Innovation Calling: Norman Dowds

For a brief moment in time, Norman Dowds oversaw one of the most productive incubators in the history of telecommunications.

Norman Dowds of MPR Teltech.

For a brief moment in time, Norman Dowds oversaw one of the most productive incubators in the history of telecommunications.

Once upon a time – way back in the 1980s, high atop Burnaby Mountain – there was a tech incubator whose success has never since been equaled in B.C. and likely never will be. The incubator was a company called MPR Teltech Ltd., which is legendary for its impact on the tech world; its alumni have been involved in the founding of such tech icons as PMC-Sierra Inc., Abatis Systems Corp., OctigaBay Systems Corp. and Convedia Corp. Through its network products and systems division, MPR spawned innovations that changed the history of global telecommunications that today are worth billions of dollars.

Why did some of the world’s brightest telecommunications minds congregate in the wilds of Burnaby for this brief moment in history? And why have their innovations been scattered among companies around the globe? The man most likely to know the answers is Norman Dowds, who headed MPR’s network products and systems division until it was sold in 1996.

The strikingly fit 67-year-old has a full head of tousled grey hair and sports a colourful shirt and a pair of drawstring pants straight out of the Mountain Equipment Co-Op catalogue. He speaks in calm, measured tones and proves surprisingly adept at simplifying, not only complex telecommunications technology, but the kind of horizon-oriented thinking required by a sector whose business cycles are measured in months, rather than decades.

MPR originated with a telecom equipment manufacturing company called Microtel Ltd., which was created by BC Tel in 1979; it became a stand-alone company in 1987 when BC Tel sold Microtel, preserving its R&D assets as Microtel Pacific Research Ltd., or MPR Teltech, as it would later be called. When BC Tel dissolved MPR in the late ’90s, selling its divisions piecemeal, the assets of Dowds’s division were acquired by such companies as Applied Digital Access Inc., Northern Telecom, IBM Corp. and NewBridge Networks Corp.

Dowds explains that the seed of MPR’s hyper-innovative spirit was sown with that 1987 breakup of Microtel: “I knew that, since we didn’t have a manufacturing company to work for, if we couldn’t seed the industry with our smarts and start the fire, we were dead. We had to commercialize our own innovations, and, looking back on it, the group of people that I had was exceptionally good at doing that.”

There was one significant constraint on MPR’s innovation, though: parent company BC Tel had no intention of ramping it up to a full-fledged manufacturer. “We had no choice but to do one of two things,” Dowds recalls: “convince them to let us become a manufacturing company or sell the technology while it was hot.”

Since the former wasn’t an option, MPR ended up creating one new product after another, building prototypes, then selling the technology. Arguably its biggest success was the ATM hardware that is widely recognized as a breakthrough in high-speed data transmission. MPR introduced its ATM technology to the market when it licensed it to Newbridge Networks in 1992. Newbridge would later acquire MPR’s entire ATM business unit, and when France’s Alcatel bought Newbridge in February 2000 for US$7.1 billion, news reports singled out its ATM technology as Alcatel’s primary target.

The innovative spirit of the network products and systems division lived on after the demise of MPR: alumni Peter Briscoe and George Lipski founded the company that would become Convedia (acquired in 2006 by U.S.-based RadiSys Corp. for US$105 million); Tim Bray went on to found Open Text Corp. (now a US$725-million-a-year company based in Waterloo, Ontario); Pat Ogmundson participated with Adam Lorant and Paul Terry in founding OctigaBay (acquired in 2004 by Seattle’s Cray Inc. for US$115 million); and Kirk Moir, Larry LeBlanc and Ed Ho founded In Motion Technologies Inc., which is operating today in the Lower Mainland.

Since MPR’s dissolution, Dowds has occasionally stepped in as an independent consultant, offering guidance to some of his former colleagues. But when one colleague asked him recently to take on restructuring a company, Dowds declined. “I had to say, ‘Do you know how old I am?’ ” Dowds recalls with a laugh. “I did that at 28; I did it at 38; I did it at 48 . . . I don’t think I can do it anymore. It’s nice to have people ask you, but it’s so consuming. You can’t do it on an eight-hour day, taking weekends off; it just becomes your being.”

Today Dowds prefers to spend his days playing the piano – which he practices for two to three hours a day – and rambling around the bush near his Manitoba cabin. Still, he admits the innovation bug hasn’t entirely left him. He and a former colleague are currently developing a prototype aimed at commercializing a renewable-energy technology. Asked where he sees the project going, Dowds says he and his partner might just show it to Terry Matthews, the founder of Newbridge Networks and an investor in a number of MPR spinoffs. “Who knows?” Dowds says. “He may say, ‘Let’s do this again.’”