My duties at the Yukon Technology Innovation Centre are generally of the duff-under-desk variety, but this week I managed to get in a rare fieldtrip.
I was visiting the premises of one of the centre’s clients, who was coming at last to the final stage of what had been a long, arduous product development project — a project that had consumed more than two years, and considerable expense of energy, money and, sometimes, frustration.
Considerations of confidentiality prevent me from being too specific about the identity of this client or the nature of his invention.
Suffice it to say, he runs a local business in the decontamination industry, and his innovation was the application of a certain kind of information technology to a decontamination system.
When he and I first talked through the project, now those many, many months ago, his idea looked promising and not excessively difficult — an instance of what we computer geeks sometimes call SMOP — a simple matter of programming.
As so often happens with SMOP, though, the programming turned out to be distinctly not simple, and the challenge involved with the whole effort was several orders of magnitude larger than either he or I imagined at the outset.
This project, in fact, turned into a classic example of the perils and potentials of doing technology innovation.
By turns, my client had to struggle with lack of personal time, lack of financial resources, and lack of resource people with the skills he needed to see the project through.
On top of this, he is a man in his early 30s, with a new-ish marriage, two very new kids, a new house under construction, and a very busy business to run.
It is not surprising, then, that the project had such a long and difficult gestation.
What was surprising to me, however, was this fellow’s ongoing determination to pay the price in time, money and frustration to see the thing through to completion.
It was that very evident determination, in fact — along with the impressive commercial potential of the product, if we could pull the thing off — that led me, at the cost of taking some heat, sometimes, to stick with the project, too.
Playing the technology innovation game inherently means playing hunches and taking risks, and sometimes sticking to your guns even when you look like you are out of ammunition.
As it happened in this case, things suddenly fell into place at a fortuitous time — cash resources were available, my client had some free time, and a computer programmer with the requisite, specialized programming skills was available — and a project that had be in a quagmire for months suddenly surged through to completion.
Again, confidentiality prevents me from going into too much about what transpired at the product demonstration, but what I saw was more than sufficient to justify my faith in the promise of this idea.
The end result was actually a technology much superior and commercially valuable than the one we originally envisaged.
Just what the value proposition of this product turns out to be is, in fact, the next big question, and one with which, in my duties with the technology centre, I can have only a marginal involvement.
My role in the innovation process is in helping get a prototype or proof-of-concept product in place.
Once that has been achieved, my role switches to being a doorman, showing the client through to the business development services he needs to move from prototype to commercial product.
That was why the project manager of the Whitehorse Chamber of Commerce’s Yukon business development project was also present at the demonstration, assessing the commercial viability of the product and the suitability of my client “adoption” by that invaluable program.
My hope (and, in fact, my expectation) is that my client will indeed be taken on by this program, and with them get launched on the next perilous sea in the process — the sea of commercialization.
That sea is beset with many of the same dangers — lack of time, lack of money, lack of expertise — but on a scale potentially much more serious than they are in the research and development venture.
Difficult and risky as it can sometimes seem, my little cove in the innovation sea is actually much safer than the tough sailing of the commercialization phase.
It is easier (though not easy) to produce a successful prototype than to produce a successful new business.
On the other hand, if you don’t venture out on the perilous waters, sometimes, you never get anywhere interesting.
Rick Steele is a technology junkie who lives in Whitehorse.