Ten wonder years supporting innovation…and counting
Posted on September 23, 2017
On ACAMP’s tenth anniversary, CEO Ken Brizel shares his thoughts on the journey of this Canadian organization that aims to help advanced technology innovators move their ideas from proof-of-concept to a manufactured product that go to market.
Inception to address a market need
Q: Congratulations on ACAMP’s tenth anniversary. Could you start by telling us how and why ACAMP was created?
Ken Brizel (KB): Thank you! Has it been ten years already?
Well! ACAMP was created in 2007 in Alberta to help companies commercialize products and take them to market.
Three companies — Micralyne, Norcada, and Scanimetrics – saw a need for an organization to offer engineering and project development assistance to technology innovators. They petitioned the provincial and federal government to form and fund ACAMP.
We started by servicing these three companies. And I am happy to note that all three are still our clients. We continue to work with them on different types of projects.
Our mandate is to help as many companies as we can, go to market with new product technologies.
Our expertise is applicable in just about any market and any industry. The physical location of our clients is irrelevant. So we can help any client anywhere. But the growth of industry in Alberta is very important to us.
Our founding companies noticed, like we did, that a fundamental weakness for advanced technology innovators in Alberta is the lack of ability to do design for manufacturing.
Many companies come in with what looks like a Rube Goldberg design. It will function, but it is not something you want to go to production with, because it is either too big, too bulky, too costly, or wouldn’t yield a hundred percent in manufacturing.
So there are many reasons to redesign a product. Many companies who come to us have good product technology, but they are not ready for production yet. This is a key area where we can help.
Q: What is ACAMP’s stance on intellectual property?
KB: We are interested only in the success of our clients and the effect of that success on the economy. We have no interest in our client’s intellectual property. There are other companies in Canada that engage in just small specific areas of product development, but want a piece of the intellectual property to do that.
Evolution in complexity and people
Q: How has ACAMP evolved over the years?
KB: We’ve evolved in how we can support a variety of clients. The first projects were fairly simple and straightforward: putting a component into an electronics-based plastic or ceramics package.
With time, our technology development has grown more and more complex as we asked companies around Alberta about their technology needs to take their products to market.
Today, we are building subsystems and modules to full system-level assembly which is hardware, firmware and software based.
But ACAMP is not about the equipment; we are all about the people. Having the right group of people and personalities to support companies on product development is extremely important. Our engineering staff have become more experienced and more multidisciplinary and they are really up for challenges. The people at ACAMP are, bar none, the best in the industry.
We’ve also grown dramatically in the number of projects we handle on a yearly and even monthly basis. In our first year, you could count on one hand the number of our projects. In contrast, last year alone, we handled 120 projects.
Q: Can you share some of your client success stories?
KB: Micralyne was a day one client, Nanalysis a day two client. We helped Nanalysis grow into the company they are today, successfully selling their products.
We helped study SmileSonica’s product design using advanced multi-physics simulation software. We also provided an approach to characterization using advanced electronic test equipment. SmileSonica’s Aevo System is now in commercial clinical use in Canada, Australia and several European countries.
For Norcada, we provided robust build and test solutions for a new laser product line. Norcada’s tunable lasers can be found in environmental sensors used around the world including at refineries where emissions are controlled.
We helped Nanolog Audio with the engineering support to prepare guitar pedal parts for sale to discerning musicians. Now in production, the manufacturing process developed on ACAMP equipment is allowing them to smoothly commercialize this new device for customers.
There are of course others, which I won’t talk about — because we respect our clients’ confidentiality and won’t mention their projects without their express approval.
Q: What have been some of your challenges?
KB: A basic challenge is demonstrating the impact of the work we’re doing.
Secondly, we are here to help companies succeed. And there’s a lot we can do to refine a proof-of-concept into a marketable product. But there isn’t enough awareness of our organization among the Alberta community of innovators and the public in general.
That apart, all the technology areas we work in are challenging. But the work is fun.
