Waterloo gears up to take advantage of strengths in digital media technology

Guest Contributor
March 3, 2010

Focus on Waterloo, Part II

The Lang Tanning building in downtown Kitchener ON is currently a hulking brick shell but in three months it will be transformed into the key hub of the Canadian Digital Media Network (CDMN). The massive structure is part of the historic Tannery District, a largely abandoned manufacturing centre in transition and a highly visible indicator of the growing know-ledge-based economy in the region. The $30-million redevelopment of the 32,500-sq-m site by Toronto-based Cadan Inc has been conceived as a convergence centre of artisans, professionals and technology, with The Communitech Hub as its anchor tenant.

Digital media is front and centre in the Kitchener-Waterloo region as the driving force behind the growth of many of its high-tech anchor firms, a growing number of start-ups and the aspirations of policy makers. All are working to ensure that the region benefits from its anchor status for CDMN as it recruits collaborating partners across the country. In its inaugural report on the state of Canadian S&T, the Canadian Council of Academies identified digital media as having the greatest momentum and highest growth prospects after the Alberta oil sands, prompting the federal and provincial governments to boost support for the sector.

To date, CDMN and its affiliated hubs have attracted $107 million from the private sector and all three levels of government. A second hub is being established in nearby Stratford ON with provincial money and federal funding from the Centres of Excellence for Commercialization and Research (CECR), which is managed by the Networks of Centres of Excellence program. CDMN officials are currently in discussions with other urban centres with strong digital media sectors including Vancouver, Calgary and Montreal.

"We have momentum in this space with a significant number of digital media mobile technology companies. Not content, not animation and games, but technology — digital projection, health IT, health informatics, mobile computing, application, you name it," says Iain Klugman, president of Communitech, the economic development agency for the region's high-tech sector and manager of The Hub. "By and large where you're going to make money is in ICT — digital media mobile and the full value chain from transmission through to content — all you can eat, any format, any flavor. What we do really well here is technology and the rest of the world is paying attention to the content … It's a huge opportunity."

Several major area high-tech firms have also bought into the concept and vision and are contributing significant financial resources to the venture. Open Text is one such firm, investing in both The Hub and taking space to engage in collaborative R&D. Its executive chairman and chief strategy office, Tom Jenkins, is also chair of the CDMN board. Jenkins asserts that CDMN has already been a success.

"CDMN already has become the social network of people interested in new and digital media … It's already successful (because) it virtually exists. That's the most important part," says Jenkins. "The second wave of this is joint collaborative R&D. For example, Agfa, RIM (Research In Motion Ltd), Open Text and Christie announced $100- million joint research in digital media. That came out of CDMN. We've started to see the cultural industries and content industries start to have a dialogue with the technology guys. It's the first time in this country's history."

For Christie Digital, CDMN provides an ideal opportunity for the developer and manufacturer of digital display and projection systems to enhance its technology by partnering with established and emerging companies. The Kitchener firm will be installing $4 million worth of equipment in The Hub, creating a cave — an immersive virtual reality environment — and taking space to conduct collaborative R&D.

"The interest we have in the Hub is in bringing together some of the different companies involved in digital imaging … We'll use our space to conduct software development for our Microtiles project (advanced digital display technology), developing application layers over the hardware layer," says Christie president and COO Gerry Remers. "I'm thrilled about it. There will also be monitoring of small start-ups …CDMN will serve as the interface in terms of policy and hub linkage."

other hubs emerging

As CDMN board chair, Jenkins has been in discussions with officials in several potential hub cities including Calgary, Vancouver and Montreal. Once those regions establish hubs of their own, a virtual collaborative network will be established to leverage pools of regional expertise for the development of new products and applications.

Jenkins says the CDMN will serve as a focus of strategic dialogue in the same way that the CRTC regularly meets with telecommunications and media companies

"We're starting to bring together the hybridization of that. We will build the hubs and the Tannery and Stratford are going to be breaking ground soon to build their hubs. Alberta and BC are on their way to building their hubs," says Jenkins. "The more important part will be that virtualization of networks and connecting the hundreds and hundreds of organizations together. That's the real value."

One powerful indication of the leadership the region is taking in digital media is last year's wildly successful Canada 3.0 conference. held in Stratford. Conference organizers anticipated 300 attendees and were overwhelmed by the 1,500 delegates who actually attended. Participants agreed that the event was instrumental in initiating the dialogue between those engaged in creating content with technologists (Waterloo's strength), educators responsible for generating skilled personnel and government, which many are looking to for establishing a fertile environment to cement Canadian leadership in the sector.

This year's conference will once again be held in Stratford on May 10-11 (www.canada30.ca).

"This year we're going to have an unbelievable crowd. It's already successful. It's doing outreach and education and it virtually exists. That's the most important part," says Jenkins. "What we're not doing with CDMN is telling somebody in Saskatoon they don't have to come to Toronto. It's virtual and what they've done is they've started with boot camps all throughout the country. The most important thing that they've done is the network outreach."

stratford institute

While Waterloo's strength lies mainly in the digital media hardware and software space, the Stratford Institute provides CDMN its creative component. Conceived as a think tank, integrator and training institute, Stratford is intended to bridge the gaps between digital media, international commerce and culture by stimulating invention, collaboration and entrepreneurship. It has a wide interpretation of digital content ranging from the familiar (video games, business software, knowledge management) to niches such as art, theatre, and medical instrumentation. Funding to the Stratford Institute flows through the Univ of Waterloo.


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