Timing is everything to medical data software company Roam I.T.
Launched into the marketplace three years ago, the young Edmonton firm completed its first round of venture financing just prior to the tech market collapse in the fall of 2000, and sealed a second $2-million round shortly before Sept. 11 and the subsequent aftershocks to the economy.
Its flagship Rampart-EMS software product allows paramedics to collect medical data at the scene of an emergency on a Panasonic Toughbook and transfer it later to hospital computers via short-range infrared transmission – with a potential wireless capability that one day could allow for complete long-distance mobility.
|Edmonton company Roam I.T.'s software is being used by paramedics.|
Roam I.T. is an example of the growing ability of Alberta universities to capitalize on home-grown research – and with the right timing, funding and industry contacts, expeditiously deliver projects from the lab bench to the business world.
With recent injections of provincial and federal grants and the recruiting of high-profile researchers in wireless and other IT specialities, the Universities of Alberta and Calgary are positioning themselves for a new generation of spinoffs, even as the bruised tech market continues its slow climb out of the bearpit.
The university relationship “has been hugely important” to Roam I.T., spun out of the U of A with the help of its Industrial Liaison Office (ILO), says Al Gourley, a director on Roam I.T.’s board and past-president of the company.
“The first port of call, so to speak . . . was with the ILO.”
Dr. Louis Francescutti, an emergency physician at the Royal Alexandra Hospital, conceived the idea for the Rampart-EMS software as part of his research at the U of A into injury prevention.
A prototype code for the software was developed in 1996, and the company was incorporated two years later.
The U of A’s in-house Industrial Liaison Office, which provides technology transfer services for its base of nearly 2,000 researchers, helped the fledgling company secure funding from sources including the Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research. In return, the university obtained equity in the company and remains a major shareholder.
“In the early going, the fact that it had come through the university and that the university was a shareholder, added a certain cachet and credibility to the company,” says Gourley.
The pace of wireless and other IT-related research is picking up at Alberta’s two largest universities, spearheaded in part by the Alberta Informatics Circle of Research Excellence (iCORE), a provincial high-tech funding agency set up in 1999 to attract and retain some of the best minds in the fields of computer science, engineering and mathematics.
As one of Canada’s most research-intensive institutions, the U of A has incubated and spun off more than 38 start-up firms over the last five years.
The recruitment of Dr. Norman Beaulieu from Queen’s University two years ago with iCORE funding to head the Wireless Communication Laboratory has ushered in a new era of wireless research – and potential licensing opportunities.
Meanwhile, digital communications expert Dr. Christian Schlegel was headhunted from the University of Utah last month to lead a U of A research team tackling problems arising from the rapidly expanding use of wireless networks.
The ILO recently set up a dedicated team specializing in forming spinoff companies from campus research, while even more licensing opportunities are being generated from within individual faculties.
This recruitment and research trend is being matched at the U of C, which has announced significant IT and wireless-related appointments over the past two years, adding to its reputation for world-class medical science research.
“The U of A and the U of C are very good examples of working on each other’s strengths – just like the two cities are growing into that mindset,” says ILO spokesman Jason Darrah. “Instead of being competitive, we really collaborate on things. If we as a province can think about capitalizing on our collective strengths, we can really make a mark in North America.”
In Calgary, university spinoff success stories include Wi-LAN and Cell-Loc, although both have struggled with the vagaries of the stock market.
But market demand for wireless applications, and the research to create them, remains “extremely hot,” says leading U of C wireless location and navigation expert Dr. Gerard Lachapelle.
University research “is partly curiosity-driven, and as a consequence, we can take more chances. It’s more long term. But eventually, and more frequently, there are some industrial applications,” says Lachapelle, a professor in the Department of Geomatics Engineering whose work is supported by iCORE.
“As a consequence, and because there is far more government sponsorship of university-based research, there is no doubt in my mind that we are going to see more and more technology transfer from universities to the private sector, in various types of partnerships.”
Helping bridge the gap between discovery and practical applications of wireless and IT research is University Technologies Inc., a wholly owned U of C corporation that helps commercialize discoveries and manage intellectual property issues for university and corporate clients.
Commercializing wireless technology “is one of our major sources of licensing income,” says UTI spokesman Don Morberg.
“Over the history of UTI, we’ve done just under 400 licences, and almost half of them are wireless related.”
Wireless technology can either be embedded in or provide a platform for other technologies, including geomatics engineering, global positioning systems, geophysical and geospatial mapping, and IT integration.
