New hand-held device targets work on shop floor
Veteran high-tech team launches new venture
July 11, 2005
Winnipeg Free Press
When Kerry Thacher decided to start his third technology company, LibreStream Technologies, in the fall of 2003, he really didn't know exactly what it was going to build.
But the former CEO of two other Winnipeg-based companies had a team of senior, experienced engineers and management people attached to the new venture. Their combined experience in developing hand-held, wireless computing devices quickly got the attention of potential investors.
"When we started talking to east and west coast venture capital people, we were getting meetings that nine out of 10 companies would not have a chance at," Thacher said in LibreStream's stripped-down offices above a warehouse in the southwest corner of the city.
They were not successful primarily because, although they had determined the technology they would develop, they were still a year away from having the product developed.
Thacher said LibreStream needs to be somewhat discreet about the exact nature of the product because he does not want to alert potential competitors to the opportunity he believes is currently being unmet. The product, he said, is a hand-held computing device targeted at the shop floor of companies that are developing and manufacturing complex new products.
"Some time ago we had an 'A-Hah!' moment," Thacher said. "When we unveil the product, people are going to kick themselves because they didn't think of it. It will be blazingly obvious."
In the meantime, there is nothing out there addressing the need, and a market research study confirmed there would be demand for LibreStream's new device from automotive, aerospace, electronics and other manufacturers of complex products.
Thacher's confidence that LibreStream will be able to accomplish the task is greatly enhanced by the recent completion of $2.8 million worth of investments, including $2.1 million from ENSIS Growth Fund.
"The ENSIS people understood what we were trying to do right off the bat," said Thacher, a talented engineer with an MBA degree.
Although ENSIS is normally not willing to invest in such early-stage companies, the fund's vice-president investments, Mark Ahrens-Townsend , said he looks for a couple of things that are very important.
"One is that the company has a strong team," said Ahrens-Townsend, who went to business school with Thacher and has known him for 20 years.
He has followed Thacher's career from his first Winnipeg start-up, Ubitrex Inc., which developed a hand-held device for patient charting and record-keeping at the hospital bedside in the early '90s. In 1994, that company was sold to Kansas City-based Continental Health Care for an undisclosed sum.
A few year later, Continental decided to get out of the business, and Thacher was able to buy the technology and the business back and formed another company in Winnipeg called AirWire Mobile Technologies Inc. in 1996.
At the time, there were about 10 hospitals using the technology that had been substantially developed by Continental. Air Wire's work eventually caught the eye of Symbol Technologies Inc., a $1.3 billion US company that makes bar-code scanners among other things. AirWire did some development work for Symbol related to the health-care sector for a couple of years that went so well that Symbol made a $5 million offer to buy the company and Thacher sold it in 1999.
Thacher eventually grew Symbol's presence in Winnipeg to 40 people, turning it into a high-level development centre for the company that has offices all over the world.
In August, 2003 Symbol decided to close the Winnipeg facility just weeks after Thacher had given his notice. The Long Island , New York-based company offered many of Symbol's highly skilled Winnipeg people good-paying jobs and re-location packages to move to Long Island . But many decided not to go. Seven people from that group joined Thacher and started LibreStream in October, 2003.
"Kerry has a talented team that have been through a couple of technology build-and-sell cycles and they have hung together," Ahrens-Townsend said. "This new product is right in the area of their domain knowledge. They are some of the best engineering guys for the type of device they are building."
Among other things, Thacher and his team are experienced in arranging low-cost, quality manufacturing in China and Taiwan and low-cost and quality software development in India and are also familiar with the value-added sales and marketing channels that would likely handle the sales of the product.
LibreStream has 10 employees now and is in the process of hiring six or seven more people and will likely get close to 20 by the time the product is ready in about a year.
Thacher said that the sale of his prior company to Symbol in 1999 was a modest achievement.
"It was a solid single," he said in the baseball parlance favoured in the venture capital field. "We all think this one has the potential to be a home run."