Serese Selanders has been working in tech since 2013, developing an idea that sprang up when caregiving for her father. With a background in financial services, Selanders began exploring tech when she discovered a need for better personal alert devices for vulnerable people. She found that personal alarm technology available in the market had not evolved in decades, and she knew there had to be a better way. “I needed something that would keep my dad safe when he was alone, that could do more than what currently offered,” says Selanders, CEO, SolusGuard. From that idea, her first tech company, ORA, was born. Today, ORA offers personal wearable alert devices for people who work, travel or live alone, using cellular technology.
ORA also led Selanders to pivot her idea into a larger market needing similar technology. “I began work on what would become ORA, and then last year, took our learnings from ORA and created SolusGuard,” she says. That company formed in May 2019. Based in Saskatoon with a team in Regina, SolusGuard takes ORA’s idea to the next level, offering businesses alert devices and mobile software designed for employee safety. For companies with employees working alone or in potentially dangerous circumstances, SolusGuard provides peace of mind and mitigates risk.
Joining the Fray
Selanders also took another step to grow her companies and joined Conexus’ business incubator, Cultivator in 2019. In fact, joining an incubator is her first piece of advice for aspiring tech founders. “I can’t stress it enough. An incubator is where you’ll learn the fundamentals, find your product market fit, and get on the right path. It will save you so much time and grey hair,” she says. Selanders says that her company made more progress in six months in Cultivator than it did in the three years previous. “Incubators provide the support early-stage tech companies need, and the community connections that are vital to growth.”
Blue Skies, Big Dreams
As for the Saskatchewan tech sector, Selanders is optimistic about the future. “There’s a collaborative, cooperative, supportive community here,” she says. “We’re learning and growing together, and seeing successes come from Saskatchewan.” She sees companies like GasBuddy and Skip the Dishes paving the way and creating an environment that breeds more success for more start-ups. “We need generations of success here. We’re not a mature market—yet. The sector shouldn’t be afraid of lofty goals like IPOs. The more we scale, the more we grow. With that comes more capital and more talent. It’s an exciting time to be in tech in Saskatchewan and there’s plenty of room for more.”
Lee Evans is a long way from his home in Saskatoon. Right now, Evans, the CEO & co-founder of myComply, is in Brooklyn, New York, preparing to unveil myComply to New York’s construction industry. Evans and his partners saw a tech opportunity in construction, to help companies ensure workers had up-to-date safety training that would also reduce risk and minimize liability issues. Started in 2017, myComply is a comprehensive software and hardware platform designed to monitor current safety training on construction projects.
The company joined Cultivator in the first cohort (beta) in 2018, seeing the benefits a tech incubator brings. “We knew we needed to be in a place that would help us share ideas and grow our idea,” says Evans. “Connecting with mentors and experts is vital. Plus, we are learning together as founders, and not repeating mistakes.”
The Big Apple
2018 would also bring another major opportunity for myComply. Two years ago, the City of New York started working on how to eliminate serious workplace safety issues on construction sites. “The city was struggling with escalating workplace fatalities in construction, and mandated that every construction worker in the city needed 40 hours of safety training that had to stay current,” says Evans. However, these regulations presented many issues for the industry, with 80 different trainers offering safety courses and no centralized registry. “We identified that this was the market we needed to get into. There are 250,000 construction workers in New York City alone, and construction companies needed an easy way to ensure that on any given day, every worker on their site had the required training.” It was an opportunity myComply could not pass up. The company put in a proposal, and in summer 2019 became a finalist in the bidding process. The contract was awarded in November 2019 to myComply, and in early 2020, Evans moved to Brooklyn to begin implementation. “Things slowed down due to the pandemic, but now we’re moving again,” says Evans. A formal announcement will be made soon, and myComply has caught the attention of other jurisdictions.
Like Selanders, Evans sees the benefits of previous generations of successful start-ups on the Saskatchewan tech sector. However, he doesn’t see major differences between Saskatchewan and more mature ecosystems. “I am in the New York City ecosystem now, and it’s not that much more advanced than at home,” says Evans. “In fact, I’d say Saskatchewan is on par with many major tech hubs in the US.” To keep the momentum going, Evans says programs like the STSI [Saskatchewan Technology Startup Incentive] and IRAP [Industrial Research Assistance Program] are vital. “We have progression now, and we’re a gritty, tenacious bunch that aren’t afraid to solve problems. We need to retain the talent we have, grow more talent, and incent companies to stay here. Scaling is much easier in Saskatchewan, and that is great news for the sector.” Finally, Evans has some advice for future founders. “Don’t fear the competition. Be bold. Your location isn’t important—knowing your market is.”
When people think of Saskatchewan, golden fields of wheat is often what springs to mind, followed by hockey, long winters and bunnyhugs. Given our province’s status as a major agricultural producer, it makes sense that AgTech is a rapidly growing part of the tech sector. Precision.AI is taking robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) into the field, changing the way farmers manage one of their most expensive and problematic inputs—pesticide. “Pesticide is overused in agriculture, mostly because of the method of application,” says Precision.AI CEO Daniel McCann. “80 per cent of it is wasted, and it can get into water supply. There is a better way to apply pesticides using our technology.” McCann’s company is using drones to deliver microdoses of pesticides just where it is needed—reducing usage by a whopping 95 per cent. Field trials are happening now, and the product is scheduled to hit the market in 2020. “It’s a massive cost-saving to producers, and it’s fantastic for the environment.”
McCann’s first foray into technology was not in agriculture. He was working in financial services, and had a colleague with a doctorate in AI. The two had an idea for a mobile app to buy and sell goods that would use AI to create ads. The idea never really found its legs, but it had an unexpected side effect—it was excellent at detecting plants. A lightbulb went off, and it was time for a pivot straight into agriculture. McCann began exploring how to take this technology to farmers and get their feedback. “The plant detection would allow farmers to find weeds and drop pesticides where it was needed. The response was very enthusiastic,” says McCann. “We could have sold units immediately.”
Like Selanders and Evans, McCann wanted to find a place to belong and be involved with other tech founders. He was invited to an event at Cultivator, and he went with the intent to give back to the sector as McCann had some experience in start-ups. He did just that, and then joined the second incubator cohort with Precision.AI in 2019. “Being inside an incubator is so valuable. We learn from each other, we get leads on talent, and get insights we couldn’t get anywhere else,” says McCann.
The Way Forward
For Precision.AI, their market is the place they call home. “We’re in the ideal spot for what we do. Saskatchewan is one of the top agriculture centres on the planet,” says McCann. He has also seen the remarkable growth of the sector over the last decade. Raising capital was much harder back then, and McCann notes how access to funding has improved greatly. Plus, banding together as a community has helped, too. “I am a firm believer in working together. We’re not islands. The more we work together, the more we all benefit.” McCann recognizes that while Saskatchewan is not as far along as other tech ecosystems, there is plenty of potential to be realized. “We need some big splashes. Whether it’s a major exit or a major investment, the more attention we get the better.”
And for aspiring tech entrepreneurs, he echoes many of the same sentiments as Selanders and Evans. “Your customer problem comes first, and then your market. You have to test your product. You can’t raise money on pre-market fit.”