Can touch this: Viewers from around the globe hooked on this Canadian-designed touchscreen technology

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Innovation has long been a buzz word in Canada, but most of the talk begins and ends with the BlackBerry smartphone. After that, jaws go slack and everyone cries for the government to help. Av Utukuri, though, is a big believer in the potential for Canadian innovation, which is why he started up Nytric Ltd. 16 years ago to help budding entrepreneurs get their ideas turned into products. But he hadn’t spun out his own company even though his employees had certainly asked to do it. Now, with Baanto International Ltd., he believes he’s on the verge of something big: A touchscreen technology that eliminates annoying problems such as entry errors and slow speeds.

Founded in 2008, Baanto has big-name customers such as Toshiba, L3 and ESPN abroad, and Canadian Tire, CTV and Cineplex closer to home. But getting them wasn’t easy. Big companies often don’t have a favourable view of Canadian innovation, believing product evolution can only be achieved by companies with massive billion-dollar R&D budgets. “We had booked a meeting room at the Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas to show our sensor — it’s literally two pixels and one division — to Samsung executives who came in from Korea and they walked out saying you’re lying,” Utukuri says. “They said, ‘It’s black magic. There’s gotta be something more than this because there’s no way it can be that simple. And even if it was that simple, I cannot believe the patent for this does not exist.’”

But, as Utukuri points out, it’s easier to create a disruptive product when you are not wedded to a certain technology or industry. In this case, Baanto’s technology was completely different than the camera-based touchscreens that preceded it. Being an outsider, though, means it’s also easier to be ignored, especially when the idea seems so simple. Non-overlay-based touchscreens (which use electrical impulses or touch) traditionally use cameras or beam-break sensors and algorithms to determine where an object is, but they have a hard time keeping up since people write fast. Utukuri likens Baanto’s technology, dubbed ShadowSense to separate it from the touchscreen pack, to a sundial since both use shadows as input data. ShadowSense measures the angle, width and intensity of a finger’s or pen’s shadow and uses algorithms to determine location. As a result, things such as water drops, blood drops in a surgical theatre, or accidental swipes are dismissed as irrelevant.

“A sundial has infinite depth of field, so it doesn’t matter whether the sun is five metres away or five million miles away, the shadow is always in focus,” Utukuri says. “Why are you imaging the object and sending megabytes of data with complex optics when you can get an image of the shadow of the object and get it for one byte? It’s far faster, cheaper and computationally less extensive.”

Baanto’s origins stem back to the downturn that started in 2007 when Nytric’s revenue run rate went from $4 million a year to $400,000. Rather than pack it in, Nytric held an internal competition to develop a product and take the winning one to potential customers. A touchscreen won and was shown to the Canadian divisions of companies such as Hasbro, Mattel and Panasonic, who all agreed it was cool, but wanted Nytric to create the product.

After Baanto was formally spun out of Nytric, the Industrial Research Assistance Program kicked in $500,000 to match the funds the company was investing and it received some help from the Canadian Scientific Research and Experimental Development Tax Incentive Program. But it was a meeting with author Margaret Atwood that sealed the deal when she gave Utukuri a cheque for $100,000. “She said, ‘Son, I’ve written about all this stuff and imagined all this stuff before you were born, so I know a good deal when I see one,’ he recalls. “She gave me the confidence to go do it.”

Given that an entire generation is being raised to expect touchscreens as opposed to imagining them, users can expect more innovations to come, but Utukuri believes a Canadian company can keep ahead of the competition. “I want to create enough of a barrier so that for someone to out-innovate us will take so much time and money that it’s easier for them to come in and say I want to acquire you, I want to partner with you, I want to license with you,” he says. “Which is usually what happens.”

This article was written by Ross Andrews, Special to Financial Post, and has been re-posted from the Financial Post website. It also appears in the December 2015 edition of the Financial Post Magazine.