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Mapping Canada’s digital future one node at a time: An interview with Steve Currie, Marketing Director at CDMN

Kevin Tuer, Managing Director of CDMN (right), Tom Jenkins, Chair of CDMN and Chief Strategy Officer of Open Text (middle) and lain Klugman, CEO of Communitech (left)

Kevin Tuer, Managing Director of CDMN (right), Tom Jenkins, Chair of CDMN and Chief Strategy Officer of Open Text (middle) and lain Klugman, CEO of Communitech (left)

Connect, collaborate, commercialize. This is the mission of the Networks of Centres of Excellence (NCE)-funded Canadian Digital Media Network (CDMN)—a rough road map of their strategy to turn Canada into a world leader in digital media. And like any skilled orienteer, these digital media activists plot their journey point-by-point until the destination is reached.

The Hub, Kitchener, Ont.

The Hub, Kitchener, Ont.

The Communitech Hub is CDMN’s latest “node” in the plan to expand the country’s digital media horizon. Situated in the heart of downtown Kitchener in an old leather tannery built in 1849, the Hub has the characteristics of a refurbished industrial space: brick walls, cement floors, exposed pipes and support beams.

The 30,000-square-foot (almost 2,800 square metres) space has been refashioned into several open-concept offices and board rooms, equipped with state-of-the-art digital media, tech-support staff, and a myriad of available business consulting services (advisors, accountants, lawyers, bankers, etc.), all meant to entice both start-up and well-established companies grow their businesses through greater collaboration in an environment of dynamism, openness and creativity. 

The NCE Secretariat had the opportunity to interview Steve Currie, Marketing Director at CDMN, just before the October 7, 2010, grand opening of the Hub. He revealed how this space figures into the future of Canada’s digital media economy.


NCE: So what exactly is the Communitech Hub, and how does it work?

Currie: The Communitech Hub is one of the nodes within the Canadian Digital Media Network (CDMN) funded through the Centres of Excellence for Commercialization and Research (CECR) program interested in accelerating the commercialization in digital media. We define digital media as any information that is created or shared virtually—it is not just entertainment media, it is much broader than that. It includes things such as medical software or manufacturing in the oil and gas industry, etc. The Hub is basically a place where we bring together early-stage companies in digital media with industry partners such as Research In Motion, Open Text, and Christie Digital, and each of those companies sets up an R&D team to work on special projects. There are three primary components within the Hub: early-stage companies; industry, as well as some academic partners—which all have teams locating here; and then the supporting cast, that is the infrastructure, the tech support and the on-site professional service providers, such as Bank of Montreal, KPMG, Ernst & Young, and Miller Thompson. So there are bankers, lawyers, accountants—and the Communitech staff—to deliver a lot of the services that are offered to the tenants of the building.

NCE: When you talk about delivering services to these new companies, what do you mean?       
 
Currie: It takes two forms. On one side, it is the overhead services we provide, such as making sure they have Internet connectivity, that there is a receptionist they can use, that there are meeting rooms and that their phones are working. And on the other side, it is the mentoring and guidance consulting services we provide. We have what we call “executives in residence,” or former CEOs of companies that are here to mentor the early-stage companies and guide them through some of the early-stage challenges they might have. We also have other individuals, such as HR specialists, sales executives and marketing people available to mentor the early-stage companies and provide advice to them.

NCE: Do you feel that the Hub is responding to an existing market, or is it creating a new market to provide these services to?

Currie: It is certainly responding to a market need, and what we find is that, based on the activity that is already occurring, this generates a momentum within the marketplace. I think what we see is that there is an underlying market need here for these kinds of services, and because of the success of this kind of approach, it is also generating additional need as we go. What we are finding as well is that it is growing in scope, as we are getting companies making inquiries outside of our region to see if they can be located here and if they can get involved in what is available. There are only a few places in Canada that offer this kind of environment, so it is somewhat unique. At the end of the day, we are trying to accelerate the ability to commercialize digital media opportunities, so we are putting the different pieces in place that hopefully get these new ideas to market faster, and allow companies to not only get started themselves, but also to create jobs, and wealth for the country.   

NCE: What benefit or incentive do these larger companies have in investing in, and using a space like, the Hub?

Currie: The larger companies are involved for a few reasons. One, is that in some places, they are running out of space, so it gives them another space to operate from. But primarily, it is the ability to locate teams in a different kind of environment—and we’re still getting going, so time will tell how this plays out—but a really creative and collaborative type of environment. A number of our industry partners are interested in establishing their small R&D teams down here to work on special projects that would be in conjunction with the other industry partners or early-stage companies. The whole idea is that everyone is under one roof and it is much easier to collaborate than in their own physical offices and separate from each other. Just to give you an idea of how we have set things up, in one wing where industry partners are located, there are virtually no walls, it is very much an open concept. We have located all of our industry partners side-by-side so that they can see each other, they can talk and interact much more easily. And the early-stage companies have direct access to the individuals in those companies as well. So, this allows for a little more in the way of collaboration, but also to spur innovation. I think that the larger industry companies are looking for that edge as well, and just trying to tap into some of the innovation that is going on here in some of the facilities.

