Dean Prelazzi Interview

Originally posted at The Why of The Web.

Dean Prelazzi, Director of ICT, Wireless, & New Media Technologies Sectors British Columbia Innovation Council

That job title is fantastic. What exactly do you do and what experiences have you had that made you a good fit for the role?

I got my start with an Ottawa company called CrossKeys, one of Newbridge Networks’ first affiliate companies. We were making carrier-grade network and service management software – selling into the largest telecommunications carriers on the planet. I spent some time in product management, marketing, and later sales, selling into AT&T, Sprint, Qwest Communications, Global One, and a handful of CLECs on the east coast. Since then my career has spanned a number of areas related to thin client computing, internet performance and networking, data analysis, point of sale applications, SaaS applications and social networking. Generally, I guess you could say the diversity of my tech background and the breadth of roles I’ve had in sales, marketing, and product management – always with early stage companies or early stage technology – gives me a unique perspective with enough technical depth to be dangerous and some solid experience in product positioning and marketing. I also did an MBA focused specifically on high technology and I wrote a thesis (kind of) in the area of marketing and selling complex technology.

As far as my role at the BC Innovation Council is concerned, I tend to characterize it as business development. I’m passionate about B.C.’s tech sector and more importantly, its role in driving our economy in the 21st century. I’m focused on initiatives that help build B.C.’s entrepreneurship infrastructure as one of the key drivers of technology commercialization and startup growth. I’m also keen to meet companies one on one as I find I can help them think about their challenges from a different angle, brainstorm with them a little, connect them to valuable resources, and ultimately help them move the ball forward by bringing my marketing skills to the table. By the way, yes – it is a fantastic job. Love it. But I do miss being on the front lines selling too. Working directly with customers to address their needs is very satisfying. But, I feel I’m doing that today. It’s just a different kind of customer.

What is BCIC? Where did they come from, how long have they been around, what do they do and what direction are they heading in?

The BC Innovation Council (BCIC) is a Crown agency of the Province of British Columbia. It was formed in 2006 through the merger of the former (Innovation and) Science Council of British Columbia (SCBC) and Advanced Systems Institute (ASI). SCBC was established by Province in 1976 and became active in 1979 and ASI became active in 1991.

We’re the lead organization charged with driving the commercialization of innovation in the Province and we’re focused on accelerating the growth of our science and technology communities and competitively positioning British Columbia in the global science and technology economy in order to provide significant employment opportunities and a high standard of living for British Columbians. On the tactical side of things, one of our focus areas is talent development which we do through our Science Fair program in elementary and high school, and through any number of science and technology grants and scholarships to high school and university students – undergraduate and graduate.

We’re also involved, increasingly, in developing entrepreneurship talent though a number of programs both in universities and the private sector. Our partnership with New Ventures BC in support of their annual business competition is a big example of this. Every year, the competition helps 30 entrepreneurs think critically about their business and refine their business plan through a rigorous training and mentorship process. As I indicated earlier, entrepreneurship infrastructure is a key to commercialization and growing our tech sector so we’re getting more active in this area, with an increasing focus on aspiring technology entrepreneurs (whether from universities or the private sector) and tech startups. This was appealing for me when I was considering joining the organization.

Some of our other programs, for example partnering with ACM SIGGRAPH Vancouver, are designed to build community, stimulate job creation and commerce, and raise awareness, outside of B.C., regarding the depth of technology skills and competencies available in B.C. as a method of attracting investment and business to the region. ACM SIGGRAPH Vancouver is the most active SIGGRAH Chapter in the world and likely played a role in helping bring our region to the attention of Pixar and certainly helped secure the SIGGRAPH 2011 conference which will bring 20,000+ professionals in the animation and graphics industry from around the world to Vancouver in 2011. And some of our other initiatives still, are aimed at directly engaging innovators in universities and the private sector, and helping to drive the development of even greater innovation – for example by facilitating the development of a new association with common research interests, or at times by bringing together other federal and provincial departments to fund a new project rooted in either the development of a new innovation or the commercialization of one.

What is Connect ’09? Is this the first Connect? Who is it for and what is the point?

Connect ’09 is designed for tech start-ups, aspiring entrepreneurs, and students. It’s intended to ‘connect’ this community to the knowledge, people, and resources that can really help them move their business forward and it’s aimed at all technology domains including ICT, Wireless, New Media, Clean Tech, Life Sciences, etc. An example is the structured networking part of the evening in which over 40 of B.C.’s top technology business leaders are making themselves available, formally, to be approached by technology entrepreneurs – maybe to answer a question or two, provide a sound bite of advice, or facilitate an introduction in the future.

The ‘structured’ part of the networking is characterized by all the mentors at stand up tables, their names and profiles clearly laid out in the event program enabling attendees to seek out certain people if they choose. It’s quite unique. I guess you could say we’re trying to break down any barriers that may be preventing some members of the community from approaching others. Ultimately, this event is about celebrating the spirit of entrepreneurship in our community and helping to make sure folks have the tools they need to be successful, or at least information of where to find them. Leonard Brody is delivering the Keynote speech this year. He’s a cofounder and CEO of Now Public – which, by the way, was just acquired for $25 million this week. Iain Black, the Provincial Minister of Small Business, Technology, and Economic Development will also be in attendance, and speaking at the event.

