‘Venture catalyst' sets out to untap Canadian high-tech

‘Venture catalyst’ sets out to untap Canadian high-techThrough a joint scheme with the Royal Bank of Canada, BTG is hoping to ‘take Canadian technology ideas from the lab to the market’. But what has it got planned for the UK? Alex Mayhew-Smith finds out
It is not often that one is privileged to attend a birth. But then BTG, the technology patents specialist, does things in unusual ways.  
  Lando… “We are a venture catalyst”
BTG recently set up a joint scheme called Primaxis Technology Ventures in Canada with the Royal Bank of Canada. The C$50m venture has been formed to “take Canadian technology ideas from the lab to the market”.
And this was it, this was the moment where history was made and a fresh phrase popped new-born into the world of business language. It was a proud moment. “It is about company creation, getting it up and working… It will fill a gap between early funding and first level venture funding for a company which also needs a method to judge the technology… we are a venture catalyst,” said Anthony Lando, senior v-p in the US of BTG’s electronics and telecommunications division.
It is an area untapped in other ways too. “There is a significant base of Canadian high technology firms. They used to go south to the US, draining technology and resources. Many start-ups in the US have roots in Canadian technologies,” said Lando.
Although a similar scheme for the UK is not planned, David Armstrong, also a senior v-p and Lando’s UK counterpart, does not rule it out. “We have to stand back and see where the centres of excellence are and they are not always in the UK. We are exploring other venture opportunities in the UK and in the US,” said Armstrong.
There are three areas for bringing in revenue for BTG: through licensing, through technology management – which can be likened to consultancy work – and through investment. The last of these three, through its Canadian venture, represents a new direction for BTG.
Traditionally, BTG finds companies with a huge portfolio of technologies which may not be part of their core businesses. BTG’s role is to show how this technology can be outsourced and translated into an income.  
  BTG’S INTERESTS AT A GLANCE It has commercialised selected patents from Lucent Technologies and has negotiated a licence between Lucent and American Superconductor for high temperature superconductor patents. The first licences are expected in the next year. It licenses the Supertag electronic tagging technology for use in baggage and parcel handling, access control and freight logistics. It is part of a licensing joint venture called Rolic Technologies that commercialises liquid crystal display technologies. BTG is developing quadrupole resonance technology for detecting drugs and explosives in luggage. A first prototype is expected to be available in 18 months to two years’ time.
Unlike other consultancies, BTG does not ask to be paid for its efforts but instead takes a share of the money generated by the technologies it promotes. And there is a lot of untapped potential out there: “A recent survey found that there is $115bn worth of patents that are not being used. During 1998 the US patent office reported that the top ten companies filing are electronics firms,” said Lando.
“Our aim is to make IP [intellectual property] synonymous with BTG,” said Armstrong. It is an ambitious stance but the firm, which floated in 1995, is on target to be profitable by 2001.
BTG is also unusual in its view of its market. The company insists its identity is as a global company: “We are not a UK organisation, we are co-located in the US and London and managed on a multi-national level,” said Armstrong.
BTG’s history has been to focus on telecoms and semiconductors, all its other activities have been based on this core business. Its route to finding technologies it is interested in is also different. “The classic way to go is through universities but we also target companies who are under-commercialising and take responsibility for their patenting,” said Armstrong. “The business of intellectual property requires a different awareness level, the cycle time for technologies is short… we have to work in market time which is shorter [in electronics] than, for example, the pharmaceutical industry.”
Universities look to more distant horizons, whereas BTG prefers technologies that are nearing fruition, which mostly come from companies. “Many firms do not have a licensing department, commercialising their technologies. With Lucent we showed them how they could use their assets, how they could be commercialised,” said Lando.
BTG believes that its road to success is in its expertise. Unlike straightforward consultancies, BTG’s electronics and telecommunications division is packed with ex-industry employees. Armstrong is an engineer and physicist who worked at Quantel. Lando is also a physicist and engineer who has worked for Philip’s medical division.
A list of other staff in BTG’s electronics division proves the point with experienced engineers from companies such as Marconi, Dell, AlliedSignal and Cable & Wireless. BTG lists its main competitors as Price Waterhouse Cooper, Anderson Consulting and KPMG. The edge BTG has is its vast experience in technology.
Giving birth to the first venture catalyst – not bad going for a company that has been around for 50 years. Here’s hoping BTG’s Canadian prodigy may one day have a UK sibling.

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