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Computing power moves ideas from campus to commerce

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Imagine a smartphone app that helps you find a vacant tennis court in your local park and a free lane at the public swimming pool. Or a wired t-shirt that allows first-responder organizations to monitor the heart rates and other vital information of emergency crews fighting a fire.

These are among the ideas dreamed up over the last two years by university spinoff companies, many of them on Alberta campuses. But bringing such concepts through the critical first stage, particularly where computing power is involved, can be technically demanding, time-consuming and costly.

Enter Cybera, a made-in-Canada, not-for-profit technology advisory group financed by the Government of Alberta to oversee and develop the province’s cyberinfrastructure. This includes providing innovators with a public cloud to move their ideas from campus to commerce.

Most people are familiar with clouds for storing data, photos and music, but Cybera’s is different. The Rapid Access Cloud harnesses the virtual power of thousands of computers, which can be applied to a particular problem or project. In order to offer this service, Cybera refined its use of a cross-platform, free software called OpenStack. It enables a broad range of researchers to easily use the cloud resource, literally within minutes of signing up.

“We want to help the folks who are not yet ready for full-on commercialization, but don’t need supercomputers,” explains Robin Winsor, Cybera’s president and CEO. The agency first began offering its Rapid Access Cloud in September 2013 to a group of about 30 users; that number now has swollen to more than 400, which Mr. Winsor says is a measure of the program’s success. He notes that typical market rates for such computing services can range into the tens of thousands of dollars, while Cybera offers it for free to pre-commercialization innovators for one year. After that, the agency will consider extending the service on a case-by-case basis.

The question may well be asked: Does the world really need more computing power? Mr. Winsor says that nascent researchers and academics face enough challenges thinking through the science of their innovations without having to find and pay for computing resources.

“You are a researcher, you don’t know about business, you don’t know about computer allocation, you don’t have any money behind you.” What is equally important, Mr. Winsor adds, is “reducing the friction” of giving life to new inventions, letting smart people spend their time and energy on what they do best—coming up with bright ideas.