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There's something new happening at iFire Technology Corp. It's about two inches thick.

The Toronto-based maker of flat-screen television technology believes it is on the verge of revolutionizing the industry, giving consumers even thinner models at lower cost. In the process, iFire also believes it can transform from a largely unheard of technology manufacturer to a sector leader.

It's a long way from iFire's Toronto labs to the major leagues of the flat-screen consumer market, however. In the meantime, iFire's strategy may hold important lessons for other small businesses looking to find capital, partners and a consumer base.

The heart of iFire's new flatter screens is called thick-film dielectric electroluminescent technology (TDEL). If it sounds complicated, that's because it is. It's a new method to develop even thinner television sets and at less cost than traditional flat panel technology, and it was pioneered by Xingwei Wu, now iFire's vice-president of science and technology.

Among its benefits, TDEL has a reduced susceptibility to defects during the production process. It also allows for unrestricted viewing angles. And it's much cheaper to produce; iFire estimates TDEL, which can reduce thickness to about two inches, has a potential 30- to 50-per-cent module cost advantage over rival methods such as plasma and LCD panels.

Don Carkner, iFire's vice-president of product planning, says the quality of TDEL screens is better than traditional sets, giving consumers not just a TV they can truly hang on the wall but one that offers a better viewing experience.

Mr. Carkner has been with iFire from the company's creation, when the core technology being developed today was nothing more than a scientific experiment. Outside iFire's clean room, where employees tinker with the settings on the company's multimillion-dollar equipment, he described how engineers struggled for years to produce colours as vivid as those created by traditional TV sets.

But for many consumers the price may be the main hook. At a production cost of as low as $300 a unit, electronics stores may soon be carrying iFire-powered sets in the 37-inch range for less than $1,000. That's less than half the cost of many 37-inch traditional flat-screen models available today.

So far, so good. But a lot can happen between the company's labs and the electronics store showrooms.

That's where iFire's business strategy comes in. The company so far has developed only pilot versions of the 34-inch TDEL-based model. Mass production is targeted for 2007. Between now and then, iFire is working to find the right partners to make sure a promising technology doesn't turn into a commercial flop.

For years, iFire struggled as a business. The company's technology breakthrough came in 1997, but it was far from ready for production. Even though iFire engineers were able to present their new technology, the prototype was only a five-inch display. At larger screen sizes, researchers began to run into trouble. The company also had difficulty reproducing the colour blue with the same intensity as traditional screens, a problem that wouldn't be solved until 2001.

In a way, the company was stuck in a sort of Catch-22. Without partnerships that would allow it to scale up the screens, it was hamstrung. But as an obscure company whose prototypes were still small, iFire wasn't that attractive to those kinds of partners. That would all change when iFire linked with Sanyo Electric Co. Ltd. of Japan, giving it the kind of scale and market experience it needs to enter the market in a big way.

Still, iFire also needs money to achieve those goals. While financially it's part of a public company, Westaim Corp., it still needs to produce results to attract investment. One of the major confidence boosts for the company came in April, 2001, when Technology Partnerships Canada announced a $30-million investment in iFire designed to accelerate development.

In its 10-year history, iFire has learned lessons that apply to many small businesses, regardless of ownership structure or industry.

For one thing, iFire is sticking with what it knows. The company has no intention of commercially producing TV sets from start to finish. Instead, it's working to perfect its technology. The rest is to be developed by other companies.

As such, iFire has been on the lookout for partners to accelerate development. In addition to Sanyo, iFire entered into a joint development agreement with Dai Nippon Printing Co., also based in Japan, for commercial production. DNP provided iFire with $10-million (U.S.) in financing and agreed to use its primary production line in Kashiwa, Japan, for the front-end manufacturing.

iFire is also focusing on a specific market when it comes to the final consumer product - screens in the mid-30- to mid-40-inch range. That's where the bulk of demand is likely to be at the consumer end, Mr. Carkner says.

But iFire is insulated from the traditional small business environment in a way most small businesses are not. The company is a wholly owned subsidiary of Calagary-based Westaim, which has interests in, among other things, nanotechnology and pharmaceuticals. The advantages iFire gets from the setup are easy to see, as they include the new $35-million pilot production facility built this year alongside iFire's Toronto headquarters.

Because iFire is owned by Westaim, the company also has to do less work on the investor relations front. In effect, investors looking to put their money into iFire deal with Westaim, and the only investor-related calls the management team at iFire has to take are from Westaim itself.

But iFire's business model is not without setbacks. For one thing, the company is not as well known as its owner. As a result, iFire management teams have to work harder to attract partners and manufacturers.

"Some of them would say, 'Who are you again?'." Mr. Carkner says.

There's also the possibility iFire's revolutionary new technology will be superseded by another revolutionary technology developed by someone else. A host of global electronics companies are working on ways to bring down the cost and improve the quality of flat-screen panels.

iFire may also have to persuade more big-name players to sign on to develop TDEL sets before other companies and retailers begin to believe the technology is capable of shaking up the marketplace.

But if it succeeds, iFire may just change the way people view television.

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