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The Government of Canada's Networks of Centres of Excellence seeks to mobilize Canada's best research and development talent through programs such as the Centres of Excellence for Commercialization and Research Program. This program provides resources to small and medium-sized enterprises including connecting them with university researchers, with commercially viable innovations. Recently the program helped Wavefront, a not-for profit centre focusing on the commercialization of wireless companies in Canada.

Catching the wave

Nigel Malkin and fellow entrepreneur Jeff LaPorte liked their loyalty programs but they didn't like searching for their loyalty cards at the cash register. And so it hit them—why not develop a loyalty program that doesn't involve cards at all? Many Canadians carry mobile phones—what if they could find a way to use wireless technology to automatically credit loyalty points or stamps to their account?

They developed the idea and came up with innovative technology, applied for a patent, and applied to be part of Wavefront's entrepreneurship program which offers a year of free office space and $10,000 worth of services.

Once accepted into the program, Malkin and LaPorte said to each other: "we actually have an office just waiting for us." They decided then to make a leap; they left their current employment in order to work full time on their new company, RewardLoop.

Nine months later the device Malkin and LaPorte innovated is being sent to manufacture and RewardLoop has captured the attention of major chains in Canada and the United States. A pilot roll-out of the technology will take place in chain stores early next year. The company now has three employees working full-time.

"Getting into the program catapulted us forward," says Malkin. "We caught a wave at the perfect time."

A great idea at the right time

Part of the RewardLoop's success is having a great idea at the right time, according to Wavefront's President, James Maynard.

It is easy for companies to use RewardLoop's technology. "There is no expensive capital and or complicated process; it is really simple for businesses to integrate RewardLoop's device into their process." Basically, RewardLoop involves merchants inserting a device between their point of sale system, and the receipt printer. The device intercepts the print data stream in order to add a secure, one-time use QR code (a type of matrix bar-code) to a customer's receipt. The QR code can be scanned with a mobile phone and used to earn and redeem merchant-defined loyalty rewards.

RewardLoop was able to approach companies with this solution at the very time they were grappling with mobile strategies. "The big chains are really thinking about how to innovate in the mobile space," says Malkin. "They know they have to; they just don't know how."

Accelerated capacity building

"We knew we had to act quickly," remembers Malkin, "and Wavefront was an extraordinary catalyst; we developed much faster than we otherwise would have."

When Malkin and LaPorte were accepted into Wavefront's entrepreneurship program they gained access to office space in Wavefront's collaborative, downtown wireless accelerator centre, as well as mentoring and coaching, technical services and connections to key industry contacts. "When you are a new start-up, some of the big chains ask questions like: how long have you been around? Are you going to be here tomorrow?" Just walking into a meeting in Wavefront's professional boardroom with full connectivity helped to allay doubts before a presentation even began, according to Malkin.

RewardLoop also made use of Wavefront's testing services. "We have a library of 350 to 400 different mobile devices," explains Maynard. "For an early stage company, money is hard to come by and it's expensive to test and deploy on a broad range of devices. Through Wavefront, individual devices can be rented for $10 a day, or entrepreneurs can pay $150 a day and do all the testing they want."

When RewardLoop ran a pilot project in a local restaurant, one of Wavefront's marketing staff also gave feedback that helped triple the uptake of the QR codes. Essentially, the advice was to let customers know about the program before they got to the cash—by means of table cards that advertised the program.

"Sometimes in the forest, all you can see are trees," says Maynard. "It's the third-party objective view that snaps attention to what you've never seen before."

In terms of securing financing, RewardLoop profited from Wavefront's advisory services, and its broad network of connections. "They helped us craft our pitch and make connections that led to financing—they gave us referrals that led to other referrals."

Wavefront's growing presence

RewardLoop is just one of small and medium-sized wireless companies that Wavefront is working with to help grow and compete. Seven other companies were also selected to participate in the entrepreneurship program the same year as RewardLoop. This year, Wavefront is selecting a further 12 companies for the entrepreneurship program bringing the total to  more than 250 companies served. With this success, Wavefront is currently developing an organization in Ontario to help businesses there connect to Wavefront's national and international programs.

While Wavefront focuses on helping businesses in Canada, it knows that opening international markets is critical to success. That's why it's helping small-and medium-sized Canadian businesses foster connections abroad. "Wireless is an export business; the big play is off-shore," says Maynard. "How does a 20-person company navigate those waters?"  Wavefront is helping to lead the way by fostering the connections and knowledge that Canadian companies can use to penetrate markets in Europe, Latin America and other regions of the world.  "When it comes to wireless, everyone's looking for the next new thing," he says. "And Canadians from Alexander Graham Bell through to RIM, have been a persistent source of innovation in telecommunications."  With strong partnerships between government, not-for-profits, and Canadian business, this tradition will surely carry on.

For more information, please visit the Centres of Excellence for Commercialization and Research Program website or by email.

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