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Edsby takes home the top prize

Education software start-up edges out the competition at annual awards

John Myers of Edsby

By Lawrence Cummer
June 6, 2013

A Canadian education innovator made the grade at the second-annual Backbone Start Me Up Innovation Campaign, bringing home top honours amid stiff competition. Edsby, a cloud-based social learning platform that aims to help schools, teachers and parents better communicate with each other, took home top prize, the bulk of $100,000 in services, mentoring and products. Edsby and the team behind it impressed the judges at the campaign’s competitive live pitch-off. Held May 6 in Toronto at the TMX Gallery of the Toronto Stock Exchange, the event was the culmination of months of work and multiple judging rounds.

The calibre of presentations this year was excellent, even compared to last year’s strong slate of contenders, according to editor Peter Wolchak.

“We thought we had a tough time choosing a winner last year. If anything, the competition was stronger this year and, at the same time, there was more variety of solutions. We had gamers, infrastructure cloud solutions, wearable tablet frames, and end-user, B2B and enterprise software.”

While the inaugural competition featured mostly early-stage software companies led by first-time entrepreneurs, the campaign this year also featured serial entrepreneurs, some of whom had already tasted significant success.

The competition asked 10 of the country’s brightest emerging talents to convince a panel of judges—each with extensive background in entrepreneurship, research, software or professional services—that they had the right stuff. Each was given 10 minutes to sell a product or service to the judges.

This year’s expert panel consisted of: Wolchak; Lance Neale, president and CEO of Vancouver-based integrated marketing firm Station X; Andrew Maxwell, chief innovation officer at the Canadian Innovation Centre; Eugene Bomba, head of PwC’s emerging company services practice; Darin Graham, president and CEO of the Ontario Research and Innovation Optical Network (ORION); John Cardella, executive vice-president and chief people officer at human capital management software firm Ceridian Canada; Paul Day, vice-president, head of investments at Export Development Canada (EDC); Perry Dellelce, managing partner of legal firm Wildeboer Dellelce; Valerie Fox, director of the Ryerson Digital Media Zone (DMZ); and Mike Edwards, executive director of Grow Lab and co-founder of Launch Academy.

Contestants were judged on innovation merits plus the ability to execute and succeed with their business plans.

And the winner is...

John Myers, president of Edsby, was widely considered by the judges to have “outpitched” his competitors. While his product obviously had to be very strong to win, Myers’ strong performance on stage was critical in pushing Edsby to the fore.

Specifically, he painted a strong picture of the challenge school boards face with outdated communications between parents and teachers, and said cloud-based solutions could solve this problem. “We did some fundamental research and in talking to school boards and teachers, we found things work the same way they did when I was in school in the ’60s: paper in the backpack is still the primary form of communication,” Myers said during his pitch. “We came to the conclusion that teachers keep the three-ring binder companies in business these days, and even teachers who are tech savvy and try to do interesting collaborative things…are still pretty low tech.”

Myers and his partners (brothers Steven Asbury, vice-president of engineering, and Jon Asbury, vice-president of design, and H.E. Scott Welch, vice-president of sales and marketing) have worked together for nearly three decades. Originally colleagues at Nortel Networks in the 1980s, the four ended up running CoreFour, creators of FirstClass, which was purchased by OpenText in 2002.

“One of the reasons we’ve been so successful is we have very complementary skills sets,” Myers told attendees and judges. After selling their first start-up, they naturally gravitated back to the education industry because of an absence they perceived in top-tier software.

“The big guys just don’t focus on that sector, and the little guys who build software, most of it doesn’t work really well,” he said.

Their solution allows teachers to use a Web interface to manage day-to-day tasks like attendance, grades, course planning and communications with students and parents. Students can use a smartphone or tablet to keep track of assignments, and parents can similarly find out how their child is doing with a few quick taps on their mobile devices. Cloud-based, the solution doesn’t require an infrastructure investment from the school boards that use Edsby, and the software ties into the district’s own security and authentication management system for security control.

Work began in 2010, with a pilot launch in 2011. Already the company has exceeded its 2013 goal of signing up 200 schools. Seed capital has been provided by CoreFour founders, but they are investigating the option of taking on outside investors to shore up sales and marketing efforts.

Myers suggested the software takes advantage of a growing trend of modernization in school, in which students are provided with mobile devices or are taking part in the BYOD (bring your own device) trend.

“Our focus is that we transform schools,” Myer said. “We help them move to the cloud.”

A close second

Winnipeg-based start-up PO-MOtion was selected as runner-up. CEO Meghan Athavale said her chief motivator for entering the competition was a berth at Ryerson University’s Digital Media Zone incubator, part of the prize package.

PO-MOtion creates interactive floor and wall displays that work using standard projectors, cameras and computer hardware, where competitive solutions lock users into proprietary equipment. These can be used as advertising or marketing vehicles or simply for fun at a party. A video demo is here.

Whereas CoreFour’s founders combine more than 100 years of tech innovation experience, Athavale suggested PO-MOtion stumbled onto innovation gold. “We started throwing parties where people could come and interact with projections on the wall,” she explained. After she and business partner Curtis Wachs completed their first event using the original iteration of their motion controlled projector software—dubbed the Wonderland Interactive Party—guests posted videos on YouTube that quickly went viral. The two soon found themselves being asked to produce interactive experiences for major brands.

“So we’re a company started entirely by accident,” Athavale said. “We ended up creating a platform around the interactive displays we were building so that agencies with a high level of creativity but no development skills could make their own engaging, physical, interactive displays.”

