CES: Canadian tech firms battle weather woes to cut deals
Consumer Electronics Show too important for companies to give up on when the going gets tough
There’s something so very Canadian about having one’s plans for the Consumer Electronics Show completely messed up by bad weather. Such is the case for Stephen Lake, who sheepishly greets me at a suite at the Venetian hotel in Las Vegas.
He’s alone in the spacious room, anxiously awaiting the arrival of his partners in Thalmic Labs, the Waterloo, Ont.-based startup that will soon be launching the Myo, an armband that allows for gesture-based control of computers and other devices.
The group was to spend the week meeting with manufacturers and distributors, as well as showing off their technology to the media and other CES attendees. The recent spell of snow and harsh cold throughout the northeast, however, means most of them are stranded back in Canada – along with demo units of the armband.
“We were supposed to have five people here yesterday and we had fully booked schedules with partners, so it’s definitely put a dent in that,” Lake says.
The weather at home has plagued many of the 90-plus Canadian companies officially exhibiting here, as well as the numerous others – such as Thalmic – that are at the show in an unofficial capacity in meeting rooms and private demo sessions. But CES is too important for companies to give up on when the going gets tough.
“It’s the meeting point in this industry,” Lake says. “Meetings that might take months to set up and schedule - everyone’s here in the same place so you can do like 20 a day.”
Lake is thus soldiering on with last-minute finalizations, despite the challenging circumstances. Without a demo unit, he's not able to show me what the Myo can do- which is too bad, because it sounds fascinating.
The armband has been described as a sort of portable version of Microsoft’s Kinect gesture sensor, except it reads electrical activity in the user’s arm to determine what he or she might want to control.
Thalmic attracted much attention in 2013 when it secured more than $14 million in funding, some from microprocessor giant Intel, as well as an innovation award from Popular Mechanics magazine. This year will likely be even bigger for the company, with the Myo scheduled to launch in the first half of 2014.
Thalmic is an example of the kind of cutting-edge startups CES attracts. While the annual electronics show gets a lot of attention as a launching pad for big technologies and gadgets – everything from the VCR to high-definition televisions have been introduced here over its 47-year history – it’s also where big and small companies conclude deals with each other.
CES is, after all, a trade show.
Canadian companies of all sizes come here every year with hopes of striking such deals, while others also do research and get feedback on ideas.
Jason Greenspan, who like Lake managed to avoid the bad weather on his trip out from Canada, has run the gamut over the past few years with his Toronto-based startup Whoosh, which sells spray cleaner for touch screens.
CES gives you instant feedback that you can’t get in four days anywhere else. I came up with an entire new business strategy on the flight home, it was that successful for us.- Jason Greenspan, Whoosh
He started the company in 2011 with a focus on auto detailing and cleaning, but he caught onto the potentially more lucrative touch-screen opportunity after accidentally knocking a bottle of spray onto his iPad. After finding it remarkably effective in cleaning the tablet, he repackaged it and brought it to last year’s show, where attendees suggested ideas on everything from bottle sizes to price.
“CES gives you instant feedback that you can’t get in four days anywhere else,” he says. “I came up with an entire new business strategy on the flight home, it was that successful for us.”
The result was a new product lineup, complete with new packaging and supply chain, that launched in mid-2013. Greenspan says two of his three products sold out over the Christmas holidays, so he’s back at this year’s CES trying to secure mass distribution. He’s aiming for electronics retailers such as Best Buy, but also for gas stations or grocery stores, where the cleaner could become an impulse buy.
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The weather has thrown a wrench into his plans too, though, with decidedly smaller crowds taking in the show’s first few days. Still, he’s hopeful that slightly better weather will bring more attendees in for the final days of CES.
Grant Hall also managed to beat the snow and made it in from Ottawa over the weekend. His company Nuvyyo is at a key stage in its growth, with the launch of its Tablo digital video recorder set for February.
While Hall is on the prowl for distrubution partners, his main goal at the show is to attract media attention to the Tablo, a product that is aimed at cord-cutters who are tired of paying high cable TV bills.
“Building a great product is really a smart part of the problem. The bigger part of the problem is getting people to know about it,” he says. “That’s why you have to be at a show like this. You have to get the word out.”