Ottawa tech firms catering to teleworkers see ‘surge in demand’ for products


For nearly two decades, Paul Vallée has been building technology to help make working from home easier.

With the COVID-19 pandemic now forcing Canadians to stay away from their traditional office spaces, the Ottawa entrepreneur’s new startup, Tehama, is seeing a steady stream of inquiries about its cloud-based platform that lets off-site employees securely access company data on their laptops and other devices.

“There has been a huge surge in demand for what we do,” says Vallée, whose latest enterprise was spun off from IT consulting firm Pythian last year and now employs about 50 people. “It feels like the reasons are not the reasons that we worked on for the last 20 years. Those reasons are still valid, but they had nothing to do with this virus.”

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In a typical week before the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, he says, Tehama probably would have received anywhere from 10-20 inquiries a week from potential customers. 

“That has easily tripled if not quadrupled over the course of the last month or so,” Vallée says.

Tehama is just one of a number of Ottawa-based companies that make technology catering to remote workers and are suddenly experiencing a flood of interest in their products.

At Kanata’s Martello Technologies, which makes software that helps customers detect and troubleshoot problems in their high-speed communications networks, CEO John Proctor says his company’s 100 or so employees are working “flat out” to respond to clients’ needs as the number of people working from home has skyrocketed in the span of a few weeks.

Apartment buildings, he explains, have now morphed into office towers, with all the requisite demand for bandwidth to accommodate teleconferences and Skype meetings. At the same time, Proctor notes, teleworkers are competing for connectivity with other residents who are streaming videos on Netflix and FaceTiming their friends.

“It’s all the same problem, which is, how do you prioritize that traffic?” he says. “How do you make sure that people from their home can still do business and keep this economy going? It’s no good saying to somebody working from their home, ‘The team server is up’ if they can’t use it.” 

Proctor says the publicly traded firm has seen a definite uptick in customer interest in the last month – with requests ranging from a U.S. brewery that placed a rush order for equipment it could install over a weekend to a U.K. university looking to optimize its employees’ work-from-home experience.

“It isn’t business as usual, but in a way, this is our technology as usual.”

“It isn’t business as usual,” he says, “but in a way, this is our technology as usual.”

And it’s not just mom and dad who suddenly find themselves working from the living room. Other Ottawa companies are rushing to respond to the needs of the burgeoning e-learning industry that’s scrambling to deliver virtual textbooks, lessons and workshops to millions of Canadian students who can no longer attend classes in person.

In late March, for example, ByWard Market-based Kivuto Solutions announced it was teaming up with educational publisher Pearson to give Canadian students from kindergarten to Grade 12 free access to Pearson’s entire library of digital textbooks.

Kivuto, which makes platforms that deliver e-textbooks and educational software, now has about 70 employees. Its products are used in more than 10,000 institutions around the world, including Harvard, Stanford, Oxford and Canadian universities from coast to coast.

Schools left ‘scrambling’

President and chief operating officer Jeff Blacklock says the company “saw a real need” for its platform as it became apparent that many Canadian elementary and high schools will likely be shut down until at least the fall.

“They’re having to really change everything they do,” he says. “They’ve been rooted in brick-and-mortar-type delivery of education for so long, and now with government mandates … they’re left scrambling trying to figure out how to go online and still educate kids and adults in this new environment.”

Blacklock says Kivuto is also in discussions with other textbook publishers as well as software companies such as Adobe, IBM, Microsoft and others about providing various apps and programs to students for free.

While acknowledging that Kivuto is seeing “lots of traction” for its solutions, Blacklock adds there are no strings attached to the company’s offer to provide free services during the COVID-19 pandemic. Rather, he says, it’s about being a good corporate citizen during an unprecedented health and economic crisis. 

“There’s no commitment to buy … once the crisis is over,” Blacklock explains. “Right now, it’s really just about doing right by the students, doing right by the schools.”

Both Tehama and Martello are also offering some of their products to customers on a free trial basis during the pandemic. While conceding that the COVID-19 pandemic could bring opportunities for new business, Vallée says he and his fellow entrepreneurs are trying to do their part to make an extremely stressful situation a little easier.

“To be blunt, we’re trying to get the word out because we can help,” he says. “If that’s perceived as opportunistic, well then, so be it.”

Vallée points to other made-in-Ottawa technology that’s now being put to work in the battle against the novel coronavirus. Spartan Bioscience, for example, has pivoted its entire operation in an effort to convert its hand-held DNA test into a portable test for the virus.

“All of all those technologies become really important components of the solutions, and we’re proud that we happen to have one,” he says. “There is really no reason for anybody to spend time in office towers right now.”

To hear about other Ottawa companies rising to the challenges of COVID-19, read the OBJ’s pandemic survival guide below.

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