Danny Bradbury | Dec 17, 2012 8:18 AM ET
Mobile software firm Flick Software, a 10-year-old company that specializes in applications for mobile phones, had a problem: It lacked expertise in building mobile-friendly websites and needed money to get it.
That prompted Jason Flick, founder of the Ottawa-based company, to look west for some help.
Flick recently received $10,000 from Wavefront, a Vancouver-based wireless accelerator, and Wavefront executives say there’s more where that came from for eastern wireless startups.
“We didn’t have a full suite of services around mobile. We needed to do these mobile Web apps and sites,” Mr. Flick said. By missing out on those pivotal Web-based projects, Flick was leaving business on the table, he said. And when it did pick up business, the nine-person company would often have to deal with a third-party contractor outsourcing the development of a mobile app for a client.
The company needed to close the circle.
Flick applied for funding through Wavefront’s NRC-IRAP Accelerator program to help flesh out his company’s skill set. The money was used to partner with a local firm, Industrial Media, which designed a mobile website for Flick, and now partners with it on customer projects. “It filled that gap for us,” Mr. Flick said.
Wavefront, which launched the NRC-IRAP accelerator program in British Columbia in 2009, worked with the National Research Council to channel funding from its Industrial Research Assistant Program to wireless and new media startups. The program has engaged more than 50 companies in B.C., awarding on average between $15,000 and $25,000 to each company, James Maynard, chief executive of Wavefront, said.
In September, the accelerator rolled the program out in Ontario and Quebec, continuing a three-year expansion that has seen it partner with local entrepreneurial organizations such as Kitchener’s Communitech, Toronto’s MaRS Discovery District, and Invest Ottawa. Already, it is working with 12 companies in eastern Canada as part of the NRC-IRAP program, which is designed to help startups overcome speed bumps in their development.
“There are lots of situations where companies get stuck on technical issues,” Mr. Maynard said. The program not only gives them the funding to help overcome these issues, but also provides valuable networking opportunities.
“You’re typically under 10 people,” said Hélène Joncas, vice-president of Wavefront’s eastern region, describing target companies for the accelerator’s NRC-IRAP initiative. “You’ll want skills you don’t have inside the organization for a pointed activity.”
In Flick’s case, it needed to develop a mobile website and partner with a web design firm on customer projects, but other requirements could be to develop a market penetration strategy for a new product, or acquire in-house skills in a new programming language, Ms. Joncas said.
Wavefront is promoting a growth industry in Canada. According to an Ovum report commissioned by the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association (CWTA), the wireless communications industry generated nearly $43-billion for the Canadian economy in 2010, up from $41-billion in 2009.
Wireless startups in Canada need a single representative, Mr. Maynard said. When the chief executive of Sony flies in to look for Canadian innovation, he should be able to visit a single location and get the whole story.
“If we continue to grow regional silos, they’re very small on a global basis,” Mr. Maynard said. “The goal of Wavefront from the beginning has been the relevancy of the Canadian wireless industry on a global basis.”
Lyn Blanchard, founder of Vancouver-based management consultancy Creekstone Consulting, was also hired as president of NFC Interactive, a wireless startup that participated in the program for a year starting in September 2011.
She acknowledges that accelerators add value for entrepreneurs in several ways, by providing mentoring, a solid knowledge base, and a pathway to capital.
Networking was also an important part of the relationship for NFC, which still rents office space in Wavefront’s Vancouver location. The executives would meet with their Wavefront contact each quarter. “Because of [Mr. Maynard’s] experience with Nokia, he had an extensive list of contacts that were useful to us,” she said.
Ms. Blanchard praises the expansion, arguing that a bigger community provides broader networking opportunities for the accelerator’s base of entrepreneurs.
“But big is not always a guarantee for the better,” she cautions. “Running an entrepreneurial company is fraught with risk and to manage these risks, Wavefront should not lose sight of catering to the unique individual needs of entrepreneurial companies engaged in its accelerator programs. Said another way — manage to the grassroots.”
Mr. Maynard said he is intent on building strong local relationships in the eastern territories through his network of local staffers, including Ms. Jonas, and others based in Toronto and Montreal.
The accelerator is also expanding at home. Last week, it announced it had taken another half-floor in its Vancouver building, almost doubling its space to more than 175 seats. It can also work remotely with companies, say officials.
For companies such as Flick Software and NFC Interactive, this means more opportunities to partner with companies across Canada. It also edges Mr. Maynard further along the road to having a single organization representing wireless startups in Canada.
“We can take a single set of resources and relationships, and leverage them across the whole country,” he said.