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Sept 2003 - Forest Management Systems

Better forestry tools

BC software company Terra Cognita is out to create better data gathering and analysis tools for the forest industry, both in Canada and overseas.

By Jim Stirling

Garth Frizzell (above), president of Terra Cognita Software Systems.

British Columbia based Terra Cognita is a fledgling company with an impressive goal: the pursuit of an international vision to create more informed land use decision-making. The software systems specialist has customized a series of data gathering and analysis tools for forest industry clients, allowing them to better manage information for in-the-field implementation.

Terra Cognita Software Systems Inc was incorporated in May 2002 and has already grown from its head office in Prince George, BC to establishing offices in Ottawa and Edmonton. The company has also participated in a trade mission to China and is planning another to Chile. Not bad for a company whose principals—computer experts and programmers—were ensconced in the security of Statistics Canada’s Ottawa office just four years ago. Garth Frizzell, president of the cleverly named Terra Cognita, figured he didn’t want to occupy the same cubicle at StatsCan for the next 20 years.

Terra Cognita’s current projects include a harvesting management system to track return on investment on harvesting projects and a harvesting cost estimation model which can match block characteristics and productivity factors to each harvesting phase.

He travelled west to complete a master’s degree at the University of Northern British Columbia in Prince George. And that’s when circumstances started falling into place. Frizzell became involved with the Silviculture Survey Management System while continuing his studies. When he finished, he decided to expand the inventory data gathering system.

What started in Chetwynd in northeastern BC has migrated west to Mackenzie and south to the Prince George and Quesnel areas. The program has delivered about 1,400 silvicultural surveys for access by regional forest industry licensees and the provincial government. A second major boost to Terra Cognita came with its involvement in the Omineca Northern Caribou Project. The project was initiated by forest companies Slocan Forest Products and Abitibi Consolidated to improve the understanding of the local ecological system involving caribou, moose, and wolves in the Mackenzie Timber Supply Area of BC.

Terra Cognita designed software so that experts in the field can collect and compile a wide range of data relating to caribou. Frizzell says about 300 caribou in three herds were fitted with radio collars and tracked in areas around Williston Lake, north of Mackenzie. For example, information about vegetation, snow packs, migratory patterns, what caribou were eating and what they were dying from is faithfully gathered with the system and updated at regular intervals, Frizzell says. The data will form a useful platform of enhanced understanding in forest management planning for Slocan Forest Products and Abitibi-Consolidated, the two major licensees operating in the Mackenzie region.

Terra Cognita had to reorganize as the silviculture and caribou projects gathered momentum. Home offices were discarded in favour of more formal digs. Frizzell recently moved into the WoodTek building in Prince George, an incubator site for innovative and secondary wood product development. He says having his partner, Remy Despres, located in Ottawa is working well. “Our Ottawa operation gives us access to a pool of talent, programmers with a range of disciplines. Language and computers change so quickly,” he explains.

Being a Francophone also helps open doors. Planning—of the strategic nature—is vital to Terra Cognita. Frizzell uses the Innovation Resource Centre in Prince George and praises their contributions, to learn about the dynamics of small business types and development patterns. The partners have developed a business structure to accommodate growth. They recently moved from the familiar field of software development to creating products for specific clients, necessitating the hiring of marketing expertise. “We’re planning for growth and it’s coming to us and exceeding our expectations in some cases, with sales and marketing,” he adds.

Frizzell says rapid growth can be scary, but he relishes the excitement of running a company. Terra Cognita’s woodlands-related products include: a harvesting management system to track return on investment on harvesting projects and relate them to industry trends; a harvest quality system to track logs leaving the bush; and a harvesting cost estimation model which can match block characteristics and productivity factors to each harvesting phase.

Characteristically, participating in the trade mission to China was not a whim. “We’re a small company and if we go overseas on a trade mission, we’re not likely to return with multi-million dollar contracts. But it was a chance to get started on some of our plans. Within five years, we want to market ourselves abroad to land use managers,” says Frizzell. The 10-day, three-city Gateway to Asia mission was organized by Western Economic Diversification Canada and created an opportunity for small businesses in Canada to talk directly with small business operators in China. “The single biggest benefit was on the four- and five-hour bus rides between cities that allowed us to talk with people from 13 other Canadian companies about where best to direct business prospects. Interestingly, many of the participants from Vancouver were of Chinese descent,” he adds.

Frizzell says the level and pace of economic development in Shanghai is stunning. Away from major centres, China is very much a developing nation, he observes. He believes that there are business opportunities related to China’s desire to upgrade environmental standards to more uniform levels in the wake of Beijing’s successful bid for the Summer Olympics in 2008. A middle class—one million strong and growing—is further incentive to develop a presence in China.

Frizzell is convinced that’s best achieved working with a Chinese partner. And as the first direct result of the trade mission, Terra Cognita was working toward finalizing a services-product deal with a new client.

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