This article was originally posted by Michelle Hampson at jobpostings.ca.
Perched over the heart of Toronto lies a room where the future is being created. From here, high above Yonge and Dundas, some of Canada’s most well-known buildings can be seen: the Scotiabank, TD Trust, Manulife, and CN towers, as well as the Eaton Centre.
Every day, thousands of people walk by Dundas Square below, looking up at the massive jumbo screens above the mall. They watch the flashy Absolute vodka ads, and romantic getaways to Mont Tremblant. But these screens only show regular, 2D ads. Inside this little room, a much more advanced form of advertising is being developed using interactive technology.
For example, Adrian Bulzacki, one of the many innovators in this futuristic lab, has leased his technology to condominium sales offices, so that as people walk by the company’s display, it will track their movement to create a 3D view that moves in whichever direction the observer moves.
And this is just a taste of what’s being created at Ryerson’s Digital Media Zone.
Some of these ideas could completely revolutionize society — from an online platform that gets the public’s most supported ideas into the hands of politicians, to Bulzacki’s virtual 3D technology which could one day form an entire market of virtual goods (to be explained in detail further on).
The Digital Media Zone (DMZ), launched in April 2010, provides innovative young entrepreneurs with the space and resources to start a company. It’s a unique learning hub where students — undergraduates, grad students, or alumni — can “incubate” their ideas.
“We began by working with students and alumni who needed a collaborative space and mentorship to take their start up to a stage where they had a greater chance of success,” explained Valerie Fox, DMZ Director, in an email to Jobpostings.
The Zone was created with the help of StartMeUp, a student run program from Students in Free Enterprise (SIFE) Ryerson. To apply to the DMZ, one must pitch their idea to a StartMeUp Ryerson “Idea Consultation,” a Dragons’ Den style pitch infront of a panel of industry professionals. They look for unique and innovative ideas, enabled by digital media, that have commercial or social value, and a solid business plan and prototype. Fox says they look for entrepreneurs who are passionate, creative, collaborative, and knowledgeable.
And after touring the DMZ space, that much is evident. The following are profiles of some exciting Zoneteams. Jobpostings looks into how they came up with their ideas, grew their business, and their plans for making their startups a success.
Adrian Bulzacki, founder of ARB Labs, came up with his innovative technology through a game of virtual charades. It begins by using a Kinect camera, which projects a grid of infrared light onto you, and then calculates how far away you are based on the grid.
A computer creates a virtual representation of you, which can be used to play charades over the internet with people from all corners of the world. But Bulzacki had more in mind than just a video game.
They used a priority crowd-sourcing algorithm to gather data from the game.
“If you got that gesture really fast, the learning algorithm knows to prioritize that as a better quality gesture. We kept sucking in all this data. And we in turn, have an algorithm that recognized the occurrence of those gestures anywhere,” explains Bulzacki, 29.
ARB Labs can sell that data to gaming studios hoping to make their games better, or to the oil industry, which needs it to interact with 3D samples of oil. This technology is even applicable to security companies. For example, ARB Labs can sell an aggressive gesture pack, which analyzes a bunch of gestures that shouldn’t occur in public areas, such as punches and kicks.
But Bulzacki has more in mind than selling off bits of accumulated data from his learning algorithm to security companies and gaming corporations.
All of these bits of technology — 3D interactive displays and gesture identifying algorithms — were developed for one ultimate goal. “If we pitched this product line first, nobody would give us money,” said Bulzacki, with a grin.
He hopes to create one device that you place in the centre of your living room, or a low-cost wallpaper, which will create an immersive environment. “Just like buying apps today, you’d be able to buy virtual items for the home.”
Artists or designers could post their virtual goods on the internet. You could buy a “lamp” for a low price, download it, and put it in the corner. It would still give off light, but there’s no physical object. You could have multiple versions of your living room.
“And when you’re done with it, you can save it, archive it, delete it, whatever,” Bulzacki said. “If you wanted to, you could have a window overlooking Paris in your basement apartment. It would make living environments extremely reconfigurable, very fast, at a low cost. So that’s what we’re trying to get to, and it’s all built off of this technology.”
