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Thursday, July 15, 1999

MathResources makes its mark
With its math education software that can be accessed online, this Nova Scotia company is winning export contracts and deals with partners like IBM and Casio

Kim Hanson
Financial Post

Paul Darrow, National Post
Ron Fitzgerald of MathResources works in his Halifax office on teaching aids software.

By 2002, more than five million students in India will be using computer products, tools and engines designed by a tiny shop in Halifax.

MathResources Inc. is just making its mark, thanks largely to international sales of its math software for school use.

Besides the India deal, the company has landed a major sale in Singapore, with Times Publishing Ltd., one of Asia's major publishing companies.

The recent contracts have fuelled the company's growth and earned it recognition by Nova Scotia as one of the province's top exporters by revenue.

Sales at the small start-up have jumped 400% over the past 12 months.

MathResources is marketing educational software that can be accessed online. It's mainly distributing an electronic math dictionary, a database with over 150 interactive math tools and a scientific graphic calculator.

But its shortest arrows happen to be its strongest: unique and powerful engines and plotting tools.

The engines, which enable users to walk through a program with relative ease, can be used by people with varying degrees of math skill -- from kids in Grade 7 to experts with PhDs in mathematics -- to solve a broad range of math problems. The technology can be applied to more than one curriculum.

Other products on the market lack the same functionality, said Ron Fitzgerald, president of MathResources.

"The curriculum material was the same old thing you see in the textbooks, only dressed up on a CD-ROM," he said.

And as MathResources begins to market its wares internationally, it is now developing a North American strategy. The company has signed contracts with IBM Canada Ltd. and Casio Computer Co. Ltd.

To see these projects through, the privately held company is seeking venture capital. It is still a couple of months away from its target of raising $2.5-million to $3.5-million through debt and equity financing.

"One of our biggest hurdles in the start-up stage is product credibility -- whether or not you can built a product," said Mr. Fitzgerald.

IBM will help the East Coast firm develop the school products in Canada. Casio, the Japanese electronics maker, is in the midst of launching Cassiopeia, a handheld computer that will carry software developed by MathResources.

Apple Canada Inc., one of IBM's competitors, acknowledges that MathResources mayhave created a powerful new technology. Lynne Zucker, the national educational marketing manager for Apple Canada in Markham, Ont., said the most common engine for graphing data of this sort is a spreadsheet.

But MathResources could be unique because it has designed engines to specifically meet the needs of schools. "One can argue this is obviously more geared to math education. It is powerful if you can use the same tool for several students," Ms. Zucker said.

Mr. Fitzgerald, a 48-year-old entrepreneur with a 17-year background in the math textbook industry, said he came up with the idea for MathResources in 1994.

That's when he hooked up with a mathematician, Jonathan Borwein, and a computer science expert, Carolyn Watters.

The partners saw their biggest gains this year, signing a batch of contracts totalling more than $1-million.

That includes the deals with India and Singapore, worth a combined total of $600,000.

Mr. Fitzgerald said two U.S.-based rivals, Logal Software Inc. of Cambridge, Mass., and Boxer Learning of Charlottesville, Va., are creating much the same products as his.

Boxer operates primarily in the United States, but a small portion of its business is in Canada. The company's core products are CD-ROM programs used in 1,400 American schools.

Boxer said it has just launched a new line of online tools, tutorials and math problem-solving lessons. "We're probably one of five that are truly pioneering the market right now," said Ingrid Ellerbe, vice-president of Boxer.

The company is projecting sales of $20-million (US) in three years. "We're going beyond putting textbooks online. We actually have on-screen illustrations and manipulations," Ms. Ellerbe said.

For instance, students can take a circle and calculate the radius on the computer. The circle can be stretched out or made smaller. With Internet access and a password, the tutorials can be accessed from home.

Boxer said it has been networking with the few companies in the field. One company it is working with, Brainium, happens to be Canadian. Brainium is a Vancouver-based firm specializing in online science education.

While observers acknowledge the potential for these high-powered math engines, they say there are some limitations.

Robert Ironside of Globaltech Financial Corp. in Calgary said the engines, including those designed by MathResources, lack vital learning components.

"This engine actually solves the problem for you," said Mr. Ironside, whose company helps financial services professionals brush up on their math skills.

Globaltech is currently in talks with MathResources to use its engines.

But Mr. Fitzgerald points out that his software doesn't always hand its users the answer. He offers an example: When studying probability, teachers often have students conduct a group exercise such as flipping a coin and recording the results.

"With our software we actually give you a technology tool called a probability spinner and we can make it flip a coin any number of times you want."

Students can then take their data, and apply them to a specific assignment.

MathResources' co-founders are now working with nine math teachers in Nova Scotia to develop additional proprietary software to be ready for this fall.

"When the three of us get together, which is not all that often now, we still are really amazed that we have been able to move this along. It was this odd little idea that we thought we could do," said Mr. Fitzgerald.

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