COVER

CASHING IN ON FANTASY

ALIAS BRINGS DREAMS TO LIFE IN 3-D

JOHN DALY August 12 1991
COVER

CASHING IN ON FANTASY

ALIAS BRINGS DREAMS TO LIFE IN 3-D

JOHN DALY August 12 1991

CASHING IN ON FANTASY

COVER

ALIAS BRINGS DREAMS TO LIFE IN 3-D

Stephen Bingham has a talent for selling high-profile clients computer software that produces spectacularly creative results. Millions of moviegoers around the world this summer have enjoyed Bingham’s success in the hit action movie Terminator II: Judgment Day. The movie’s animators used a program developed by Bingham’s Torontobased computer software firm, Alias Research Inc., to design the evil Cyborg T1000 robot character that battles mega-star Arnold Schwarzenegger. That kind of special-effects application is what Alias’s 42-year-old president had in mind when he cofounded the company in 1983 as a television and film animation house. Then, Bingham discovered that his three-dimensional graphics programs were equally suitable for industrial design. Now, the company earns most of its revenues from sales of its realistic imaging software to multinationals such as General Motors Corp. (GM), Sony Corp. and Timex Corp. (Last year, Alias’s revenues nearly doubled to $26.2 million.) Says Bingham: “We’ve built a bridge between the hard-core engineering world and the more flamboyant creative world.”

Gold: Although Alias is young and still relatively small, the company’s rapid growth has earned widespread recognition. Since its early days in a cramped office in a former chocolate factory in downtown Toronto, Alias has expanded to occupy four floors of the building, and it now employs almost 230 people. Last October, then-federal Industry Minister Benoît Bouchard presented Alias with a gold statue for innovation at his department's awards for business excellence ceremony. And Bingham now talks boldly of transforming the company into a global giant with $1 billion in annual revenues by the end of the decade.

Bingham is an unlikely high-tech tycoon. Lacking any formal engineering or technical training, he obtained a master’s degree in Canadian studies from Ottawa’s Carleton University. He then served as director of the city’s National Film Theatre from 1980 to 1983, which allowed him to indulge his love for movies and animation.

It was a visit to Hollywood director George Lucas’s renowned Industrial Light & Magic animation studios in California that inspired Bingham to form his own animation company, Alias. He was joined by three partners—David Springer, a community college computer-

graphics instructor, and television and film producers Susan McKenna and Nigel McGrath. Unfortunately, says Bingham, they soon discovered that there was little steady demand for Alias’s specialized animation software among film and television companies.

In fact, Bingham says that he practically stumbled into what has become Alias’s largest market during a 1985 trip to Detroit to purchase computers from the firm’s U.S.-based

hardware supplier, Silicon Graphics Inc. While there, Silicon’s local representative arranged a 15-minute appointment with design engineers at GM’s technical centre. The only thing Bingham had to show them was a half-completed image of a candle that he had prepared the night before. According to Bingham, the animated image was so realistic that the eight GM designers in the room “got out of their chairs and pressed their noses to the screen.” They decided to order three Alias systems and Silicon computers at a total cost of $1 million.

At the time, GM’s designers still relied exclusively on traditional methods to develop plans for new cars—hand-drawn sketches and clay models. Now with Alias’s software, they can create photographic-quality, three-dimensional images of auto bodies or individual parts on computer screens, view their creations from any angle and under a variety of light conditions and quickly alter them. Since then, dozens of other blue-chip multinational manufacturers have bought Alias programs to design new cars, stereo systems and many other products.

A tireless promoter of his own products, Bingham says that he has learned from experience how to attract clients in an era of fierce global competition. “My advice to other Canadian companies,” he says, “is to focus on a large U.S. buyer. Then use that customer as your seal of approval.”

Scared: Despite his company’s achievements, Bingham says that he is worried that Canada is behind other countries in computer software development. One problem he cites is the reluctance of Canadian banks and investors to back software firms, which are widely perceived as risky. Declares Bingham: “We’re

getting scared out of the most lucrative business in the world.” He also accuses Ottawa of making too much effort to reduce the deficit instead of trying to help high-tech companies obtain financing for research and development. “It’s a fool’s game,” Bingham says of Ottawa’s tightfisted economic policies. “You win by focusing on making money, not just saving it.” In the movies as well as at Alias, Bingham’s approach has produced impressive results.

JOHN DALY

Alias Research Inc. HEAD OFFICE: Toronto MAJOR PRODUCT: Computer-graphics software EMPLOYEES: 230 1990 REVENUES: $26 million 1990 PROFITS: $3 million ESTABLISHED: 1983