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Oct 1, 2009

by Gregory Hudson

Exponential growth isn’t a challenge felt by all TechRev innovators, to be sure. The medical community, for example, isn’t as prompt adopting new products, according to Greg O’Grodnick, CEO of Circle Cardiovascular Imaging Inc. Like Ball, O’Grodnick has a history of successful startups backing him up, but unlike Tynt, Circular Cardiovascular doesn’t necessarily have universal appeal. O’Grodnick’s okay with that.

“I like being a big fish in a small pond,” he says. “There is real opportunity in being in a niche market.” For one thing, the outfit can stay small and maneuverable, with a focused sales team. Which makes sense, since the market isn’t exactly vast – hospitals mainly, albeit a continent of them.

But to say Circle Cardiovascular doesn’t have broad appeal isn’t exactly true. The company’s software, cmr42, allows users to both quantitatively and qualitatively assess a patient’s MRI scan. As the number of heart disease cases rises, Circle Cardiovascular’s proprietary software will likely be in greater demand, since it diagnoses conditions other programs can’t. At least that’s the pitch O’Grodnick is delivering to hospitals across North America. That’s the pitch that got him interested enough to join up with the doctors who created the product, so that he could help commercialize it.

“Our biggest frustration is the time delay between the doctors loving our product to adopting it,” O’Grodnick says. And it’s not as if the medical community has been sheltered from the economic downturn, he says. But that’s indicative of the tech sector; it’s so diverse, even in Alberta, that companies within it can be both affected by the recession or grow in spite of the downturn, and some even because of it.

Take Print Audit, for example.

The way the daily morning meeting is run at the company’s Calgary headquarters, you’d never be able to guess that the economy was in the tank. It’s not that the firm displays extravagances everywhere, because it doesn’t. More, it’s a feeling among the nearly 20 employees. They seem relaxed, individually and collectively. Each has to say a great thing that happened to them the day previous, and what they plan to work on that day. The process is punchy. People know not to talk too long. But they also know they don’t have to seem overly serious. It seems like it could, at another company, be a daily reckoning, a way to keep employees accountable. But here, it just seems like the easiest way to promote communication.

It’s good that each employee is quick and to the point, since this year they’ll likely be adding more bodies to their already crowded boardroom.

“This past year was the first year we didn’t see growth,” says CEO John MacInnes. “Next year we’ll see our biggest growth yet.”

If Print Audit does expand this year, it will be because its software addresses the two major business concerns of the moment: cost reduction and environmental sustainability. Print Audit’s software tracks and analyzes a business’s printing needs and facilitates money-saving solutions, some as simple as directing documents to be double-sided. Simple, but it saves money and trees.

Print Audit’s success, and the success of Calgary’s tech sector in general, comes through the marriage of business acumen the city is known for, with the technical innovation that it’s not. “It’s a little like the ‘prophet in his own city’ thing,” says MacInnes. “We’re not very well known in Calgary.”

But that comes with the territory; the tech sector isn’t really local. It’s worldwide. That can make hiring difficult, because while the market is immediately and predominantly global for all the TechRev Innovators, they need to staff their headquarters. It isn’t that Calgary doesn’t have a tech-savvy pool of potential employees. It’s that, like investment capital, those people look to the oilpatch first.

“It’s been very hard to pull people away from oil and gas,” explains Sandy Moreland, a founding partner and vice-president, corporate services at 3esi, a company that specializes in management software for exploration and production companies. “Part of the problem is that it amounts to an identity shift.” Another problem, according to MacInnes, is matching the pay of the energy sector, but that’s changing.

Still, each of the businesses that TechRev is spotlighting has succeeded despite their shared challenges. Boytinck says that’s one of the reasons TechRev established these awards. She sees these companies, large and small, as pioneers. “It’s inspiring and heartwarming to see the drive that these people must have,” she says. So if they can get a little recognition in their own province, all the better.

Especially since they might just change the world.

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