There are also a series of panel sessions aimed at some of the areas that are key to the success of a start up. (1) funding (2) building partnerships (3) the value of startup accelerators(4) building well designed products – and it’s all topped off by a let-your-hair down style cocktail reception that I know everyone will enjoy. Every tech entrepreneur in B.C. should be at this event. It will not disappoint. Get to www.bcic.ca/connect to register soon as it will sell out.

What do you see as major trends evolving in the ICT, Wireless, & New Media Technologies Sectors? In your mind what are some of the big picture ideas that we will see emerge over the next 2 years? What about 10 – 20 years?

Wow, that’s quite a question. Well firstly, during the next few years on the new media side of things, social networking is increasingly hitting the mainstream. We’re seeing it in mainstream business applications more and more as companies take notice of the powerful effect of online networking in the context of what’s been demonstrated through Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook. And it’s not just about the networking part of it. There’s tremendous value in being able to assemble a crowd quickly on the basis of common interests or a common profile or demographic, perhaps to answer a question, enter a contest, promote a cause or hey – BUY A PRODUCT! So I think this will continue. Companies will find new and creative ways of generating big business commerce by bringing together online crowds – essentially pushing the bounds of what we understand exists in the applications currently at the forefront of this space.

Also, I think the adoption of SaaS-based business applications (software as a service) is accelerating, especially in the small business space. Core business applications to run your business are no longer one size fits all. You can find on-line applications to run your Personal Training business, your Life Coaching business, your Brand Marketing business, your hockey team, your charity – all customized to meet the unique structure of those businesses in terms of how you interact with your customers – and the kind and scope of applications available today is continuing to grow. I don’t know if this is an earth shattering observation as a major trend, but I think it’s a trend that may be flying under radar a little as folks tend to get most excited about the Twitter-ish things going on. Point is, some of the basics of business are still a hot target for online productivity applications. In many cases it ain’t sexy, but it’s paying you $30 a month per user which adds up fast if you can get the word out with a great application.

On the wireless side of things, two things immediately come to mind. First, I think Wireless Health represents a monumental tidal wave of innovation and opportunity in the longer term. Wireless applications used in an electronic health records context as well as a medical diagnosis and treatment context with transmitters sending vital signs to a database for immediate analysis and diagnosis, along with an alerting system which loops your physician into the situation. There’s some very wild stuff coming down the pipe. From an infrastructure point of view, I’m excited about the jump from 3G up to LTE (Long Term Evolution) or sometimes referred to as 4G designed to increase the capacity and speed of mobile telephone networks. New and improved quality of service capabilities are also built into the LTE architecture which will open up a plethora of new high bandwidth applications in the wireless world – streaming high definition video is one of them along other applications in consumer media and entertainment, enterprise collaboration and health care, and cloud computing.

I don’t know about the 20 year time horizon (I’d really like to see a transporter, or hyperspace capability like in the old Asteroids game) but over the longer term, I think we’ll see a fundamental shift in how humans interact with digital content and applications whether from desktop workstations or mobile devices. I think the user interface will transform, driven by the science and engineering behind computer animation and graphics, which will evolve into mainstream business applications. In a nutshell, I see the user experience becoming more fluid, more immersed or integrated in the application rather than separate from it as it is today. It’s hard to put into words. This company I discovered recently right here in Vancouver, Mingleverse, embodies my vision here a little. Mingleverse is a new way to communicate which immerses the person right in the digital communication medium. It has a telepresence angle to it. It’s pretty wild.

Do all good technologies in the ICT, Wireless, & New Media Technologies Sectors take off? If it’s a useful product/technology/idea is that enough to commercialize something or does it take more then that? If it takes more then what are the other ingredients in getting something new and innovative to the level of the accepted norm?

Great question. Short answer is no. Good ideas fail every day. I think what makes or breaks the success of many startups is the extent to which the new product or service is solving a problem worth solving. That is, there have to be people or business processes suffering in some way even though at times they may not know it until they see a new way of doing something. But once that new method is introduced, the old is recognized as inferior which drives the desire to buy the new. There’s a fine line here though that I often struggle with myself, because sometimes people don’t know what they want or need. That is, market research – while I’m a big advocate of doing it, and doing it well – doesn’t do a great job, if at all, in telling you the future.

Regardless, if you have an idea, I think you should grow it incrementally and along the way seed the market with a prototype for the purpose of acquiring feedback and validating its utility. One of the best things I think startups can do is spend some time identifying their ideal customer profile. And then get to know that customer segment intimately to test the assumptions that were made about that audience. Sometimes the best way to get to know them is by asking them to use your prototype, and then watch them use it – or not use it. Bottom line, know your customers! This gets you through the first hurdle of early adopters. But then you have to chase widespread or viral adoption, so to speak. To do this, you really have to have the value proposition nailed, and it has to be written through the eyes and experiences of your customers and through their perspective of the problem you are solving. Don’t skimp here. Get real clear about the value of solving your customer’s problem, in their own words. To a degree, this should optimize your chance of success in marketing and selling your technology.

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