Focused on innovation

The importance of innovation to the Canadian economy rang through the messages the judges delivered to the crowd, and was central to the comments from guest speaker Don Tapscott.

In his opening remarks, the author and business guru shared with the nominees five principles for innovation success: collaboration, refreshed intellectual property, transparency, interdependence and integrity. “A rising tide can lift all boats,” he said.

And that tide of innovation Tapscott espoused is key to the success of the Canadian economy. He called innovation key to jobs, to social
development and to the next generation, who face record levels of youth unemployment, but who would have an easier entry into the market if not for what he called “structural impediments,” such as financing.

“This ought to be the halcyon days of entrepreneurship, because little companies can now, thanks to the Web, have the capabilities of big companies without the main liabilities of bureaucracy, and legacy culture and systems, and so on.”

Backbone will hold this contest again next year, to help a new set of entrepreneurs get closer to their dreams.

The top 10

This year’s Backbone Innovation Campaign saw a wide mix of challengers, all with top-notch inventions and ideas. In the end there can be only one, but all 10 had the opportunity to present and to network with the judges and attendees.

AirSembly

AirSembly is a software layer that enables service providers to quickly sell cloud services using traditional distribution models and existing infrastructure. This basically provides commercialization and delivery middleware for VMware.

“We see a great opportunity in that service providers desperately need these capabilities and there aren’t competitors in the market today,” Ben Morris, vice-president of sales at AirVM, told the crowd. AirVM is the Kanata, Ont., developer of AirSembly.

Edsby

The 2013 award winner, Edsby is a cloud-based social learning platform that enables school districts and private school to transform the way teachers, students and parents engage with each other.

FleetBit

The flagship application of Winston Inc. offers taxi services a fast, affordable way to launch branded mobile booking and payment apps. The company has been cash-flow neutral since October 2012, bolstered by the white-label approach it takes with its taxi and limo service customers.

“The metrics for our white label app are pretty fantastic,” boasted Aidan Nulman, CEO. Next step for the company is to investigate partnering with airlines and travel agencies to create a mechanism to easily integrate taxi into their service. “Our vision is to be the Google Ads for the taxi industry.”

Glitchsoft

A developer of premium mobile games targeted at the core fans of action and superhero content, Glitchsoft recently released He-Man: The Most Powerful Game In The Universe for iOS.

Andrew Fisher, executive producer at Glitchsoft, said his company’s strength comes from its patented stack of IP tools and best practices, delivered by a veteran team, each with about 10 years’ experience in mobile gaming development—nearly a lifetime in that industry.

GoPad

The first hardware finalist in the Backbone Innovation Campaign, GoPad transforms an iPad or iPad mini into a wearable computer that hangs around users’ necks, allowing them to remain hands free.

A serial inventor, Peter Kielland, founder and president of Visionary Technology, has more than 30 patent applications under his belt. He funded the manufacturing of 850 first-generation GoPad’s and sold all of them internationally, and has now moved onto a new model that supports the mini and offers improved ergonomics.

Joist

A tool for contractors available today on the iPad, iPhone, Android and the Web, Joist lets contractors—such as roofers, landscapers and home renovators—create on-site estimates, send invoices and manage products from anywhere.

“Traction has been phenomenal,” said Justin Kathan, co-founder of Winnipeg-based Joist. In only weeks, the app grew to have more than 1,000 contractor accounts. “And what we’ve found is that 60 per cent of those contractors have used the app to create and send an estimate to their customers.”

Mount Knowledge

The brainchild of president, CEO and co-founder Erwin Sniedzins, who has over 18 years of managerial experience at Xerox, Mount Knowledge promises to allow students to learn subject matter up to 300 per cent faster than traditional learning methods. Using an intelligent engine that automatically creates more than 100,000 exercises and tests, the software also provides 32 per cent better learning outcomes, Sniedzins said.

He said his “ah-ha” moment came when hearing monks chant while recovering from altitude sickness during a climb of Mount Everest. He called Mount Knowledge a “Ferrari” of e-learning.

PO-MOtion

Campaign runner-up PO-MOtion uses any Web camera or IR sensor, projector and computer to create physically engaging wall or floor displays through simple design tools, with no coding required.

StratPad

Providing “innovation for entrepreneurs,” StratPad is an iPad app that teaches strategy, finance and business planning to entrepreneurs and small and mid-sized business (SMBs), helping them create investor-ready reports and track progress toward goals.

Start-ups can use the solution to crowdfund the business plan developed in it, said Alex Glassey, CEO of Victoria-based Glassey Technologies, developer of StratPad. “If you’re thinking this sounds like TripAdvisor meets LinkedIn, that’s exactly where we want you to be,” he said. “We have transformed the lives of our customers, and in doing so, transformed our own.”

Will Pwn 4 Food

Capitalizing on the interest in competitive gaming and micro-transactions, Will Pwn 4 Food develops action games for Web browsers in which players compete for cash and prizes.

Currently focused on growing its user base, Will Pwn 4 Food aims to give gamers something they’re missing today. “The problem is, these competitive gamers don’t have anywhere to go,” said Ivan Lukianchuk, founder and “Master Chief Executive Officer” of the Kitchener, Ont.-based start-up.

DodgeBots, its first game, allows up to 15 players to join for a dollar and the top five people split the pot. Add-ons can be purchased, including the ability to buy back into the match. These add-ons increase the pot—and Will Pwn 4 Food’s share.


Also watch:
The Backbone Innovation Campaign Pitch-Off event videos

Also read:
Start Me Up - The Backbone Innovation Campaign 2013 - 2nd Annual
Start Me Up! - The Alpha Exchange Innovation Campaign presented by Backbone magazine in 2012
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