No one would ever accuse Benbria Corp. of being in the disaster business. But CEO Andrea Baptiste does say there’s a distinct market opportunity both now and on the horizon in public safety and security, of which the company’s product has more than a few applications.
“A big part of that (opportunity) is ‘How do you notify the right people at the right time, with the right information?’” she says.
Put simply, Benbria’s intelligent notification offering provides a two-way mass communications system on multiple platforms including PC, IP paging to overhead speakers, mobile technology and voice messaging. Recipients and confirmation feedback are tracked with live updating reports, allowing users to view who’s received what message and where they are.
A well-publicized deal with Carleton University last year marked the company’s arrival onto the Ottawa scene, but its success hasn’t stopped since then. It doubled its workforce to 16 since November, will launch a U.K. office within months, has recorded several consecutive quarters of revenue growth and, says Ms. Baptiste, now has “more customers than employees” – boasting around 20 clients in the U.S., India and Australia, among others.
The company also seems to have picked up particular traction in the education and enterprise markets, though it is facing competition from local firm Amika Mobile and U.S. companies Inova Solutions and ERMS Corp.
Serial tech powerhouse Terry Matthews chairs the company’s board, and the savvy veteran’s fingerprints are all over the firm, which was started by three University of Waterloo students. A product of the Wesley Clover group of companies, the latter’s vice-president, Simon Gwatkin, is also Benbria’s vice-president of marketing. Benbria is a Mitel strategic partner, as well.
But don’t think the company’s technology is meant only for emergencies. Far from it, says Ms. Baptiste. “Every company or enterprise we talk to has a use for this, either where it will improve their efficiency or business operations,” she says. “(Customers) are using this technology for compliance obligations. Think about the retail sector – they’ve got a lot of information they’ve got to send out to their stores, and it’s important that they have two-way communication. It’s also great for situations like product recalls.”
And while Ms. Baptiste says the company hasn’t given any auto manufacturers a call just yet – though it may only be a matter of time – it’s also noteworthy the company also hasn’t yet attacked government verticals, which presumably could use the technology to communicate with citizens during times of crisis.
Whatever its target market, Benbria certainly doesn’t seem strapped for cash. It closed an oversubscribed angel round last year and will launch a second round at an increased valuation in the first half of 2010, Ms. Baptiste says.
“And we’re doing that to grow our channels to market, and to grow our service model as a software-as-a-service business.”
While Ms. Baptiste adds the company is “considering” its future in terms of potential buyouts or M&A activity, she says its main concern lies in “growing the company with a strong value proposition.
“Our focus right now is on the heavy acceleration of our business, and building shareholder value.”
Year founded: 2007
Local head count: 16
Funding to date: One angel round, undisclosed
Product: Cross-media unified notification system
Faisal Sethi wants web surfers to generate funds for good causes without spending a dime.
That’s the concept behind DoGood Headquarters, a company that’s still measuring its existence in weeks but is racking up accolades in the local startup community and generating buzz amongst bloggers and the mainstream media.
Its free DoGooder browser plugin hides banner advertisements on websites and shows ads promoting environmental initiatives, philanthropic “calls for action” and health and wellness ideas.
DoGood donates half its profits to charitable causes such as the David Suzuki Foundation and The Humane Society. With the company’s revenue based on the number of “impressions,” or ad loads, web users are raising funds as they surf.
“It allows anyone to do good on a daily basis without affecting their lifestyle or bank account,” says Mr. Sethi, who co-founded the company with his wife, Meika Campeau.
Along with pioneering new forms of corporate social responsibility, DoGood is forging new online advertising models by focusing on the end user, rather than the destination site.
Traditional online advertisers post unsolicited ads and hope web users will surf and see their message. DoGooder, by contrast, allows advertisers to bring their products and messages directly to interested end users, without the privacy concerns of browser tracking.
“We’re seeing much higher engagement rates because people are actually opting-in to see things they enjoy,” says Mr. Sethi, noting his click-through rates are typically two to five times higher than traditional banner ad campaigns.
Fresh from winning three OCRI/Exploriem Bootstrap Awards earlier this month – one a bronze for best new business with revenues of $100,000 or less – DoGood has been nominated for a SXSW technical achievement award. The winner will be announced at the multiday music, film and technology festival in Austin, Texas, next month.
Mr. Sethi says DoGood has not run into conflicts with mainstream publishers whose ads are suddenly hidden from view. He says his product is not an ad blocker because the original advertisement is technically still shown and users have the option of seeing it. This means the original publisher is still collecting impressions – and revenue.
But as Mr. Sethi sees it, he’s not taking anything away from traditional advertisers.
“A regular ad is completely irrelevant to a do-gooder end user. Their eyeballs are completely invaluable,” he says.“They wouldn’t be clicking on it or, likely, even noticing it.”
Year founded: 2009
Local head count: Fluctuates between 5 and 9
Funding to date: None.
Product: Browser plugin that replaces ads with environmental and philanthropic messages
It may sound like something out of a science-fiction movie, but eSight chairman Dan Mathers says his company’s product is giving hope to people with inoperable eye conditions.
“We give ‘super vision’ to people who otherwise have great difficulty seeing … we augment reality so we can optimize every little last bit of functioning sight they have,” says Mr. Mathers about eSight’s technology, a lightweight, sunglasses-like device with a built-in video camera and display screens instead of lenses.
The product – currently undergoing patient trials and expected to make its commercial debut in fall 2010 – incorporates a personal processor that transmits the full-motion video captured with the camera to the display screens in real time.
It also has features such as gaze-tracking technology and the ability to alter the colour map of whatever a user is looking at if, for instance, they can’t see in blues and oranges but have fewer problems with purples and greens.
