Canadian firms grab attention at gadget show

With bigger firms like Microsoft pulling out of the Consumer Electronics Show, smaller players – Canada's stock in trade – are happily filling the void.
Toronto-based accessories firm Gentec used its booth at this year's International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas to promote itself as a gateway for companies into the Canadian market. Peter Nowak/CBC

With each passing year, the Consumer Electronics Show seems to draw an increasing level of flak for supposedly losing its relevance. A growing number of big, hot companies such as Apple and Google don’t exhibit there, so it’s obviously not worth going to — or so the commentary goes.

This year’s show was no different, and the news that stalwart Microsoft won’t be back in 2013 led to another round of media speculation about whether the event is in decline.

For Canadian companies, however, CES may be more vital than ever. With the big boys pulling out to do their own thing, the smaller players – Canada’s stock in trade – will inevitably fill the void.

Dozens of Canadian firms of all sizes already head to the event to take advantage of its main purpose – while the glitzy new televisions and tablets get most of the attention, CES is after all still a trade show. For many companies, it’s a vital launching pad and place to do business.

"This is our coming-out party," said Chris Houston, founder and chief executive of Toronto-based start-up SurfEasy. "It’s an expense for anyone to come to a show like this, but we mulled it over and decided that it’s good to get out and start talking to people. There’s no better place to get yourself exposed than here."

Even small firms get noticed

With more than 140,000 attendees from around the world, it’s easy for a small company to get lost in the shuffle. But at the same time, the sheer volume of visitors means some attention is inevitable.

SurfEasy, which had a booth in the Eureka Park section reserved for startups, used the show to unveil its secure web-browsing USB key. When plugged in, the device lets a user store all of his or her bookmarks, history and passwords on it. When unplugged, the information doesn’t stay on the computer but rather goes with the user on the key.

For Houston, there’s no question CES was a success. The company’s product received coverage in a number of media outlets, including influential U.S. podcast This Week in Tech, and attention from potential partners.

"There’s been phenomenal interest from people in countries all over the world," he said. "Without naming names, we’ve talked to distributors both in North America and internationally. You never know if it’s going to pan out, but certainly if even a small fraction does, it’s going to be a good return on investment for us."

At the other end of the spectrum, Markham, Ont.-based Gentec International has been exhibiting at CES for more than 20 years. The company distributes and imports everything from iPhone cases to headphones and home theatre furniture, and stresses the trade aspect of the show over its gadget glitz.

"A lot of our [retailer] customers come here to see the new sexy TVs, but where they’re making their money is on the accessories, which is where we come in," said chief executive Joel Siegel.

Creative branding

This year, Siegel tried something different – he hung a large banner over his booth in the Las Vegas Convention Center’s cavernous South Hall proclaiming Gentec to be "your gateway to Canada," an enticement to accessory makers looking for a distributor. The strategy worked, he said, with a number of companies approaching him to "explore the opportunity."

"Some years [the booth investment] pays for itself, other years you don’t get the same bang for your buck," he said. "This year, however, has been fantastic."

Jaime Alexander, who quit his job at IBM a year ago to start his Toronto-based company Sound Selecta, was also pleased with how CES turned out.

"I really didn’t know what to expect coming here, especially because the traditional focus of CES has been on hardware," he said. "The first two hours were a little slow and I was having second thoughts on whether we should have come, but over time we got a random assortment of interest from people, from technology manufacturers and audio companies."

Sound Selecta creates the Art Jam line of apps, which turn Apple devices into soundboards. Users can create their own beats and songs by tapping on artistic graphics on screen.

Alexander’s hope is to license the technology to companies in the creative industry, some of whom could incorporate it into visual music displays. His first instinct was to try to attract attention at a show specifically devoted to music, but he opted for CES after learning about the Eureka Park startup zone, which kicked off this year.

Like SurfEasy’s Houston and Gentec’s Siegel, Alexander feels he got his money’s worth.

"Now that we’re packing up, I think it was actually a great use of our time," he said while disassembling his booth on Thursday evening. "I’ve got a stack of business cards that wouldn’t be there from a focused music conference."