CES 2015: Canadian tech firms on the pros and cons of the big show

It takes a lot to stand out at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, which is why a lot of Canadian companies go once and don't return. But some that do come back end up hitting it big.

91 Canadian firms exhibiting at this year's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas

One of the Canadian firms exhibiting at this year's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas is Ottawa-based Blacksumac, which is showing a home security and automation product called Piper. (Peter Nowak/CBC)

Is going to the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas worth it for Canadian technology companies?

“Oh my God, yeah,” says Russell Ure, creator of Piper, a home security and automation product.

“A lot of people warned me that we’ll get lost there and we shouldn’t waste our money, but fortunately, I kept to my own devices.”

Ure’s Ottawa-based company, Blacksumac, showed off Piper at CES last year. The system, which lets users see their home with a camera and control appliances remotely through their smartphone, impressed the show’s judges enough to win a design award.

That led to a healthy dose of media coverage. Investors who had previously ignored the company came calling soon after, as did potential suitors. In April, Blacksumac announced it was being acquired by Silicon Valley-based iControl Networks for an undisclosed sum.

Ure attributes the quick rise and success of his product to the showcase that CES provided. On the downside, the show also opened his eyes to how tough it would be to take Piper to the next level, which made the acquisition decision much easier.

“I left CES really elated that things went well, but also sort of, ‘Oh my God, there’s so many products there, how on Earth do we keep ourselves visible and noticed in this very large world of products?’” he says.

Staggering numbers

The biggest show of its kind, CES is a veritable jungle of technology that’s easy for attendees and exhibitors alike to get lost in. The numbers are staggering: two million square feet of exhibit space, 160,000 attendees, 3,600 exhibitors from 140 countries, 20,000 product announcements… all covered by 6,500 journalists.

It takes a lot to stand out, which is why many companies exhibit at the show once and never return. But others, such as Blacksumac, manage to hit it big. This year, there are 91 Canadian firms officially exhibiting, many of which are returnees, aiming for the same success.

Last year at CES, Toronto-based Matter and Form (now known as Matterform) showed off a prototype device that could scan objects in three dimensions, seen here on the right. This year, it is launching a new product called Cashew, an online network where 3D printing enthusiasts can share designs for free. (Peter Nowak/CBC)

Toronto-based Matter and Form is exhibiting for the second year in a row, albeit in a different capacity this time around. Last year, the company had just four employees showing off a prototype device that could scan objects in three dimensions.

Like Piper, the scanner attracted media attention, which led to a $2 million investment led by Sandstone Asset Management. The device launched in the fall and sold thousands of units, the company says. Matter and Form now boasts 15 employees.

This year, the company – which changed its name from Matterform because of another firm holding the trademark – is launching a new product called Cashew, an online network where 3D printing enthusiasts can share designs for free.

Founder and chief executive Drew Cox spent much of his time at last year’s show trying to get media attention. This year, with his main product already on the market, that’s a secondary concern. Cox is almost exclusively tied up in meetings with American and international distributors.

“The U.S. is our biggest market for selling our scanner, so we need to be where the people who are interested in using it are,” he says.

A place to meet face to face

Although CES is a showcase of new technologies for the year ahead, it is still primarily a trade show where companies do business with each other.

Many more Canadian firms are therefore attending in unofficial capacities, with executives and entrepreneurs using the show to meet with key clients, partners, distributors and media.

Security and privacy provider SurfEasy, also based in Toronto, is holding meetings at the show with retailers and distributors. The company officially launched its first product, a USB key that launched a secure web browser on computers, at CES in 2012.

It has since grown from six employees to 20. Like Matter and Form’s Cox, SurfEasy chief executive Chris Houston is primarily meeting with new international retailers and distributors.

“It’s an opportunity to save yourself from flying around the world,” he says.

Emir Aboulhosn, chief executive of Vancouver-based roaming provider Roam Mobility and U.S. mobile company Ready SIM, has been coming to CES for more than a decade. The partnerships he formed at the show helped lead to the eventual acquisition in 2004 of his earlier startup, software firm SynerDrive.

With Roam and Ready SIM, he’s again looking to spark deals with partners that can further grow the businesses. The company is in the process of launching several new products in the U.S. and is growing to the stage where it will probably invest in a booth on the show floor next year, Aboulhosn says.

CES critics often suggest it’s easier and cheaper for companies to conduct meetings via teleconferencing, but Aboulhosn doesn’t believe that’s how deals ultimately get done.

“I don’t know how someone could put together an important partnership or anything strategic if they don’t see you face to face and see body language, what kind of person you are and so on,” he says.

“I have a very strict rule in that we won’t do business with anyone unless we meet face to face.”


Peter Nowak


Peter Nowak is a Toronto-based technology reporter and author of Humans 3.0: The Upgrading of the Species.


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