Mr. Mathers says the device is receiving a ton of support from the medical community as well as people suffering from diseases such as age-related macular degeneration or diabetic retinopathy, neither or which can be treated by surgery or drugs.
“We get regular inquiries about the product, people volunteering for patient testing, and lots who want to purchase the product when it’s available,” he says.
“We want this to be a device that people can wear all the time to help with the activities of daily living, so they can go out on the back porch and see a flower blooming for the first time, or see their grandchildren’s faces, or watch TV on them.”
Part of the appeal of eSight’s offering is there isn’t really anything like it on the market – the closest thing you can find is a heavy head-worn magnifier that has a large optical zoom camera, but none of eSight’s competitors have an integrated computing element, says Mr. Mathers.
As such, eSight has already started building ties with low-vision clinics throughout North America, with Mr. Mathers noting that the company is set to capitalize on the market for low-vision assistive devices, that’s worth $300 million today.
“There are 22 million people in North America who have eye issues that surgery and drugs can’t correct,” he adds. “We’re building a very strong business, doing something that’s a very, very good cause, and improving the quality of life for these people.”
Year founded: 2007
Local head count: 7
Funding received to date: $3.5 million
Product: Wearable low-vision device
EventBots has come a long way from its first prototype, an “incredibly heavy” device made of wood that husband-and-wife pair Denis Tsui and Amy Yee put together for a friend’s wedding.
Ms. Yee recalls that “Eureka!” moment when she and Mr. Tsui – an industrial designer by trade – had been discussing it with their friend, who had wanted a photo booth at her Ottawa wedding but found it too expensive to bring from Toronto.
“Denis said, ‘I can build that!’ and I said, ‘That’s nice, honey,’ because he’s always saying he can build things,” laughs Ms. Yee, who is herself a trained engineer.
“But a few months later, we found ourselves actually building it and it was coming along really well. I thought it was something that we could turn into a viable business.”
Today, the completely bootstrapped company has three “Speakers’ Corner”-style units capable of instantly printing out photos and capturing high-definition video – along with being able to fit easily into the couple’s Mini Cooper.
Ms. Yee says the bot has several unique features: It’s open-concept, which allows more people to use it simultaneously, and the VideoBot is one of the few portable video machines available on the market.
A key differentiator, however, is the fact that rental also includes the services of a person who will help engage potential users “because very rarely do people just come up to the bot and start talking,” says Ms. Yee.
While EventBots continues to be popular at weddings, it’s starting to attract corporate customers such as Hydro Ottawa and the National Arts Centre, some of whom have indicated they would like to become repeat customers.
The firm has even received inquiries from as far afield as California – from an American film director getting married in Mexico, no less – and the United Kingdom.
Unfortunately, EventBots has no way at the moment of easily flying or shipping out its units beyond simply driving them to their location, something which Ms. Yee says the company is working on resolving.
Still, she adds the business is currently profitable and revenues rose 400 per cent in its first year. EventBots is currently on the hunt for financing to build its next model, which it expects to debut later this year. The firm is also looking into expansion options, with franchising being a serious possibility, along with partnerships with event planners.
With the advent of Web 2.0 and the resulting demand for audience personalization and engagement, Ms. Yee says she foresees growth potential. “At least 50 per cent of the really valuable content at an event will be with the audience … and it’s getting it in the moment that’s really important. Not everyone’s going to (submit content online afterwards), they’re going to do it in the moment when they’re connected and really tied together by why they’re there.”
Year founded: 2008
Local head count: 4
Funding received to date: None
Product: Portable ‘Speakers’ Corner’-type photo and video machines
The growing prevalence of online shopping – particularly in the mobile space, where U.S. firm ABI Research predicts a $119-billion market by 2015 – has been well-documented.
And that’s why Gazaro Inc. is well-positioned to ride a growth curve into the foreseeable future, says founder and CEO Sam Zaid. Competition in the space is fierce but he says the company’s analytics and artificial intelligence capabilities, when combined with the power of the almighty splurge in all its guises, provides a powerful value proposition for customers.
The technology trolls online stores and sales flyers looking for applicable sales based on a user’s interests and locale. So if you’re, say, a tropical fish lover in Ottawa, your phone will tell you the minute that bunch of Malawi cichlids you’ve had your eye on goes on sale.
Gazaro offers both a website users can browse and a “Gazaro Deals” iPhone application, available since mid-December. “In terms of the mobile space, it’s wide-open right now,” he says. “There aren’t a lot of applications that help shoppers when they’re in the store.
“And on the web side of things, there hasn’t been a ton of innovation there in the past couple of years, so with our AI background we think we can bring some new capabilities around tracking and prediction that should differentiate us quite well.”
The company’s key differentiator, according to Mr. Zaid? Information synthesis, or “distilling all the data we collect into simple indicators” to help customers find what they’re looking for.
Incubated and seed funded by local firm Apption – of which Mr. Zaid is the chief technology officer – Gazaro, which primarily has gone after the U.S. market, also boasts a strategic partnership with Viigo, another software application company. “Channels like that help us get the word out,” he says.
Gazaro generates revenue in three main streams – on a cost-per-click basis when users visit the site or use the app, through commissions on purchases and on the sale of the application itself.
And while Mr. Zaid won’t discuss specific financials of the company, he says growth “over the past couple of quarters has been strong,”
“Our strategy revolves more and more around building novel features and solutions that don’t exist yet – new things you can do with the data to help consumers save money.”
But the best part about Gazaro is that it’s a company willing to take risks, even at technology trade shows – it was handed a TechCrunch 50 Disqualification Award for using “booth babes” to showcase its product in 2008, which goes to the company “with the most unethical, despicable, and utterly inhumane yet overly effective marketing tactic” to entice visitors to its booth.
Year founded: 2008
Local head count: 7
Funding to date: $1 million
Product: Personalized online sales flyers