NCE: This is really interesting. Usually, businesses are competitive with each other, where companies innovate in their own independent silos and are perhaps reluctant to share with one another. Does this space signal a new stage in industry collaboration?

Currie: Just to back up a bit, we are very careful in our facility to not put two competitive types of organizations together, so there is the opportunity for collaboration when people aren’t direct competitors with each other. This past week, I listened to Terry Matthews
, founder of Mitel, and Tom Jenkins, chair of Open Text, both commenting on that point, that it is more important for Canadian companies—in order to be competitive on the global scene—to collaborate and to work together to come up with a solution that will be attractive to global customers. Whether we like it or not, in Canada, we just don’t have the scale of the companies that we need in order to compete globally. So, by collaborating and working together, we have a better chance at being successful in bidding on projects that are located in say India or China, or other places around the world.  

NCE: Can you explain the 3-D virtual environment cave at the Hub created by Christie Digital, and how it will be used?

Currie: Basically, it is a virtual reality tool or software to project a virtual reality environment onto screens as well as the floor. People can wear 3-D glasses to upgrade in that environment. It is not quite up and running yet, but we have already had a lot of interest from individuals from a research point of view, but also for some applications that would be helpful. So, a couple of the applications this immersive environment will be used for are things like training in a virtual environment. An example might be that you have to train a helicopter mechanic or technician. It is a very complex environment with a lot of parts, and perhaps it is not easy to get a hands-on actual helicopter model that you would like train on. Well, in this environment, you can recreate the cockpit or the engine or whatever the environment is the individual needs to be working on and actually get as close as you possibly can to recreating the physical environment, in terms of a virtual training environment. One of the other applications, for example, is in the oil and gas industry, where maybe it is a remote location that you would like to better understand; say you are working on a pipeline in Siberia or maybe up in the Arctic and you physically can’t go there, but you can recreate that environment in a virtual way and be able to interact with the different components in the virtual environment and be able to understand—from a physical space point of view—how the pieces fit together and what are some of the constraints you need to consider when you’re looking at that kind of environment. We are seeing a bunch of different pieces for this. Right now, the automotive industry had expressed a strong interest. There is even interest in such areas as psycho-therapy; people who have fears of many different things, of heights or different environments. The colleges are using this kind of technology to work with patients to overcome some of their fears that way. It has a broad range of applications. It is quite large for a virtual reality environment, I believe it is one of only two of its kind in the world.

NCE: On a more general level, what are the pressing issues in Canada with respect to advancing our digital economy?

Currie: What we hear certainly from our customers—from our industry partners and our stakeholders—the two biggest issues that a lot of our early-stage customers face are access to capital and access to talent. By talent, we mean the people that have the right skill sets for the jobs that are available. The other area that is becoming a big issue is the growing productivity gap between Canada and its international competitors, for instance the U.S. We certainly see that there is a link between innovation, commercialization and productivity. The more we can do to spur innovation and to turn that into globally competitive commercialized products and services, the more chance we will have on the productivity basis. Our chance to reduce the productivity gap is directly linked to our success in commercializing some of the innovation we have in the country.

NCE: When Industry Minister Tony Clement called for submissions as to the future of Canada’s digital economy at this year’s Canada 3.0 conference, what is CDMN’s position, and how does it see itself contributing to Canada’s digital media future?

Currie: CDMN provided their thoughts on this issue. And that again gets back to this notion of putting the right components together that will allow for the greatest amount of success in creating digital economy companies and also leveraging existing companies, helping them grow and explore more commercial opportunities or opportunities for expansion with what they are doing. That is really how we see the way things should move forward. We are working with the more established industry partners to identify opportunities for that, looking into ways in which they can collaborate and harness the innovation of the younger, early-stage companies and, at the end of the day, be that accelerator to commercialization. Based on what we have seen and heard, and certainly the consensus of the input gathered at Canada 3.0, the role of CDMN is really to connect, collaborate and commercialize. We are trying to break down the silos across the country. We are trying to connect organizations, companies, government, academia and industry to work together to identify opportunities for growth and get people working together, and to identify what can we do to help speed up the process from the commercialization point of view.  

NCE: What will it take to make Canada a leader in digital media?

Currie: Canada has a rich tradition of innovation but for the most part, where we have fallen short on the world stage is in commercializing our research and development.  By fostering collaboration across the country, reducing our silos, partnering for maximum leverage in global markets, and providing early stage companies with access to capital and talent at the right stage in their evolution, Canada has the capability to become a world leader. But there is a sense of urgency to this goal, since global competition is intense.

NCE: What will it take to make Canada a leader in digital media?

Currie: Canada has a rich tradition of innovation but, for the most part, where we have fallen short on the world stage is in commercializing our research and development. By fostering collaboration across the country, reducing our silos, partnering for maximum leverage in global markets and providing early stage companies with access to capital and talent at the right stage in their evolution, Canada has the capability to become a world leader. But there is a sense of urgency to this goal, since global competition is intense.

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