For all you Trekkies out there, think of this as an early version of the holodeck.
For example, while Bulzacki has always had this ultimate goal, he didn’t expect ARB Labs to make it this far. “I thought somebody would just buy up our technology in a year or two, I’d make a few million dollars and go from there. I don’t see that anymore. I see it now as, I’m building the foundation to a company that could be — and I say this in all seriousness — could be the next Facebook, could be the next super company. A lot of people have that feeling in the DMZ. And I really hope it works out. But I’ve seen more and more evidence to my hypothesis.”
Bulzacki has no formal training in business. He’s currently finishing up his PhD in computer and electrical engineering at Ryerson. While he has had some experience starting up mini businesses of his own in the past, he didn’t truly delve into business until he joined the DMZ, about two years ago. The DMZ’s collaborative environment has helped him in several ways.
While conducting a demonstration of his technology at the DMZ, a businessperson approached Bulzacki and told him his ideas were great, really unique, but his profit margin was terrible. The technology was expensive to develop, and yet he was selling it individually to companies. This person pointed out that Bulzacki already had patents on the technology, and there was no competition in terms of 3D displays – why not license the technology out?
“And since I started doing that, it really changed how my business operated. I would charge a monthly fee, a yearly fee, or a daily fee, to have the technology at a specific location.”
And so, the Digital Media Zone entrepreneurs learn the ropes of running a real company. As Bulzacki points out, this is the real deal. In the DMZ, you’re not looking at a theoretical situation. “Every choice you make has a ramification, and that’s the challenge. But it’s a learning process. That’s the only way you’re going to learn.”
The bonus is you get to work with your own idea. Bulzacki says during his previous jobs, he used to hate getting up in the morning, and felt like a zombie or drone doing work someone else created for him. But that’s not the case at the DMZ. “If I’m waking up early, I’m waking up differently. I’m working for myself. I’m a slave to myself, but I’m a slave to my dreams. So it pays off in the end.”
The story of HitSend’s innovative idea, despite the ground-breaking activism feel of it, actually has its origins from about 200 years ago.
Back then, people used take these wooden boxes, called soap boxes, to Hyde Park in London. They’d flip them upside down, hop on top, then make a speech about their ideas or passions. Usually it had to do with politics or economics. The people in the park would stop and cheer them on if they liked the idea, and if they didn’t, they would boo, while throwing lettuce and tomatoes at them. But every once in a while, there would be an idea that really resonated within the community. If a lot of people supported the idea, they’d stop merely talking about it and actually march from the park to Parliament, rallying for change.
This is the idea behind HitSend. The company produces an online platform that allows anyone to submit ideas on a topic. People can vote, yay or nay, on the issue. The ideas that gather the most support are then automatically sent to the person who can bring about change.
The platform is applicable to a wide range of scenarios. It could be used internally by a company to get feedback from employees to improve working conditions. Or it could be used externally by customers to direct the attention of CEOs to customer service issues.
Only the ideas that gather a lot of approval are sent to the person who can bring about change, and the platform even allows that person to respond to the idea.
“A lot of times, people have these really great ideas, but they don’t get them out of their mind. They don’t take them anywhere,” said Brennan McEachran, founder of HitSend (above). “The goal was to build something that could take their idea and put it somewhere useful, as simply as possible.”
McEachran came up with the idea of the Hitsend platform when he was given an unusual opportunity. He was discussing ways to improve Ryerson with his friends, but that night he couldn’t sleep. So he emailed the school’s president, and was shocked to receive a response — he had a meeting in two weeks with Sheldon Levy, the president of Ryerson University.
“So for about a week and a half, two weeks, I was trying to think up better ideas instead of these little crappy ones. I asked my friends over Facebook, Twitter, and real life, on paper, in class. It was super ineffective,” he explained. “I was hoping of a better way of doing that.”
And so HitSend was born.
He pitched his idea of the platform to the DMZ, and on the one-year anniversary of joining, HitSend signed a contract with Indigo-Chapters, which now uses HitSend’s platform for customer feedback. To optimize their product, HitSend makes sure the platform stays brandable, so companies can easily upload their colours and logos. The Facebook and Twitter apps can easily be turned on or off.
