The idea factory in “the middle of nowhere”
The spirit of innovation is alive and well in the Peace Country
by Mark Kozub
Photograph Chris Beauchamp
While the Peace Country has just five per cent of Alberta’s population, about 40 per cent of the province’s patent applications come from the region. It begs the question: Why? Bruce Rutley, director of Grande Prairie Regional College’s Centre for Research and Innovation (CRI) has a theory. “It’s rooted in history,” he says. “We’re a distance from Edmonton, so people had to make do. They’d buy equipment and then they had to fix it.”
Lindsay Wadsworth – owner of Sexsmith-based Integrity Technologies and a nominee for the Grande Prairie and District Chamber of Commerce’s Innovator of the Year Award in 2015 – puts it another way: “We’re out in the middle of nowhere,” he says. “We need to do things better so we can compete with the rest of the world.”
Wadsworth is the creator of the patent-pending Sight Surveillance technology, which provides tracking for field-based oil and gas, geophysical and firefighting operations. “We want to be the Q-Tip of the surveillance industry,” he says. When Wadsworth needed help connecting with the people who had the information and experience he needed to take his innovation to the next level, he turned to CRI. Along with its partners, Alberta Innovates Technology Futures and the National Research Council Canada, CRI works with small and medium-sized enterprises and innovators to move their ideas to market.
“We provide technical problem solving, applied research and what I like to call white-boarding – strategic planning about what comes next,” Rutley says. “We’re also expanding into digital marketing, using the Internet and social media tools to help market companies and their products.”
Of great benefit to clients like Wadsworth, the college is also eligible to apply for funds from the Canada Foundation for Innovation and has received funds from organizations such as the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC).
CRI also guides innovators through the arduous process of seeking a patent. It performs initial searches to find out if there’s a similar product on the market, offers advice on disclosure issues, and connects innovators with an intellectual-property lawyer. “A patent lawyer will say ‘yes’ to dealing with you,” notes Wadsworth, “but they’re pessimistic, and you can see why. There are a million patents out there. You have to be descriptive about how your idea works. It’s time consuming.”
The key to the process, says Wadsworth, is you have to believe in yourself. He had to do just that when he used his Sight Surveillance technology in a firefighting pilot project and found out that he needed to make changes. “We learned that our radio coverage wasn’t good enough. We could only get 25 kilometres from the fire,” he says. “So now we’re a certified Motorola developer and we’ve engineered a rover system that allows us to cover up to 1,000 square kilometres.”
Sight Surveillance is being used in two oil sands projects in the Fort McMurray region. Wadsworth is looking to apply the technology to highway construction, municipal snow removal and firefighting. “The biggest benefit to our clients is safety, tracking where their workers are and making sure they stay out of environmentally hazardous areas,” he says.
The other benefit is tracking production. At the end of each workday, Wadsworth’s clients receive a PDF of the day’s field data. While his clients love it, like all innovators he sees potential for improvement. “We need to put it online, so they can log on to a website, see the work that’s been done and drill down and get the real-time data over top of that.”
Most of the innovations coming out of the Peace Country are found in the oil and gas and forestry sectors. “We don’t see a lot of ideas for consumer products,” Rutley says. “The great ideas are coming from people who see a need and develop an innovation to fill that need. They’re confident and they’re able to develop products because they know the industry.” Or, as Wadsworth puts it, “We have a diverse economy and people are fighting for market share, so you need to have a better idea than the next person.”