Ottawa’s digital movers shepherd in new world of online transfers

Listen up, all you Sens fans: the next time you’re admiring a replay of an Erik Karlsson end-to-end rush on the big screen at the Canadian Tire Centre, you might want to spare some thanks for a group of software engineers at an office not far from the arena.

They are among the 50 local employees of Signiant, a Massachusetts-based company that manufactures file transfer software, much like Dropbox.

Signiant’s products are a favourite of the media, sports and entertainment industries because the firm specializes in secure protection for sensitive content and can quickly transfer files that are hundreds of gigabytes in size – everything from pre-production content to movies, TV shows and, yes, sports highlights. Dropbox, by contrast, caps the size of files it can transfer at five gigabytes.

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Besides the NHL, some of Signiant’s major customers include the NFL, Disney, the BBC and Al Jazeera.

“The real shift that is happening now is from physical media to file-based media,” says Ian Hamilton, Signiant’s Kanata-based chief technology officer. “(Clients) have these massive files that they need to move around, and it’s becoming more and more critical to do it on a very timely basis.”

The private company, which is backed by Waltham, Mass.-based North Bridge Venture Partners, won’t disclose revenues, nor the investments it’s received.

However, it recently announced its workforce grew by 46 per cent in 2013 and its customer count jumped by 65 per cent. Its clients now include companies in the oil and gas, health-care and software development sectors, and Mr. Hamilton says the sky is the limit.

“We absolutely see more growth to come,” he says. “I don’t see any changes in that (pattern) in the future.”

Signiant was spun out of Nortel Networks in 2000 to focus on the fledgling file transfer business and began targeting the entertainment and media market in 2007. It still sells traditional software packages on a licensing model, but is turning more of its attention to a cloud-based subscription, software-as-a-service approach.

“People are more and more unwilling to manage software deployments and just want solutions that work from Day 1, as opposed to having to hire a bunch of technologists to deploy and manage them,” says Mr. Hamilton.

Unlimi-Tech Software

Across town on St. Laurent Boulevard, Signiant faces some friendly competition from locally based Unlimi-Tech Software.

Its file transfer technology, FileCatalyst, is also making a name for itself, with the firm counting NBC Sports, GE, Nintendo and DreamWorks Studios among its roster of heavyweight clients. When NBC sent digital video files back and forth across the Atlantic during the Sochi Winter Olympics, for example, it used FileCatalyst software.

Like Signiant, Unlimi-Tech’s roots go back to 2000, when computer programmers Chris Bailey and John Tkaczewski quit their jobs with the federal government to launch their own company in the burgeoning file transfer space.

At the turn of the millennium, users still shipped large files on CD-ROMs or hard drives, but the enterprising pair sensed a digital revolution was coming. With the help of a couple of angel investors – Pronexus co-founder Ian Bowles and California-based Pro Softnet – the new firm was born.

“We saw a big opportunity,” says Mr. Tkaczewski, whose company now has about 20 full-time employees in Ottawa, plus another half-dozen or so at a U.K. sales office. “The idea was to use the Internet as the medium to move a large amount of data instead of shipping physical media.”

Things really took off six years later, when the firm first introduced FileCatalyst. Although it was just one of several products Unlimi-Tech was selling, its name soon became synonymous with the firm.

“The product just kind of took off and became popular very quickly,” Mr. Tkaczewski says. “It became its own entity.”

Today, the company’s total revenues are “under $5 million a year,” he says, but have been growing at an annual rate of 10 to 20 per cent. Like his counterpart at Signiant, Mr. Tkaczewski sees no reason for that trend to change any time soon.

“The growth is still phenomenal,” he says. “As more and more businesses are moving to full digital workflows, the need for moving large media (files) is just going to become bigger and bigger. It’s just the early beginnings of (the sector).”

While commercially licensed off-the-shelf software still accounts for more than 95 per cent of the company’s revenues, it too sees huge growth potential in the cloud-based model. The long-term plan, Mr. Tkaczewski says, “is to continue on the growth path until the conditions for a sale to a strategic buyer are right.”

That means knowing the firm’s strengths and building on them.

“One of the main challenges is to remain focused on what we’re trying to do and drive the vision of the company,” he says. “Because we’re dealing with so many different deployments, it’s so easy to get sidetracked and say, ‘Oh, we’re going to be doing this now.’ It’s really setting priorities and sticking with them.”

Staying ahead of the curve in a business that changes faster than, well, an Erik Karlsson slapshot isn’t always easy, Mr. Hamilton says.

“If I knew what the next trend in the industry was going to be two years down the road, I could probably take advantage of that in many ways,” he says with a laugh. “Hopefully, we see the trends coming and can capitalize on them as much as possible.”

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