McEachran, a fourth-year business student, says that while parts of the project have been challenging, the DMZ’s environment has helped him in many ways, such as connecting with the other members of HitSend. “Hanging out with (people who have) PhDs in computer science is never a bad thing when you’re an app developer.”
As well, potential customers come through the DMZ on tours, making it easier to connect with people who might be interested in the platform. Like Indigo representatives.
In the future, McEachran says he hopes to continue working towards giving the silent majority a voice, and getting those great ideas that people think about on their commute home, to the people at the top who can bring about positive change.
A really great combination at the DMZ is when someone already has an insider’s knowledge of an industry and an innovative idea. Take Daniel Shain, who worked at a bank for several years before a lightbulb went off above his head, leading him to quit his job to work at the DMZ.
“It’s interesting,” said Shain. “When it comes to GICs, mortgages, and other discretionary priced products, banks have quite a lot of discretion. So even if you see advertised in the paper, let’s say, a GIC that’s usually at one percent. That’s just the posted rate. The banks can usually do much better.”
While Shain knows this, many banking customers don’t. He says there are two kinds of banking customers. One who doesn’t realize that banks can often negotiate a better interest rate, and the one who shops around, then goes to a bank saying they’ve found a better interest rate at another institution. With the latter type, banks might offer a better interest rate.
Using this financial knowledge, Shain created Finizi, a reverse-auction platform where financial institutions bid against each other for customers’ business. A customer entering the live auction will state the amount of money they have and how long they wish to invest it for. Customers can be individuals or businesses, and there’s a minimum investment of $1,000. The financial institutions then bid on the money by offering the highest interest rate.
It’s clearly a good deal for the customer, but at this point you can probably guess what was the hardest aspect of initiating Finizi.
“The issue with getting banking institutions on board is that they’re really big organizations. There’s a lot of red tape. There’s a lot of regulation. There’s a lot of reputation risk,” said Shain. “Even getting in front of CEO-level people can take weeks, not to mention all the legal paperwork.”
Things got easier after the first two financial institutions signed on, because then Shain could tell the remaining financial institutions that their competitors were on board. Finizi was launched last September, but getting there wasn’t a simple task for this entrepreneur. He did extensive research before quitting his comfortable banking job, speaking with bankers and potential customers. “I wanted to make sure I wasn’t overlooking anything. The worst thing you can do is quit your job and then realize that, due to regulation, you’re not allowed to launch it.”
It’s been a long road for Shain, but while he says it’s good to get a job for the corporate experience, he’s sticking to entrepreneurship, where every day is different. At his old job, he knew when he was going to finish work, knew what was expected of him, and could do his job with his eyes closed. “That’s when you get comfortable, when you get lazy, and the creative juices stop flowing. So I’d say getting out of my comfort zone is what I enjoy.”
The Digital Media Zone
The lab at the DMZ is one floor, crammed with more than 50 computers in clusters. A whiteboard covers the length of the longest wall, coated with company names and brainstorming lists. It’s a room for business meetings and development, but it still has that student feel.
Coffee cups are on every table. There’s a box of cereal and a bunch of tea bags next to a computer, along with a bottle of cough syrup. Beanbag chairs make a nice seating area near the entrance. It’s a mix of the student and business life here.
While some companies in this space have already reached an incredible amount of success and have “graduated,” other newbie groups are just beginning to contribute as innovative entrepreneurs.
Here students find support and networks. Shain said, “It’s great to combine resources and leverage each others’ experiences. For instance, when I started fundraising, I reached out to a few companies here that have been through the process, and asked them to introduce me to some potential investors.”
Hossein Rahnama (left), Research Director of Digital Media Zone describes the incubator as an ecosystem. It’s not only about university or just entrepreneurship, or merely teamwork, but about everything. He’s seen cases where good computer programmers come in but don’t have the communications skills necessary to start a business, yet they can do so anyways. “This is possible because there are people from business school, engineering, people from arts and humanities. They are all working together. So you can use your skills sets, you can be great at it, but you can also work with people as a team to move your ideas further.”