Testing tech in government departments

Published in the Ottawa Business Journal newspaper and website.
April 4, 2011 (April 6 on OBJ.ca)

Click here to view this article on OBJ.ca.

New federal innovation program a step forward, but much work remains

Monica Preston.
AMITA president Monica Preston.
Photo by MARK HOLLERON for the
Ottawa Business Journal.

Local high-tech industry players say they’re pleased with the federal government’s new program to allow innovative products to be tested within the civil service, but there’s plenty of work still to be done on the part of the applying companies – and the organizations that support them.

Public Works in early March announced it had prequalified 19 companies, including three Ottawa-area firms, for the first of four rounds in the $40-million Canadian Innovation Commercialization Program. The initiative streamlines the procurement process for companies with highly innovative technology and sees Public Works working with the firms to find the appropriate government departments to try out their products and services.

If a match is found, CICP will negotiate contracts for the trials and disburse funds to procure the innovations, reducing the risk and budgetary constraints for the acquiring departments.

For AMITA Corp. – which prequalified for CICP with its MedPost public health information sharing software – the program is a great way to move products beyond the research and development stage.

“Until CICP came along, there was nothing that went the next step; you’d be sitting with capabilities at the R&D stage with a product that wasn’t polished, and nobody would have done extensive testing within federal government departments and there would be no feedback about the applicability for the product within its operating environment,” says Don Williams, a consultant who works on business development for AMITA.

“CICP recognizes this, not just in a government context, but the fact that innovations need to be tested, and given feedback and suggestions about improvements for marketability.”

Health Canada has already shown strong interest in MedPost, which also helps with an issue AMITA identified with another solution under its umbrella, consular software WorldReach.

“In our previous experience with WorldReach going into the international community, it was important to show we had a strong reference account within Canada as well,” says AMITA president Monica Preston. As such, getting a Health Canada deal in place could be the key to introducing MedPost into provincial, municipal and U.S. health communities.

The INSPEC tool SageData produces.
SageData’s INSPEC tool.
Photo courtesy of SageData.

Even companies who don’t have as sure of a match regard CICP as a boon. One example is SageData Solutions Inc., whose new INSPEC tool broadens the application of its paperless inspection and maintenance tracking device.

Several government departments have already been using custom versions of SageData’s technology for years, but the CICP-prequalified INSPEC is a more generic solution that can be used across different contexts. That varied applicability means the program will have to evaluate which department would be the best fit for SageData.

CEO John Rivenell says CICP is a great opportunity to engage in a longer-term vision.

“This allows us to pull back from the day-to-day focus on putting products out the door to pay the bills, and do some careful planning,” says Mr. Rivenell, explaining it can be hard for a smaller company such as his, with limited resources, to work on something innovative that might only pay off down the road, instead of the quicker-fix solutions clients are demanding.

CICP’s benefits are generating buzz elsewhere in the high-tech community, according to the Ottawa-based Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance, which has been one of the major champions for such an initiative.

“It’s early days yet, but from what we’ve heard, people love the program and … say it’s doing what it’s supposed to,” says Barry Gander, CATA’s executive vice-president.

However, Mr. Gander notes the program could use more flexibility if the intention is to encourage innovation. “If you look back at what we wanted to do, it wasn’t just about matching department funds, but about testing the future.

“The idea of having this test bed is to give new technologies a chance before they’re necessarily provable. It’s supposed to be a living lab where companies are allowed to fail without anybody in the bureaucracy being blamed. We need to allow people to play.”

And while the purchasing process may be more streamlined, it can still be difficult for companies to get to the stage where their products are actually being tested within the civil service, he says. That’s an aspect that needs a closer look.

“I’m not putting the blame on CICP for having red tape, but there’s a missing piece for very small companies. They need extra help to access these programs, and that’s not necessarily the government’s job – they need help from associations or their cities,” says Mr. Gander, who adds the CICP’s newness means there are fewer “hand-holding processes” than with more established initiatives such as the Scientific Research and Experimental Development program.

Beyond that, adds SageData’s Mr. Rivenell, noting his company has been working with the government for 20 years: “What I hear from some people is that once you get in with the government, you can just sit back and get rich and lazy and life is easy, but that’s not how it is. Other than the fact that we’ve gone in and become established as someone folk can rely on – that’s just the trust you build with any supplier – you’ve still got to work hard, have a good product and good business ethics.”


Size: $40 million over two years

Maximum contract value: $500,000

Structure: Four calls for proposals will be published for innovative goods and services under four broad categories: environment; health; safety and security; and enabling technologies. Proposals will be competitively evaluated on a point-based scale. Successful companies will be matched with end users within the government and receive feedback on their product.

Criteria: Products and services must be in the final stages of development, must not have been produced in great quantity, only ever have been sold for testing and demonstration and should not already be readily available in the marketplace. Subsidiaries of foreign companies are eligible, providing they have Canadian operations.

Source: Public Works and Government Services Canada

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