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KIRA Celebrates 20 Years of Innovation in N.B.

Some of the winners at last year's KIRA awards event in Fredericton. Image: KIRA Facebook page.

James Stewart and his wife were at a local restaurant in Saint John in May of last year when he found out his company EhEye had won two awards for innovation at the KIRA awards ceremony in Fredericton.

They had booked a “date night” a long time in advance so other members of the team were on hand for the annual awards ceremony.

“I was at Italian by Night following the Twitter feed, and I remember seeing we had won the most innovative startup…Then came the second one for the best innovation through technology. That made our dinner.”

EhEye has developed an Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) platform to help safeguard the public at large-scale entertainment venues and commercial and facilities by automating the detection of weapons, disturbances or suspicious behaviours.

The Saint John-based company represents the evolution of KIRA from an awards gala focused on the knowledge-industry achievements in the Fredericton area to one that has a province-wide focus and celebrates innovation across many sectors of the economy, not just ICT.

When the first awards night took place in 1999, KIRA was an acronym for Knowledge Industry Recognition and Achievement, but it now stands for Knowledge and Innovation Recognition Awards, which better reflects the organization’s current focus on innovation in many sectors, including the security industry in the case of EhEye.

Al McDonald, one of the founders who received a Special Recognition award at the inaugural event in 1999, says KIRA was one of the initiatives conceived in the late 90s to create and help develop an IT industry in Fredericton.

“The industry back then was off everybody’s radar,” says McDonald, who owned a company called MCM Technology until it was purchased by CGI in 2000.

“Nobody really understood the sector. Nobody knew how many IT companies there were. Nobody knew what they were doing. There really wasn’t any IT industry per se.

“It was just a whole bunch of IT companies in Fredericton, Saint John and Moncton, but they didn’t speak to each other. They were all burrowed in their niche doing great things without anybody knowing about it.”

McDonald says the KIRA awards initially had a Fredericton focus because it grew out of the Knowledge Industry Taskforce, the brainchild of Bud Bird, former city mayor and cabinet minister in the Richard Hatfield government.

“We really wanted to define the IT industry in Fredericton, what are the companies, what are they doing, that was our first step,” says McDonald, who served as the first chair of the group.

The KIRA awards were a natural next step after taking a few years to gain an understanding of the sector and nurture its growth and collective sense of purpose.

“We realized we really needed something to shine a light on this industry,” says McDonald. “At the end of the day, that shining light was KIRA. It would serve as a great big light that shone on the industry in Fredericton, initially – what they were doing and recognizing the best in certain categories.

They hosted the first event in 1999, handing out awards to companies like Universal Systems (now CARIS), MITI (now xwave), LearnStream, CGI Group and Nvision.

“The first ones were incredibly successful,” he says. “After three or four years, people started to talk about making this a provincial event.”

Lori MacMullen, now the Executive director of the Canadian University Council of Chief Information Officers, joined the group around this time.

Back then, she was the Chief Information Officer for the provincial government and would later take up the same position with the University of New Brunswick. During this period, she helped the organization not only expand beyond Fredericton but also widen its focus to include innovations taking place in the government departments and universities.

In 2003, KIRA gave out its first award for innovation in the public sector to Service New Brunswick, which had a become a world leader in the delivery of efficient, stream-lined citizen centered services which included online services – “being online rather than in line,” says MacMullen.

“As the CIO of the province, I saw the innovation happening within the public sector and felt it too should be recognized so rather than try to create a separate event, I pitched the creation of a KIRA award for the public sector” says MacMullen. “It was something important to acknowledge and recognize.”

They also came to recognize the importance of universities as research hubs for private- and public sector innovations and as a source of computer science graduates that could become employees for local tech companies.

When MacMullen moved from her job in the provincial government to CIO at UNB, the innovations taking place at the universities also became a part of KIRA.

“When the public sector award was put in place, it was envisioned as a way to recognize innovations in municipal, provincial and federal governments. Once I moved to UNB, we started to focus on the academic sector as well.”

It was a natural evolution, say both McDonald and MacMullen, because of the synergies between the private sector, government and colleges and universities.

“Innovation is innovation,” says MacMullen. “Whether it’s in the private, public or academic sector or whether it’s in manufacturing, engineering or ICT, as a province, we need to recognize, support and celebrate all of it”.    

This year’s KIRA awards ceremony is only a week away on May 3 and Stewart, one of last year’s winners, can certainly attest to the value of an organization that’s grown over the years to recognize and support the kinds of innovations taking place in companies like EhEye.

Stewart says the KIRA awards have helped them because, even though they’ve developed an innovative and valuable service that can save lives, security companies like theirs have challenges demonstrating a return on investment to potential partners and clients.

“How do you quantify safety? How do you quantify contributing to something that didn’t happen?” says Stewart.

“This is where something like KIRA really helped us because it gave us validation. It really gives us something special when we’re talking to investors or accelerators, or potential partners.”

This is the first in a series of stories about KIRA as it celebrates its 20th anniversary. This year’s awards gala takes place May 3 at the Fredericton Convention Centre. For information or to purchase tickets, visit the KIRA web site: http://www.eventbrite.ca/e/kira-gala-2018-tickets-41044285563