Intel Corp. has carved out a global identity as a maker of key components for personal computers, although it has been criticized for its slow shift into mobile and tablet platforms – a gap it vows to make up. Graham Palmer, a veteran of Intel’s British arm, recently took over the company’s Canadian operations, giving him an observer’s insight into the state of Canada’s technology and innovation.
How does Canada’s technology scene compare with other countries you have worked in?
It is a really vibrant scene with a lot of innovators. I get the sense that there is a lot of entrepreneurial activity that is creating business. It is really exciting to be associated with that, and to help that environment.
How does Canada’s economic environment seem, compared with Britain?
One of the really glaring things to me – having led Intel’s U.K. business through the depths of a really tough recession – is that the Canadian economy is fundamentally such a great asset for businesses based here. Compared with the struggling recovery that I am used to in most Western European markets, it is just such a great base to work from.
Are the problems at BlackBerry a bad omen for Canada’s tech sector?
Its problems are] an illustration of the dynamic nature of the market that we are all participating in, and the relentless pursuit of innovation. A change in a large player in the market can spawn the generation of lots of new businesses. It is an evolutionary cycle, and while it is really painful for the people at the time, it presents new opportunities for growth and innovation in the marketplace. The expertise all these people have doesn’t go away. It gets used and directed in different ways.
What exactly does Intel do in Canada?
We have sales and marketing activity, which means that we work with the people who integrate our products into their products. We are inside lots of other people’s devices, so most customers don’t touch our product directly. They know our brand and they trust our brand, but they don’t actually interact with us directly. We also work with large businesses such as the major banks, and oil and gas organizations, and governments, to help them understand that we are investing billions of dollars in technology to help them improve security, efficiency, flexibility and mobility.
You also work with Canadian technology developers, right?
We invest in business development. For example CognoVision, a Toronto-based company, was purchased by Intel a few years ago, because we saw unique capabilities there around digital signage and interactive technology. Last month, through our venture capital organization, we invested in a company called Recon Instruments in Vancouver, which makes “heads-up” wearable [computer] technology, which is very hot at the moment.
In Vancouver, we also have a substantial team developing memory technology. It is now a division of Intel, but it was a separate business to start with.
We have made a whole bunch of different investments in startup businesses in the Canadian market, as we do in many markets globally. Some of those investments turn into acquisitions, and others just continue to be great technology partnerships.
So you pick and choose things that look valuable to you in any particular country?
Absolutely. In Canada there seems to be a real hotbed of innovation. Our corporate venture capital team is very active here.
Some analysts say Intel is too closely tied to the declining desktop market, and behind on the phone and tablet market. What is your take on that?
For every 600 smartphones or every 120 tablets that connect to the Internet, it drives demand for another server in a data centre somewhere. In many cases that server is driven by Intel technology. So we are benefiting from the explosion of devices connecting to the Internet. Having said that, we are working on [tablet and phone technology] and we would like to be further down the road, for sure. But it is a marathon, not a sprint.
Phones are a huge focus for us. We will absolutely be in that market. It has taken a little longer than we would all like, but I am very confident that we will be very successful there.
What are some new technologies Intel is trying to tap into?
One huge growth area is the move from a structured data environment to unstructured data, or “big data,” which is the buzzword du jour. Many industries can use the insight [gleaned from this data] to improve their efficiency, the services they provide their customers, and ultimately add more customer value.
There will be an explosion of sensor devices in buildings, in subways, on trains and planes that will deliver information into data centres. There is an immense opportunity for businesses to interpret that data and turn it into a business advantage.
How important is miniaturization and reduced power consumption?
Our factories are making silicon chips that go into everybody’s laptops and computers and tablets. The piece of silicon is as big as your thumbnail and has a billion different transistors on it. That is truly staggering. Our constant research and development allows us to continually shrink the size of these transistors so they can operate faster and consume less power. That allows you to take that device and put it into a smaller and smaller physical device, and it consumes less power, so your battery lasts longer as well.
What is coming down the road?
We are constantly moving battery performance forward by reducing power consumption, which allows more flexibility in physical devices. Wearable computers are an illustration of that. At the moment they are companion devices, because the [computing power] is in a different device. But in the future we will be able to put the performance in that tiny device on your wrist or wherever you choose to wear it.
Is it different managing people in Canada, compared with managing people in the U.K.?
Every individual is different, no matter whether they are Canadian, British or any other nationality. So it doesn’t matter what country you are in, as long as you recognize that.
Still, the affinity between Canada and the U.K. has been beneficial for me. When I sit down for dinner with a customer I haven’t met before, there will typically be a conversation about relatives in the U.K. or travel to the U.K. It builds immediate rapport, which is a wonderful starting point for me in building those relationships.