Capital ideas

Tennis%20August%2016%2C%202009%20057Mugshot400X400.jpg By Tony Patterson

(Published originally in Ottawa Business Journal, September 3, 2012.)
Despite the prejudices of outsiders against government and bureaucracy, Ottawa has been the best place in Canada to incubate big ideas and visionaries during my lifetime and even before.
The town was started by the greatest engineering project of the age before railways, the building of the everlasting Rideau Canal. That was before my lifetime, of course, but I feel a certain connection. One of my ancestors was a sapper who came with Lt. Colonel By to help blast, cut, dig and construct that magnificent waterway.
My lifetime was getting underway around the time of WWII when Ottawa was the nerve centre of the greatest growth explosion the country has ever seen. There was an engineer in charge, the controversial “minister of everything,” C. D. Howe. Most particularly Ottawa was where the technology to run the engines of war was conceived. The National Research Council emerged from the shadows under a brilliant scientist-soldier, General Andrew McNaughton, inventor of an artillery targeting device that was a forerunner of radar. From the NRC since have emerged hundreds of devices, systems, ideas and even seeds that have contributed to the betterment of humankind everywhere. Canola (a name made up of Canada and oil) is worth $2 billion a year to Prairie farmers, second only to wheat as an agricultural export. The motorized wheelchair. The first cardiac pacemaker. The crash position indicator, which guides rescue workers directly to isolated airplane crash sites before survivors perish of injuries or starvation. These are Ottawa inventions. The vaccine against infant meningitis. The first electronic music synthesizer. The best way to do computer animation of film. All got started here, at the NRC.
Of course there were some escapees of the ambitiously independent from NRC and its offshoots, even though they were often depending on government contracts to get their fledglings off the ground. Joe Norton founded Computing Devices. His son Mark is still actively supporting various high tech enterprises about town. Denny Doyle threw down his labcoat to establish Digital Equipment Corporation in Canada. It would vie with Nortel as the backbone of the tech-centric west end from Nepean through Kanata.
Nortel arrived as Bell-Northern Research in the early 1960s, attracted by NRC and its offshoot the Communications Research Centre at Shirley’s Bay. CRC would be the heart of Canada’s space adventures, starting with the Alouette program in the early 1960s. Alouette 1 made Canada the third nation to have a satellite circling. BNR became the single most important influence in moving the world’s telecom from analog to digital. This key innovation allowed Mike Cowpland and Terry Matthews to produce the fabulously successful PBX machines at Mitel. Then there was a quarter century run-up to Silicon Valley North, an intoxicating, almost giddy era. The likes of Systemhouse, Fulcrum, Jetform, Mosaid, JDS and Cognos were blooming.
Mitel does different things today, but in the meantime Matthews started Newbridge, now part of Alcatel, and Cowpland founded Corel. Nortel (which assumed BNR in 1996) is gone, the victim of awful business decisions. But the $5 billion patent portfolio it revealed in its death throes was dramatic evidence of the quality of thinking that went on there. There, of course, was here. Ottawa.
Where are the dreamers, the visionaries of yesteryear? As a matter of fact, a lot of them are still around, still dreaming dreams, still trying to make them real. Rod Bryden at Plasco. Terry Matthews at the re-acquired Mitel and a score of startups, Michael Cowpland at Zim, Adam Chowaniec, the Foody family, David Luxton. Denny Doyle still consults with the community out of Doyletech. And the young turks: Alfred Jay at Ramius, Tobias Lütke at Shopify, Paul Vallée and Andrew Waitman at Pythian. Space only prevents a much longer list.
It’s been my pleasure to write about these people through the years. Now I take leave, supremely confident that the end is not here, not even near. There will be a new resurgence of the technology gene. It may even have begun without our noticing. I can’t say precisely what it will bring but whatever it is will rise from a foundation of two solid centuries of technological achievement. Right here in government city.
Allons-y!

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