Entrepreneur of the year 2005 - Information Technology

It would be a stretch to mention Gandhi and a telecommunications company in the same breath, but not for Surinder Kumar. The Victoria-based entrepreneur is currently riding high on the success of VCom, which designs, manufactures and sells products for the delivery of Internet and video signals by cable or wireless systems. And the iconic Indian humanitarian plays a vital role in Kumar’s long-term career plans. The soft-spoken Kumar wants to provide underprivileged countries with communications technology to improve the standard of living in those regions. VCom (formerly WaveCom Electronic), which has doubled the number of staff in the past year and boosted sales to $44 million from $29 million in 2002, is helping him achieve this goal. “My plan is to grow the company so it can flourish without my involvement, at which point I’ll liquidate my ownership and apply my skills to countries like India,” he says. Kumar believes he can grow VCom to the point where it will have 5,000 staff members within seven years – the magic number that will prompt him to bow out. This may seem ambitious considering he now has 475 staff, but not when one considers that the company began in a residential basement in 1988. Back then, Kumar had credentials as an engineering student at the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology; he earned his PhD at Carleton on a Commonwealth scholarship and worked for SED Systems in Saskatoon to develop communications services. “In 1987 I switched hats and spent the next 10 years as a telecommunications professor at the University of Saskatchewan,” he says. Kumar’s mandate at the university was to develop commercial applications, which inspired his dream of giving the world low-cost, high-quality communications. He shifted gears again and founded WaveCom, however, his personal integrity worked against him. “I refused to borrow any money, so I launched what was pretty much a bootstrap operation,” he admits. When pressed to explain why he wouldn’t seek financing, he says: “I didn’t want to risk other people’s money. Borrowing was anathema to me and I wanted my company to grow only as fast as earnings permitted.” From his basement HQ, Kumar completed design contracts for other companies. The initial trickle of capital enabled him to create WaveCom’s first products for cable TV. Fortunately for Kumar, this was when the industry was expanding due to the introduction of the multi-channel universe. When cable firms delved into delivering high-speed Internet services, Kumar and his growing staff were already well versed with digital communications from satellite applications. As the cable business gravitated towards digital services, Kumar and his colleagues began developing more digital products, especially for video-on-demand and digital transport markets. More recently, in order to lessen the risk of focusing on one market segment, VCom introduced a new product line that delivers broadband Internet services to customers not served by existing cable or copper infrastructure. The versatility of wireless technology is the keystone that will enable Kumar to conduct his humanitarian work. “A great deal of health-care services can be provided remotely: remote diagnostics, remote image transmissions, even monitoring systems that enable critical surgery to be performed remotely,” he explains. “And the technology becomes more affordable every year. Today we’re at a point where a standard computer can be transformed into an ECG machine without much expense.” Kumar looks forward to the day he can be the Gandhi of the high-tech world, and laughs when he remarks: “VCom has posted 66 quarters of profitability, yet I keep assuring my staff that growing to 5,000 people is well within our reach. I keep saying, ‘Never forget where we were 17 years ago – in a basement!’” Runners up Marcus New Stockgroup clawed its way through the ashes of the software collapse to re-establish itself as a firm that helps companies manage business information using real-time market data, and online and wireless tools. Why did it survive when others collapsed? “We dealt with reality instead of wishing for the boom to return, cut staff and grew our advertising sector,” says Stockgroup founder New. The company has posted 10 consecutive quarters of growth and expects to log $8 million in sales for 2005. Stephen Smith, Cybele Negris, John Demco, Matthew Lane What’s in a name? A lawsuit, if your web-based company name has already been registered by another entrepreneur. Herein lies the key to Webnames.ca’s success. The company was spun off from Internet pioneers who founded the .CA domain in 1987 and managed the .CA registry from offices at UBC. Webnames’ clients range from law firms to Air Canada, but in order to maintain its hold in a competitive market, the company also provides toll-free technical support in English and French with every domain purchased. Related stories: Entrepreneur of the year 2005 Entrepreneur of the year 2005 - Natural resources Entrepreneur of the year 2005 - Health sciences Entrepreneur of the year 2005 - Manufacturing Entrepreneur of the year 2005 - Business-to-consumer products and services Entrepreneur of the year 2005 - Business-to-business products and services Entrepreneur of the year 2005 - Emerging entrepreneur