But while most people may associate “wireless” with cellphones, GPS or personal digital assistants, not as many realize the massive amount of technology that goes on behind the scenes to allow those tools to function, adds Morberg.
“Gerard (Lachapelle) has assembled a phenomenal collection of researchers, better than you’ll find anywhere else in the world,” says Morberg. “He has great contact with industry, knows what they want, what they can use – and he knows what they will be looking for, maybe even before they do.”
Alberta is well positioned to help its universities develop and turn out competitive technologies regardless of the current health of the high-tech sector, agrees Dr. Graham Jullien, an iCORE-funded researcher in advanced information processing at the U of C.
“These downturns and upswings, what’s the frequency of them? We’ve been in this period for about a year . . . that’s nothing in university research time,” he says. “We may spend 10 years working in an area. These upswings and downturns are like noise.”
He says many companies seek out university expertise to explore ideas and potential technologies they might not look at otherwise because of the costs associated with long-term, and often long-shot, research.
Jullien, a recent arrival from an Ontario-based university, agrees Alberta is the place to be for researchers with an eye on getting their work into the market. “There was no infrastructure there to do commercialization,” he says of his former institution. “To me, I think it’s going to be pretty easy to commercialize things in Calgary.
“Coming from a different part of the country, this is a ‘have’ province.”
Besides his interest in developing biomedical microsystem integration, or wireless implants for the body, Jullien is also working on signal processing for experimental LAN technology being developed by Edmonton-based TRLabs, Canada’s largest not-for-profit ICT research consortium which operates labs in Calgary, Saskatoon, Regina and Winnipeg.
TRLabs helps to build bridges between the academic environment and industry. It has created 250 technologies adopted for use by companies over the past 16 years and has generated 132 patents granted or pending, as well as training more than 700 post-graduate students.
Last week, a fact-finding delegation from South Korea-based conglomerate Samsung visited the U of C and TRLabs looking for IT companies and mapping technologies in which to invest.
TRLabs CEO Roger Pederson says increased support for university research through government grants and capital investments is helping create a “critical mass” of expertise in Alberta. Research programs are driven in large part by industry sponsors, including companies such as Nortel, TELUS, SaskTel and PMC-Sierra, so the consortium can insure relevance in the work.
Pederson says the tech downturn has focused industry’s demands for university research, both in terms of abbreviating time horizons and targeting dollars for the best short-term value.
“Today, if they are investing money in a university, they have a particular output in mind. I hate to say the word contracting, but they’re investing in the resources at the university to tackle a very specific problem,” says Pederson.
Nortel, for example, was participating in a number of programs at the university level, but now “universities are finding it’s not as easy to get them engaged in various activities, especially some of the ‘blue-sky’ activities,” Pederson says. “They’re much more focused, much more shorter-term. And they may not be casting their net as wide in terms of the relationships they are supporting. “They’re still there, but not to the same extent they were before.”
The major challenge for university researchers is finding reliable sources of capital to stay on the cutting edge. Unlike large U.S. university labs that are supported by large endowments or support from the military or technology establishments, government remains a major funding source for university-based science.
“There is no question that given the limited funding we have, because we are not the United States of America, we have done well, frankly,” says U of C researcher Lachapelle, who with his colleagues has licensed several GPS software applications to 12,000 users in 20 countries.
“Many of our sources of funding are from well-established government sources, both provincial and federal. Those tend to be long term – and thank God for the fortitude of those people that have established them long term, so we are protected from a financial slowdown in industry, to some extent.”
But, he adds: “Even if we spend a million in research here, we are not going to turn the world upside down. We have to be realistic with our expectations.” Jullien would like to see a reversal of current funding cycles.
“When there’s a downturn in the industry, the government should be increasing their funding, and when there’s an upturn, they should reduce it and let industry pick up the slack. But it doesn’t happen like that,” he says.
“But I really think it’s incredible what happens in Alberta, the way that revenue from one industry goes into diversifying the economy and building up another industry. I think that’s commendable, really great.”
For companies such as Roam I.T., the university lab was the birthing room of a growing enterprise which has placed its software technology with medical service providers in Grande Prairie, Saskatoon, Yellowknife, the County of Parkland and Houston, Tex.
Company officials envision a future in which their product can be used in a truly wireless capacity, allowing direct transfer of patient care data over long distances.
“The ILO has played a continuing, facilitative networking type role that has been invaluable to the company,” says Roam I.T.’s Al Gourley.
“Now the U of A is like any other shareholder. Where they are looking for their payback is obviously through the appreciation of the shares. It is a win-win situation.”