As the financial year for the Yukon Technology Innovation Centre draws to a close, I have been tallying up the centre’s account of success stories, less-than-success stories, and stories-undecided.
One of the more encouraging developments arising in the course of this review is that, at long last, the centre seems to be on the verge of seeing a couple of information technology projects finally bear commercial fruit.
When I first arrived at the innovation centre more than five years ago, my background in computers and the internet business led me to assume that software development and internet-related services were likely to be a substantial portion of the centre’s economic payback to the Yukon.
As it has turned out, that supposition, though it seemed reasonable on the face of it, was naïve.
I have been casting around for the past few years, looking for the type of local IT innovation that actually does have a chance of finding commercial success.
Two recent IT-related projects (which, for reasons of confidentiality, I can talk about in only the most general terms) are giving me what I think is at least the beginning of an understanding of the kind of IT products the Yukon is capable of successfully producing.
First, let me say that, in what follows, I am not being at all critical of the talent, ambition, or business sense of the Yukon’s IT community.
Though I never make any pretense to being a software programmer or IT guru, I have a long-standing and wide-ranging familiarity with the Yukon’s IT community, and I have a lot of respect for the quality and range of talent it encompasses.
Accomplished and imaginative as they may be, however, local developers still suffer from the fact that they live and do business a long way from Silicone valley and other IT hotbeds.
The internet notwithstanding, in the IT business, as in most other businesses, it’s still all about location, location, location.
In my early years at the centre, I believed (along with a lot of other people) that the Yukon’s quality of life offerings — arts centres, sports complexes, high speed internet, nature trails right outside your house door — made it a promising place to attract the lone-wolf software developer.
These nature-loving hotshots would then develop their killer applications locally, and then sell them to the world, enriching themselves and the Yukon.
Significantly, that has not happened.
The Yukon does indeed have a small community of nature-loving IT hotshots, but most of those who are not engaged in developing specialized software applications for the Yukon government are often struggling to get by.
Over that past few years, the innovation centre has been involved with two particularly interesting and promising software products — one in the document digitization sector, one in the field of credit card debt management — that ended up producing highly professional, attractive products that have had only limited market success or have failed outright.
In each case, the fatal gap the products got lost in was the lack of any “hook” into the business sector they were geared toward — a lack arising largely from the developer’s lifestyle choice to settle in a small community at a long remove from national IT hotbeds like Vancouver or Ottawa.
In the case of the document digitization program, the developer faced the problem of finding entry into a very high-dollar business environment—hospitals, police agencies, government offices — with an accomplished product, but no reputation or consistent contact with that sector.
It is hard to be an out-of-the house software developer and close a deal with a major US city hospital.
They want to deal with big companies they can count on for service and support — and whom they can profitably sue if they aren’t happy.
In the case of the credit card debt program, the developer involved faced the inverse problem.
The software he had on offer — again, a highly professional and effective product — was a low-cost-per unit commodity that had to sell in significant volume on the internet to actually make money.
Doing the promotion and transaction management on a product like that turned out to be too much for a lone-wolf, home-based developer.
It has been a source of frustration for me — and of more than frustration for the developers, I am sure — to see two such good products banging on the door of a world which doesn’t seem to hear them.
That is why the two new IT-apples of my eye interest me as much as they do.
They differ from each other, but have some interesting things in common.
One (actually produced by the same developer who created the credit card debt software) is a program directly targeted to a specific company’s digital surveillance and security hardware — hardware which has a substantial market share in Europe.
It is a limited, but sizeable market, and much easier to address and serve than a mass-market audience.
Furthermore, the company that produces the hardware in question has an interest in helping this Yukon developer’s product to succeed, since it enhances the value of its own product.
The other new IT product (which involves using internet-based technology to monitor and control remote heating, data-gathering, mechanical or other such systems) already has local customers looking to buy it, and a very strong potential pan-northern market.
Once again, a market that is target-specific and limited, but big enough to be profitable, and displaying a demonstrated interest in the product being offered.
You aren’t going to become the next Microsoft serving such markets, but you can have a profitable and comfortable small to medium sized business in them — exactly the scale of business most Yukoners (computer nerds or otherwise) are almost invariably looking for.
They scale to the capabilities and life-style needs of the developers involved.
So, I have a good feeling about each of these products.
I hope I am right, this time out, because that could mean good things for the future of the innovation centre — and, just as importantly, for these two Yukon developers, and the ones who will follow.
Rick Steele is a technology junkie who lives in Whitehorse.