Fed’s Shirley’s Bay complex a boon to local tech firms

By KRYSTLE CHOW
Published on the Ottawa Business Journal website.
Jan. 26, 2007

Click here to view this article on OttawaBusinessJournal.com.

In spite of a recent report criticizing the condition of its aging buildings, clients of the Communications Research Centre seem quite happy with the services they receive from the federal facility.

An audit obtained by Canadian Press earlier this month reported that the buildings at the CRC’s Shirley’s Bay facility were falling apart, as the centre was dipping into its maintenance budget to meet payroll demands after a hiring spree during the tech boom.

The report said the CRC was experiencing an estimated maintenance budget shortfall of $1.5-million to $3.8-million annually, and had plans this year to take $2 million out of the amount allocated to the upkeep of the buildings to pay for wages.

However, CRC president Veena Rawat noted a payroll cut was not necessary because the centre was not overstaffed, as implied by the report.

“We did some hiring to deal with the five-per-cent attrition at the time of the tech boom and also to make up for possible retirements. There was high turnover during the boom,” said Ms. Rawat, defending the centre’s spending activities. “Since then we’ve been taking action to make sure we can support staff.”

She acknowledged that some of the buildings in the 54-year-old facility were “getting old” and that the centre’s maintenance budget had been affected by a $1-million overall budget reduction because of wide cuts in the government, but many of the centre’s clients seem surprised by the suggestion that the facility is in poor condition.

The CRC, which operates under Industry Canada, is the federal government’s main research centre for communications technology, and works with the telecommunications industry to support regulatory functions and perform technology transfers. It also incubates small and medium tech companies through its Innovation Centre.

Alan Harrison, general manager of GAIN Microwave, which rents offices at the Shirley’s Bay facility and is a client of the Innovation Centre, said the centre appears to him to be a well-run organization which is not widely recognized despite the wealth of technical resources it provides to the industry.

“It’s something of a jewel, and I don’t think that value adequately extracts support from industry,” said Mr. Harrison. “There’s a huge body of expertise residing within the Innovation Centre which provides advice and consultation to us… and the value to us is more than the space we rent.”

Mr. Harrison said the audit’s contents came as a “huge surprise” to him as the library, workshops and offices that GAIN uses “look fine.”

“It’s never been a question for me,” said Mr. Harrison about the maintenance of the facility. “I don’t look at the walls and go ‘Holy cow, they need a lick of paint!'”

Rather, he explained that the commercial rate which GAIN pays to use the Innovation Centre provides a number of “unique capabilities,” including access to the facility’s well-maintained prototyping and model-making labs.

Ron Chow, chief executive officer of Innovation Centre client GenieView Inc., said the building they had been in before on the Shirley’s Bay campus had been a little bit older, but agreed with Mr. Harrison in saying that the insides of the facility had been properly maintained.

“(Our previous building) was not as presentable, in all fairness, but any problems normally got fixed very quickly and never caused any problems, which I think is a feeling shared by other tenants,” said Mr. Chow.

He said the company had seen some minor problems such as leaking roofs when there were heavy rainstorms, but that the centre had always been fairly prompt about repairs.

“As for the inside, I personally do not feel that it is ill-maintained, for those buildings that we do have access to,” Mr. Chow said, although he added that he couldn’t comment on many of the other buildings on the campus.

GenieView, a mobile and wireless product developer, has been a client of the centre for three and a half years and has been occupying one of the newest buildings on the campus for the past year.

“It’s an excellent arrangement, with our flexible lease and access to the machine shop and library,” said Mr. Chow. “They have a very knowledgeable group there.”

Meanwhile, the CRC’s external clients are saying that the campus is providing good services which aren’t affected by any maintenance problems they may be having.

“The CRC is a very good partner which is helpful and supportive… and the campus is as good quality as the average research facility anywhere in the world,” said P. Michael Gale, CEO of Telemus Inc.

Telemus licenses communications monitoring systems from the CRC which it then incorporates into the surveillance systems it sells in the international market.

“(The CRC) enables risky research and development to start that wouldn’t happen in a commercial operation because of the technical risk,” said Mr. Gale.

He noted that the centre also offers companies a greater insight into the global technical arena because of its government connections, as well as allowing Telemus to show the quality of the technology being developed in Canada to international clients.

“The facility is of excellent quality, and I’ve not seen anything that would suggest maintenance problems,” said Mr. Gale, who added that the centre was superior to many campuses he had seen abroad. “If all our technology partners were as good, I’d be very happy.”

Ms. Rawat said the audit has definitely made the centre realize that it needs to do more planning, and noted that they are developing a long-term capital plan to deal with the balance between the campus operations and spending on research.

“It’s a constant balancing act between salary, operations and maintenance, and capital,” she said.

The centre is working on building an energy-efficient system within the facility, and has received funding from Industry Canada to deal with “priority issues” such as health and safety.

Approximately $1.7 million of the $3 million total budget the centre has received for the 2006-07 year will go towards updating campus operations, including the upgrading of the electric, sewage and water systems.

As well, the CRC is limiting the number of new staff it will hire, and is considering working out new arrangements with its tenants to see where they can cut costs without decreasing the security of the campus.

“As a result of the audit, we’ve identified priorities and the dollars that go with them for our campus and scientific equipment over the next three to five years,” Ms. Rawat said. “We’re definitely looking at where cost savings can be made both on R &D and operations, and we realize that we need to look at the impact of research programs on campus operations.”

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