Ottawa companies get on board burgeoning machine-to-machine sector

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Machine-to-machine, also known as the “Internet of things,” may sound pretty esoteric. But experts say if businesses don’t get on board, they’re not only leaving money on the table, they’ll also get left behind.

Helene Joncas is the vice-president of Wavefront.

By Jacob Serebrin

The terms refer to everything from smart hydro meters that automatically report usage to utility companies to home security systems that send text messages to users to report a potential break-in.

One established Ottawa company is looking to profit from growing interest in machine-to-machine (M2M).

Software developer bitHeads has been in business for almost 19 years, making applications for a variety of customers. But the company only recently moved into M2M, when BlackBerry approached it to develop an app for the largest organic brewery in Florida.

The program uses sensors to monitor beer taps and kegs in restaurants and bars. The system allows the brewery to see which kegs are running low and re-supply their customers proactively, according to Sean Sykes, bitHeads’ vice-president of sales and marketing.

The company is also working with Nortec, a humidifier manufacturer. Nortec is attempting to capitalize on the growing number of cloud-computing data centres with a new water-based cooling system.

“They asked us if we could build a system that could monitor the units remotely and also integrate it with business management systems,” said Mr. Sykes. The system uploads data from the sensors on the humidification units to its own cloud-based network, where the company then analyzes it.

“You can start to do predictions on when parts will need to be ordered and where engineers need to be,” said Mr. Sykes.

If companies don’t adopt M2M solutions, he said, they’ll fall behind.

“Right now, it’s a race,” said Mr. Sykes. “If they don’t do it, their competition will.”

An app from bitHeads can range from $500,000 to $1 million for a complex enterprise solution, to around $100,000 for a simpler system.

While bitHeads only began to develop “Internet of things” (IOT) apps in 2012, Mr. Sykes said the products now account for about 10 per cent of the company’s revenue and he “expects it to be one of our core practices in 24 to 36 months.”

But there’s still the challenge of getting the word out. “End users and customers don’t even know that they can do this,” he said.

That’s something Jacques Renaud, president of SensiVU, a technology consulting firm in Ottawa, has also discovered.

“When the phone rings, people don’t say I want an IOT solution, they talk about the problem they want to solve,” he said.

Mr. Renaud is a strong believer in the potential of IOT. In April, he started a group that meets once a month to discuss the sector and hear presentations from entrepreneurs who are innovating in it.

He said the group is growing and has a diverse membership, including entrepreneurs, engineers from major companies, students and “makers” – a movement that focuses on hand-building custom pieces of technology.

For Mr. Renaud, IOT “is really in its infancy.” But it’s already allowing companies to “get rid of unknowns and get greater insight into your customer’s needs.”

“It’s about connecting data, devices and people,” said Hélène Joncas, vice-president of business development and strategy for Central and Eastern Canada at Wavefront, a federally funded non-profit that promotes wireless commercialization and research.

Ms. Joncas said some predictions suggest there could be as many as 50 billion devices – or “things” – connected to the Internet by 2020, including everything from smart water meters to beer kegs to cars.

That means big money. According to Ms. Joncas, the value of M2M in Canada could be as much as $57 billion in sales opportunities and productivity gains.

“That’s why M2M is so important,” she said. “It doesn’t just affect information communications technology.”

She said businesses in a wide variety of sectors “need to implement this technology in order to stay competitive globally.”

While the terms may be new, one Ottawa business has been working on products that help machines talk to each other and their operators since before the concept had a name.

“We’ve been around 33 years, focusing on embedded technology,” said Grant Courville, director of product management at QNX Software Systems.

He said the company, which is now a subsidiary of BlackBerry, has developed traffic control and signalling systems for trains. The firm is also taking advantage of the growing demand for M2M systems in vehicles.

One of the market leaders in in-car infotainment systems, QNX built the platform behind OnStar, which can automatically send data to emergency services when a car is involved in an accident.

Mr. Courville said the ability to have complete systems on a single computer chip and the declining cost of communicating between devices is driving the growth of the M2M business.

The company’s current challenge is finding a low-cost way to update the software of in-car systems.

“There are now over 100 mini-computers,” said Mr. Courville. “There’s more software in a car than a Boeing 777.”

It’s especially problematic with car systems that communicate with smartphones, since cars have a much longer lifespan and will end up having to communicate with phones that were developed years after the car itself.

Mr. Courville said he sees the M2M industry “starting to consolidate.”

“Companies are doing end-to-end solutions,” he said.

“You used to have to go through a large number of vendors.”

One example of that consolidation is Amdocs, which acquired Ottawa-based Bridgewater in 2011. That company has now become Amdocs Data Experience Business Unit, which is still based in Ottawa.

David Sharpley, the business unit’s general manager, said while Amdocs’ Ottawa operations focus on developing tools for telecommunications providers to manage connections between customers’ devices and data services, other branches of the company work on different products to provide a broader end-to-end solution.

“We’re just at the forefront of it,” said Mr. Sharpley. “Operators are just rolling out M2M services to enterprise customers.”

Organizations: Nortec, Central and Eastern Canada, Amdocs QNX Software Systems Boeing 777 Bridgewater

Geographic location: Ottawa, Florida, Canada

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