And that is why engineers are here — to engage in product development even if it challenges them, and to have fun with it.
Q: What makes ACAMP unique? What sets you apart?
KB: I believe it is the holistic approach in how we work with our clients. We don’t want to send our client to 15 different places to get the job done. We have the people, experience and equipment to handle their projects. We are with them every step of the product development process – offering world-class product engineering expertise and advanced analytical, testing and manufacturing equipment.
Q: Is it true that you are the only product development centre in North America and possibly the world that does this uniquely?
KB: Yes. There are other groups that do similar types of technology development. For example, the Fraunhofer group in Germany. But they’re much more academic in what they do and they take a piece of the intellectual property from their client.
Many of them are not inclined to take on small and mid-sized businesses, preferring to work with larger corporations. We do!
We are also different from universities or technical institutions. Their focus is research. Ours is to develop products for commercialization.
When a client walks into ACAMP
Q: What can advanced technology innovators expect when they work with ACAMP?
KB: When a small or mid-sized business walks in, we give them our time and resources and even a proposal for free on how to work with ACAMP.
We then have a business team that works with them to interface them into the engineers.
Depending on the client’s technical ability, they can work directly with our engineers. Or if they simply want us to manage against their project plan, then they can work with our business team who will be responsible for every aspect of the project.
Our clients should know we are flexible. We can work on many different levels. But we follow a standard process. Engineers are responsible for the project and delivering on budget and on schedule. The client interface is always our business development team.
We follow a stage-gate type process. Every stage of development is carefully thought through, implemented, then checked against the plan, then explained to the client. Only with client approval do we go to the next stage. Stage-gate helps a client take bites at the project, which is difficult to do otherwise.
Q: What does the road ahead look like? What are ACAMP’s plans for the future?
KB: More fun! More complex projects!
For instance, the systems we’re building now represent the latest inroads into autonomous systems. They require a level of machine learning that is brand new to the world. Google of course has been working on it for a few years. Fifty car companies are also trying to work on a machine-learning application along with hardware and firmware development. ACAMP is getting involved in these areas which continue to challenge and push us toward new capabilities that we bring in-house.
Q: What about growth and global aspirations?
KB: If we’re doing our job, more companies go to market each year than the year before. And they bring more dollars in sales on the products we’ve helped them with.
We have enough growth in our client base. That’s all we can handle at this point. Because we have only so much in funds that we can muster towards helping companies.
But I’d love to help more countries, more companies within those countries.
In fact, ACAMP has been asked by the National Research Council to take a board level position at EURIPIDES, a European investment group for smart electronic systems. So for the last two years, I have been serving on their Board of Directors as the Canadian representative.
Innovation above and below the 49th parallel
Q: You are a Floridian in Alberta. What prompted you to take on this role with ACAMP?
KB: I was running a public company in the United States, when I was headhunted for a job in Alberta.
I found the opportunity interesting. How do we grow the technology community in Alberta? How do we help companies take their bright ideas and get a product into the market?
In the first two years, we were working with 80 companies. And now we’re helping about 340 companies.
We’re working on cutting-edge new technologies at ACAMP. We’re helping people turn their innovation into a product they can sell.
That is the thing that I find interesting and that keeps me here.
Q: What do you find different between innovators in Canada and the United States?
KB: Canadian innovators are no different from American innovators. They’re just as smart, just as capable as anyone else in the world, if not better. They’re well-trained. The schools are excellent in Canada. Alberta has some of the finest schools for engineering and development.
The problem is there aren’t enough huge technology-based corporations here to train people on what it takes to be a big corporation or grow to be one. That is one difference I find.
Another is that Canadian innovators tend to be dependent on government grants. In the U.S., if you develop a product for a viable market, getting the money is no problem.
Thirdly, Canadian innovators get to about a million dollars in sales and then want to sell their business. Whereas most startups in the U.S. want to get to a billion in sales.
I would love to see that fire in someone’s belly here in Canada. I’d like to challenge them to grow to be big, without depending solely on government funding.
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