BOO CHANCO:  CANADIANS  MAKE  STRONG  STAND  IN  WATERLOO, ON

WATERLOO, ONTARIO
, March 14, 2005 (STAR) DEMAND AND SUPPLY By Boo Chanco  –  A patient due for a delicate lifesaving surgery is scanned. The data from the scanning procedure is then used to create a virtual person, upon which the specialist surgeons in another part of the world practice the procedure without any danger of killing the patient by mistake. The correct procedure is then recorded and fed to a robot. In the end, it is the robot that performs the actual surgery by remote control.

Sounds like scary science fiction? The marvel of virtual reality is upon us, with wonderful applications in such fields as medicine. In this case, a lifesaving development is being made possible very soon by technological advances in computers and telecommunications. That incredible virtual reality is being made possible by a Canadian start-up company called Hand Shake.

Thanks to the progress being made by scientists at Hand Shake in the world of haptics, the surgeons practicing on the virtual person will not only see and hear the patient undergoing the procedure, they will also feel every step of it. Haptics, they explained, adds the sense of touch to the virtual experience.

The applications of Haptics in medicine, consumer electronics and even in the handling of hazardous materials from terrorist bombs to nuclear waste should give it not just one but a host of "killer applications" that should make the venture capitalists who invested in them very happy. Haptics, got its early research triumphs at the research laboratory of the University of Waterloo. The scientists who worked on it formed Hand Shake as a start-up capitalizing on that very technology incubated at the University of Waterloo.

The close relationship between local academic institutions, government and private business is just one of the things that is pushing the reputation of Canada’s version of Silicon Valley. It is at the very heart of the concept behind what is now being increasingly known as Canada’s Technology Triangle. The concept is simple: a cluster of cities working together to provide an environment conducive for both scientists and investors to thrive.

As John Tennant, the CEO of Canada’s Technology Triangle Inc. (the corporate vehicle charged with planning and marketing for the region) puts it, innovation, entrepreneurship and leadership are the qualities driving the region, an hour and a half away from Toronto. The growing reputation of Canada’s Technology Triangle for high technology developments is a result of a conscious effort to boost the resources of its local universities and establishing strong linkages between academics and business with strong government support.

In the Waterloo area, the universities serve as anchor for the tech triangle. The academic institutions serve as incubators for emerging technology. Government and industry are also organized to help the more promising breakthrough to commercialize.

It helps that the University of Waterloo also has a policy of allowing its professors and researchers to keep title to patents for any inventions developed in the university. This means, the scientists themselves, not the university as is the common practice elsewhere, stand to benefit from commercialization. This policy enabled the university to attract the best local and foreign talents, helping them build a powerhouse of innovators.

The growth of the Waterloo technology triangle, its growing reputation for leading edge research, successful commercialization of laboratory projects and the reform of Canada’s taxation system have also helped reverse the brain drain of native Canadian talents to the United States. "We are attracting them back," Tennant declared. The Canadian government has also embarked on a program that endows professorial chairs so that outstanding researchers from all over the world will come to Canada and undertake leading edge research in Canadian universities.

A number of successful high tech companies in Waterloo started as research projects in the university. Research in Motion, the company producing the ubiquitous Blackberry (a PDA with cell phone capability) and Hand Shake are good examples of commercial spin-offs from the university’s research laboratories. Outside of the technology triangle, this time in the Ottawa area, Nortel executives also told us they are using a similar strategy of nurturing academic researchers for marketable products.

As for attracting investors to the region, Tennant said they do not believe in giving tax breaks as much as making sure there is a very competitive business environment. There must be an important lesson there somewhere for our own Board of Investments. "We make sure they will want to stay," Tennant explained. One such town in the area, Woolwich, has set up a one stop shop that assisted among others, suppliers of Toyota’s Canada operations based in the triangle, to set up factories there.

It is clear the Canadians are making one big effort to be among the leaders in today’s high technology world. And they are making their stand at Waterloo.

Dinosaurs

Canada’s move to the fast lane in the world of high technology may however be restrained by a national airline whose concept of customer service belongs to another era. Maybe, Air Canada can’t help behaving like the near monopoly that it is – if you have to fly around Canada, it is the major game in town. We have been hopping around the wide expanse of Canada over the past week and our experience with Air Canada has been frustrating.

None of our flights left on time, causing a lot of worries about missing connecting flights. The check-in lines were always long. If they had more customer orientation, it would have been simple enough to man all their counters to speed up the lines. Then again, we may have been spoiled by the high quality of service we get from most Asian airlines. Air Canada’s level of service is typical of North American airlines. It is possible that the quality of service we are used to in Asia is impossible to get in North America. It could be a cultural shortcoming.

Our worst experience for the week was the lost luggage of one of the journalists in the group invited by the Canadian government in an effort to present Canada’s best foot forward to the world. The luggage of Indonesian journalist Wicaksono was lost somewhere between Hong Kong and Toronto. Numerous calls to Air Canada’s customer service between Saturday and Tuesday gave us conflicting information on where exactly was Mr. Wicaksono’s luggage and when he could get it. We found out that part of the problem was the fact that the customer service number we were calling was actually a call center in India. No wonder there was no empathy on the journalist’s predicament. But there was no excuse for the airline’s failure to provide timely information to a harassed customer. Imagine having to make do without your clothes for three full days while attending an international conference and you will understand the grievousness of Air Canada’s shortcoming. Perhaps if Air Canada had more and better competition, it would respect its customers more. But unless Canada manages to get itself a world class airline soon, its national aspiration to be among the high fliers in technology and investments will be curtailed somehow. Dinosaurs like Air Canada will simply drag down Canada’s high tech high fliers. Now, that’s a Waterloo in the Napoleonic sense.

Being Blessed

The Canadians are like us Pinoys in the sense that there is a strong urge to try to look more independent than we really are from the Americans. Canadians know their economy is intricately dependent on the superpower south of their border. Yet, they have this ambivalent feeling we can understand so well.

Perhaps out of frustration, they take it out on jokes. Here’s one I heard.

Everyone knows the story of God creating the world in six days, and resting on the 7th....well on the 8th day, God and the angel Gabriel were looking down on the world and God says to Gabriel "I am happy with my creating Gabriel, so happy in fact that today I will create the best land in the world and I will call this land Canada.

Oh Gabriel, it will be most beautiful. I will give it tall majestic mountains, and wide open prairies...I will give it not one, not even two, but three oceans...I will cover this land in rich green forests, deep blue lakes, crystal clear rivers and beautiful wild life for them to enjoy... I will let them experience all four seasons.

I will populate this land with all different types of people...nothing but the kindest, gentlest most caring people in the world...and they shall be known as Canadians...These Canadians will be known around the world for their friendliness, and compassion for others, and will be well respected by all...they will rise up in the face of tyranny, and help crush evil that threatens the world. They will be intelligent, and use this intelligence for the good of the world...." God keeps going on like this for awhile... and this whole time Gabriel has become quite worried so finally he says..."God, I don’t mean to question you, but don’t you think that you may be giving these Canadians a little to much?"...

God looks upon Gabriel and smiles...then says "Don’t worry Gabriel....wait until you see the neighbors I am giving them!"

Boo Chanco’s e-mail address is bchanco@gmail.com


Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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