research funding has flowed through the University of Western Ontario and its affiliated research institutes, $135 million through the university alone.
Developing a high-tech economy in southwestern Ontario brings comparisons with the Region of Waterloo, but Navarre notes that the two centres are following different paths.
"Waterloo has been an engine of entrepreneurship through information technology," says Navarre.
"The concentration of information technology is lower around the University of Western Ontario, but this is where life sciences comes in, as well as green energy and biotech/medical devices.
"These have a longer cycle to penetrate the market, and we have to spend more energy to recoup the initial investment, but we're going to be more diversified in terms of technology profiles, in my view.
"I think Waterloo's economy has been stimulated by the environment their spinoff companies have provided, and that's what we and TechAlliance are trying to do," he adds. "We are creating a new spirit of entrepreneurship, to encourage people in the community to invest in startups."
Which is why TechAlliance took Londoners to MaRS.
On Sept. 22, TechAlliance organized the "BioTrain to MaRS.”
This excursion brought 50 London researchers to Toronto to spend the day gaining the tools needed to transform their ideas into commercial opportunities.
TechAlliance has formalized its relationship with MaRS, and is now operating the London branch of the organization.
Meanwhile, TechAlliance's other initiatives continue.
"We've established links between the business and cultural communities, doing things like a Night at the Grand Theatre, where over 160 people came out," says Sinclair.
"Until now, the business community hadn't really noticed the cultural community; but we know that the cultural community needs our support because they're important to the vibrancy a community needs to attract the good workers our businesses need," says Sinclair.
To support biotech, TechAlliance helped establish the BioOlympics, bringing elementary and high school students together with business and government leaders to work on science projects.
"If we're to grow the biotech sector, we have to be sure to encourage your young people to get into that sector," says Sinclair.
"One thing we learned recently is that London has had a tough time retaining a young demographic, people aged 22-45," she adds. "So we launched an emerging leaders initiative in order to grow that demographic, establishing our next generation of business and community leaders.
"If you're not retaining this age group, you're in trouble, because that's the age group most entrepreneurs come from."
Navarre says: "TechAlliance is doing a great job, and there are already success stories. There's Viron Therapeutics Inc., in the area of cancer treatment, and EK3 Technologies in the area of narrowband broadcasting. These companies are not heralded the same way RIM and Open Text have been, but they are at an earlier stage of development. Give it three years and they will be at a very different level. And there are more companies in the pipeline."
Sinclair agrees. "If you look at our membership now, we already have several tech companies with 100 or more employees. From an economic development standpoint, the city is putting a lot of resources behind growing the tech sector. I think we're just at the tip of the iceberg.
"Once you've built the entrepreneurship culture, this can only explode."
Web Watch: www.techalliance.ca